Being underestimated has been Kenny’s political strength

Taoiseach has a reasonable claim to being Fine Gael’s most successful leader


By the usually bloody standards of such things, it was polite, almost gentlemanly.

After a week of the chaotic mismanagement that has often characterised Enda Kenny’s responses to political crises, Leo Varadkar rose at last week’s Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting and told his colleagues simply that they needed to be ready for an election. Immediately afterwards, Simon Coveney told them the same thing. And that, really, was it.

The message from the two principal contenders to succeed Kenny was understood by everyone in the room – and by Kenny, too. The two men had spent the previous two days trying to dampen down an emerging, disorganised rebellion against the Taoiseach, from a group of humpy backbenchers terrified of being pitched into an election with Kenny as leader. Now the pretenders to the throne had joined together, whether by accident or design (there are conflicting accounts), to agree with the noisy seditionists. Diminished first slowly after the general election and then quickly during a week of political crisis, Kenny’s power was gone. The moment in the Fine Gael party rooms crystallised a process that had become inexorable. It was over.

“They’ll miss him when he’s gone,” lamented one ally, wistfully.

No, they won’t. They’ll remember him. But they won’t miss him. It is not the way of politics.

How will the historians remember him? How will they judge him?

The verdict of posterity

Distance provides perspective. Just as Kenny has been more highly regarded abroad, it’s likely that the verdict of posterity will be kinder than brutal judgments of his peers. They will look at how the State recovered from economic calamity, how the moment of true crisis passed with Kenny at the helm. Ultimately, they will conclude that Kenny left the country in an immeasurably better position than he found it. And they will give him some credit for that.

But distance also blurs the detail. We know him better than the historians will – we saw him up close: the accidents, the luck, the gaffes, the invented stories, the political wheezes, successful and otherwise; we saw the look of terror on his officials’ faces when he departed from the script and knew that they felt too that he might say anything, anything at all. And we didn’t, most of us, think he was an eejit but you could see why people would, all the same.

Less obvious was the dedication, the discipline, the daily application to the serious business at hand and, when needed, the judgment and political skill learned through half a lifetime practising the craft of political survival at Leinster House.

What made it work was his exceptional temperament. Kenny’s even temperament, allied to a high degree of self-knowledge, allowed him to deal with the demands of a job unlike any other. Remember, before he became Taoiseach, there were many who doubted he was up to the job. One prominent radio and TV personality promised – apparently in earnest – to leave the country if Kenny were elected (he is still here, thankfully). Six years on there are many criticisms of Mr Kenny’s tenure but it cannot be seriously contended that he lacked the political and intellectual faculties for the job.

One of the most obvious summaries is that he has outperformed expectations. Indeed, a political strength is that he has been consistently underestimated by his opponents. There are reasons they underestimated him, of course, but it is true nonetheless.

Two great achievements

Kenny has two great political achievements to his name. He brought Fine Gael back from the dead to a position of which it had hardly dared to dream – superiority over its age-old rivals, leading a government and then leading the one after it. He has a reasonable claim to being the party’s most successful leader.

The second, more substantial achievement, is also the most contested. Kenny led the country through the most acute financial – and, potentially, political and social – crisis in the State’s history. He restored much of the status quo ante. And if most people would have settled for that in 2011, the election of 2016 – when Mr Kenny was deserted by voters in their droves – was hard evidence that people no longer thought it was enough.

Some people thought that the manner of the brutal correction of the public finances was unfair; many more thought the fruits of the recovery were unfairly distributed. He failed to meet the demands for change and reform that he had stoked himself in opposition in that fearful, desperate election campaign of February 2011. When he talked about a “democratic revolution”, he meant replacing Fianna Fáil with something better: Fine Gael. That is not, to put it mildly, what many voters had in mind.


Ultimately any assessment of Mr Kenny’s leadership depends on your view of Ireland. If you believe that our country is home to a deeply unfair society, a failed political entity, which has failed to serve the best interests of its citizens, a rotten Republic in need of complete reinvention – then you are unlikely to appreciate the legacy of Enda Kenny, the man who sought restoration over revolution.

If you believe that the country is, on balance, a good place to live with achievements worth protecting and institutions worth defending then you will, in time, come to appreciate the career of Enda Kenny.

For many people, of course, the truth will lie somewhere between these absolutes.

So it is with Kenny. Many assessments of him have tended towards a theme of paradox, or a variation on enigma. They are misguided. There is no mystery: it is not complicated. It is just mixed.

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