Enda Kenny: The Unlikely Taoiseach

 

By John Downing, Paperweight, 308pp, €18.99

Considering where he is now, one of only 13 men to be elected head of government, and the 12th taoiseach of the State, this book does no justice to Enda Kenny. If he were as boring, local and banal as he is portrayed in John Downing’s Enda Kenny: The Unlikely Taoiseach, he could not, and should not, have become Taoiseach.

Thirty-seven years in the Dáil on November 12th, he may have been, in fact, the cutest and most cunning of them all. He has played a longer game than any other taoiseach, including Charles J Haughey, who spent 10 years on the chicken-and-chips circuit before rising from the ashes. But the book fails to offer any analysis of this or any contrary theories.

“A book about Enda Kenny? A whole book? So, a political biography of Enda Kenny. A short volume, I shouldn’t wonder? Enda Kenny. A book? Why?” The author cites these as some of the immediate reactions to his decision to write a book about the Taoiseach. And, on the dust cover of the book, he asks: who is Enda Kenny? How much guile and steel lie behind the smiling face he presents to the world? What are the influences that forged him? How much influence has his wife, Fionnuala? Is he really a hopeless but lucky poser? Or has he been badly under-estimated by colleagues and disrespected by pundits for too long?

The Unlikely Taoiseach – a good title, by the way – claims to confront these and other crucial questions about Kenny. It does nothing of the sort. For the first quarter of the book Kenny hasn’t even stood in his first byelection, in 1975, to succeed his very popular and gentlemanly father; many pages are devoted to Mayo GAA and constituency politics; and more again are devoted to recounting his political fate under the rapid turnover of Fine Gael leaders. The constant in his fortunes over the past 22 years has been his popular, humane and politicised wife, Fionnuala O’Kelly.

The book raises a very valid question, of course, in asking who is Enda Kenny, the longest-serving member of the Dáil. Was he simply the only viable alternative to Fianna Fáil in the last general election? What will he do now that his time has come? What motivates him? Now he is Taoiseach, what does he hope to achieve in power? This book doesn’t tell us. And maybe it couldn’t. That awful old phrase “a work in progress” comes to mind.

Some critics may claim it is harsh and unfair to keep asking what the Taoiseach stands for, in a way that the question wasn’t posed of Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen when they were less than two years in office. What is different about Kenny is that he has been around for a lifetime yet we don’t know him at all. He is Mr Nice Guy. He is honest. It is highly unlikely that he will be found to be engaging in political or financial irregularities. He looks well. He has rejuvenated Fine Gael. He seems to be a trustworthy chairman of his Coalition Cabinet.

What is also entirely different about Kenny is that he presides over the biggest Government majority in the history of the State, in the most unprecedented circumstances. Political confidence is at its lowest ebb, choices are few and the Coalition’s financial policies are prescribed largely by the external forces of the troika. Like him or not, he is the man of the moment.

One could question his judgment in promising so much during the last general-election campaign when it was certain that Fine Gael was on its way into office. Was it wise to say there would be no increases in income tax and no decreases in social welfare in the programme for government? This could come back to haunt him and the Coalition.

Government of national survival

The big issue for Kenny is whether the Government should have taken tougher decisions in its first year in office, when it had the political wind at its back and could blame Fianna Fáil. It is worrying that the Governnment has been slow to come to terms with economic realities. It appears that Fine Gael and Labour, some 14 years out of office, think that this can be a normal tick-and-tack Coalition, whereas, unfortunately for them, this is a Government of national survival. The old ideological arguments of Fine Gael-Labour coalitions are defunct now.

The result is that next week’s Budget will be harsher than the last, and the Government will carry all the blame for it. Meanwhile, the opportunity to implement necessary structural changes in the economy, which is afforded by the presence of the troika, will diminish the longer the Government is in office.

Having waited a political lifetime to become the unlikely Taoiseach, it makes no sense for Kenny to be unduly cautious now. To do nothing would be worse than to get things wrong. There is no point in the Government’s shying away from difficult decisions for the sake of hanging on to seats, because many will be lost by both Coalition parties in the next election. Furthermore, the age profile of the Cabinet means a number of Ministers are probably in their last term in office, so, like Ruairí Quinn, they should grasp the opportunity to leave a political legacy. They can afford to be brave.

Kenny was extremely courageous in his big speech criticising the Catholic Church a year ago. He captured the public mood. Now another watershed has been reached on abortion. And, being the conservative that he is, he is the man to deal with it.

For the first time since the X case, 20 years ago, there is a majority in the Dáil and in the country for introducing legislation on limited abortion. Regardless of the findings of the Savita Halappanavar inquiries, and uncomfortable though it may be for the so-called pro-life movement, her case has changed the nature of the debate. It has defined the issue in a narrower way. Abortion is no longer about the permissive “right to choose” but about the equal right to life of a mother. Who thought there would ever be vigils on the streets for that?

How Enda Kenny handles the challenges that he faces on the economy, Europe, abortion and political reform will determine the substance of the man.

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