Who is Enda Kenny?

 

His supporters would say they never expected less, but Enda’s arrival at the political summit was hardly a tale of overnight success. Those close to him describe a gregarious countryman, devoted husband and steely operator deserving of a crack at Ireland’s top job, writes KATHY SHERIDAN

IT WAS love at first sight, the way Enda Kenny tells it. He was about 30 and had “been around the field a few times”, as he puts it jauntily. Then one day he was speaking in the Dáil chamber “and this apparition appeared up in the press gallery, hair flying, blue dress. And I said: ‘Now this I must see again.’”

And what did Fionnuala O’Kelly think of the 30-year-old blond who was eyeing her up ? “I never noticed him at all,” she says.

He persisted, chasing her into the Fianna Fáil lair where she worked for Charles Haughey, even getting himself ejected from the Fianna Fáil Christmas party. It paid off. “He kind of crept up on me,” she says.

Many people will be thinking something similar this morning as they watch a new era unfold in Irish politics: Enda Kenny kind of crept up on us. In many ways his courtship of Fionnuala – a savvy, humorous Dublin girl with a master’s in French and a diploma in European studies, hand-picked for the Fianna Fáil press office by Haughey – is a microcosm of his slow, dogged march towards the highest political office.

Even the fact that it took him another 10 years to make her Mrs Kenny seems analogous to that tortuous political climb. In those years she flourished at the dark heart of multiple leadership heaves, ending up as head of the Government Information Service and earning more than her swain.

Meanwhile, Enda landed the pair of them on an icy, snowbound Welsh mountain, facing a 50-kilometre walk back to base when the promised train down the other side was cancelled. “And I still married him,” Fionnuala said, laughing, over lunch at their home 18 months ago. In fact, she added, he was doing what he always does. “I like to have a plan. He’s the one who says it will all work out . . . He doesn’t do stress and he doesn’t do worry . . . He has a very sunny disposition. He’s never contrary and he takes that completely for granted. Problems for him are just there to be got over.”

When they met he was already five years in the Dáil. He was still living at home with his mother in Derrycoosh, Co Mayo, about three miles from Castlebar, in the modest 1970s bungalow built by his father, Henry, on a small farm. It was Henry’s early death that saw the 24-year-old Enda catapulted from sporty young teacher in a rural national school, shooting rats out from under the classroom floors, to contesting a byelection for Fine Gael in a heavily Fianna Fáil constituency.

Party HQ decreed that the seat, to be winnable, had to be contested by a Kenny, of whom there were four brothers and a sister. All, like their mother and father, had pursued teaching careers, with the exception of John, now retired from Bank of Ireland.

“Most thought it would be young Henry, but he didn’t like the limelight – they’re a very reserved family,” says a close family friend. “You can see that in Enda as well. They don’t seek attention . . . The Kennys would never put themselves in people’s faces.”

But locally they were considered to be a cut above the hoi polloi. “They were a very sporting family and a famous family, I suppose, in the sense that Henry was a TD and a parliamentary secretary and had won an All-Ireland football medal, of which there were very few in Mayo”, says a close friend. “So they were a family that a lot of people looked up to. But you never got the impression that Enda was a step above anyone else.”

His great loves then were football, handball and Islandeady GAA club. Fitness was such a priority that he was 28, and four years into his Dáil career, before he took his first alcoholic drink. He caught up, by all accounts. It would be fair to say that no one discerned the seeds of a future taoiseach in the young jack-the-lad back then. One friend fondly recalls the weekly golf games at 8am on a Sunday, followed by “a few drinks, with a lot of a storytelling and yarns”. That could last a few hours “or all day, depending on if winter came early”.

Kenny also liked to share his company in a few hostelries around the town, “though he wasn’t by any means a big drinker, or no more than anyone else anyway. In those days it was easier to take a few drinks than now,” says the friend wistfully. “And he wasn’t married, so he didn’t have to be the first home, so the bag would be in the car, ever ready.”

Given the drinking culture of Leinster House at the time, alcohol would have been hard to avoid for a young country lad. “In those days,” Kenny himself recalls, “you’d hear The Rose of Tralee on a Tuesday at six o’clock, wafting from the Dáil bar.”

At home he was the sole Fine Gael TD for Co Mayo, then a constituency stretching from Shrule to Blacksod, the same distance as from Castlebar to Kinnegad. He was much in demand at Fine Gael functions all over the country. He enjoyed the freedom to roam, unencumbered, and tells a story to illustrate the mood. John Farrelly, a colleague, was getting married, and Kenny and a few of the lads – including Maurice Manning and PJ Lindsay – set off for west Cork. En route, it was decided that one of the company needed emergency “counselling” and a detour was made to Jim White’s hotel in Lisdoonvarna. A week later they still hadn’t made it to west Cork. “Why do you think it took 40 years for him to get married?” asks Fionnuala.

For all that, it was a strange life for a young man. A close friend of Kenny’s, who also entered politics in his mid-20s, believes that something is inevitably lost along the way. “You kind of lose your youth to a certain degree,” he says. “You were going full-time to meetings of some kind at night and weekends, and it was always an older generation that was there, not the ones you grew up with.”

This may partly explain the old fogey-ism often evident in young politicians.

Kenny’s hail-fellow, backslapping gregariousness and that “one-to-one likeability” emphasised by his friends would have been a winner with the constituency organisations. But there was always a more reflective, solitary side to him, says a friend. “He’d go off shooting and hill-climbing for whole days, often alone. He’s probably climbed all the mountains in Mayo and Kerry. He could tell you about all the different climbs, where the peaks and lakes and landmarks are.”

WHEN HE (FINALLY) proposed to Fionnuala, he did it on Inisheer, where a forefather had been a lighthouse-keeper. “I went down on one knee with the Atlantic washing up and surf breaking all around us, and asked her to be my wife,” he told us rather dreamily at that lunch, before adding, in a classic Enda-ism: “And then I was down that aisle like the hammers of hell.”

The ungallant implication of this final statement was that the bride was in a hurry. When she demurred he looked at her ruefully: “Are there times you could strangle me?”

He was 40 by the time they married, and Fionnuala had moved to RTÉ as PR manager. The wedding reception was in Le Coq Hardi, well-known as Charles Haughey’s Dublin 4 home from home. The marriage, which has produced three children, Aoibhinn (18), Ferdia (16) and Naoise (14), is “rock solid”, according to friends.

“Fionnuala is paramount,” says TD Phil Hogan, Kenny’s enforcer and friend. “She would be his closest confidante, along with Senator Paddy Burke, who minds the political backyard in Mayo for him when he’s away.”

For Fionnuala, life was transformed by the move to Mayo. Great fulfilment in her family has been interspersed, one suspects, with phases of deep loneliness. But there is no sense of victimhood about her. She believes wholeheartedly that a rural environment is better for children. “There’s a much better social mix in rural Ireland. There are no fee-paying schools around, so everyone is thrown in together. Middle-class Dublin is very narrow . . . And when Enda is home, he is brilliant fun. There are kids whose daddies are sitting in the chair with the paper and talking to no one, or are down in the pub or who just have no interest in them.”

Home is on a byroad running through a golf course a few miles from Castlebar. It’s a bright, new-build, double-glazed, two-storey house, adequate for a family of five, featuring lots of pine in the practical kitchen, subtle variations of taupe and sparkling wooden floors which no mutt may sully with muddy paws.

No one seems able to pinpoint a time when Enda Kenny turned serious. He almost lost his seat twice: once in 1989, amid the rod-licence controversy, and again in 2002. “You’d never take him as ambitious. He never pushed himself,” says a friend.

“From my knowledge of him growing up in politics he wouldn’t have taken politics as seriously as he would in later years,” says Phil Hogan. “But, nevertheless, in every government Fine Gael was involved with he was a minister, so all the leaders saw something there that was positive.”

Old friends single out qualities such as “fierce” determination, in both football and politics. “He’d fight to the bitter end. He wouldn’t lie down . . . He will ring people and listen, but once he’s come to a decision God almighty wouldn’t shift him,” says one.

His power to inspire and motivate is also mentioned. “I played football with him years ago, and the speeches he gave at half-time were inspirational . . . He wouldn’t send you back out through the door, he’d send you out through the wall.”

There is also his phenomenal memory for names: “He’ll remember the names of kids down the town . . . If you were looking at the first debate you’d have seen he was the best of the five at mentioning the names of people in the audience who asked questions.”

And there’s the stamina too: “Ferocious. Relentless. In Dublin he might be having a late pint at the Gingerman, but he would be out the following morning at 7am, handing out leaflets or taking meetings.”

He says himself he goes for 18 to 20 hours a day.

Hogan asserts that of the four Fine Gael leaders he has served under, Kenny is the best at chairing a meeting and “to efficiently reach a decision”. Another supporter praises his ability to start a meeting with no preconceived notions about the policy outcome, “unlike his predecessors”. Such as? “Well, John Bruton and Alan Dukes knew everything. They were so f**kin’ good they needed no front bench. But they weren’t successful leaders. Yes, John Bruton was a successful taoiseach in hindsight, but he wasn’t a successful leader. The job makes the man.”

Hogan, who was a challenger for the leadership in 2002, believes that what the party saw in Kenny then was “the energy and determination that were required at the time”. But those are surely qualities innate to most politicians, including the famously blunt and combative Hogan? “Maybe they wanted a more rounded individual than I could give them. I might have more definite views about things, and that mightn’t be what was required at the time,” he says with a wry smile.

With hindsight, the party’s choice makes sense. Combine all the above-mentioned qualities with the backslapping persona and the dogged networking that Kenny has done all his political life, and his climb to the leadership seems almost a foregone conclusion. He has also been a lucky politician. For example, his failure to win his first leadership election in 2001 meant he wasn’t the hapless captain leading the party into the 2002 fiasco. He was also lucky to hold his seat in 2002 and to get a second bite at the leadership when most of the credible challengers had been booted out by the electorate. He was lucky not to win the 2007 election and lucky to have a few wily old battlers, such as Hogan, Paddy Burke and Seán Barrett, fighting his corner in last year’s attempted heave by Richard Bruton.

But no one denies that Kenny has worked hard for his time in the sun. When the Fine Gael brand was so pitiful that there was a serious proposal to change the party’s name, he was criss-crossing the country, repeatedly and relentlessly, unsure whether anyone would even turn up at bleak party outposts. His constant companion on those interminable lonely treks was his friend and driver, Liam Cody, whose sudden death last summer has left a great void in Kenny’s life. “He misses him enormously,” says Hogan.

BACK IN HIS DUBLIN base Kenny, as leader, assiduously included all Oireachtas members in his regular meetings. Each member who spent nights in the capital was put to work, directed to take charge of a Dublin ward or constituency in the effort to rebuild the party. “Great credit due to that 2002 Oireachtas . . . It’s the new lot who will reap the reward,” says one member.

It was recognition of his fierce, unswerving commitment that turned the party majority in Kenny’s favour last summer when the Bruton heave came. “The central-communications platform of the Enda Kenny fightback,” as Hogan calls it, was that after seven years of rebuilding the party “a sense of fairness came into play”. There was a sense that Kenny had earned a run at becoming taoiseach.

On the face of it, this is hardly the most ringing recommendation for a man with the awesome task of leading a country out of unprecedented crisis. “Many will say that the heave was the moment when Enda defined himself successfully,” says an erstwhile critic. “It matters to win. The winner gets momentum. The question is how that momentum is used when it comes.”

His supporters insist, however, that the crucial factor is the combination of Kenny’s qualities, long recognised by them but consistently ignored by the carping media. As for his sometimes sketchy grasp of economic detail, well, Henry Ford hadn’t a clue how his car engines worked, a friend points out. As Ford said: “That’s why I have 59 vice-presidents.”

Kenny’s backers also point to his firm adherence to unpopular policies, such as opposition to benchmarking, the stance on the teaching of the Irish language, and abolition of the Seanad.

At any rate the general perception, not least in some of the recklessly fickle media, is that his performance in this campaign has finally marked him out as a leader.

“He’s been better managed this time,” concedes the esrtwhile critic. “His presentation has improved. His image is strengthened. And office does change people and also changes people’s perceptions. Success has a thousand fathers and failure is an orphan. If someone is clearly the choice of the people, the media have to recognise that.”

The party’s image-makers, Mark Mortell and, latterly, Gavin Duffy (who had a role in preparing Kenny for the debates and policy launches), “are helpful in the way you say things, in the way you present yourself”, says another senior member. “But no amount of polishing is going to transform a motor with a dodgy engine underneath. The old Guinness Lite campaign was launched as a wonderful product by a thousand spinners and polishers and avalanches of money, but the people didn’t like it. That was it. The point is that Fine Gael has improved in all its dimensions. It got its act together, there is a greater depth and more confidence in our policies. Enda has been more effective as a leader. We’ve got the policy positions out there and we’ve stuck relentlessly to them.”

A man central to the party’s revival, says one insider, is economic adviser Andrew McDowell. “Enda has huge faith in him.”

Power will not corrupt Kenny, says a close friend. “He’s a very modest man. He loves his family and the education of his family. He’s not materialistic in any way. Genuinely, he would love to see Ireland become the best small nation in the world. That’s what he’s about.”