Election 2016: Enda Kenny knew what had to be done

Taoiseach is where he wants to be but countdown to his exit has already begun

On the first Saturday of last November, Enda Kenny gathered with 400 supporters in the Breaffy House Hotel in Castlebar to toast the 40th anniversary of his election to Dáil Éireann.

On his way in, Kenny offered a few quiet, reflective words: “It’s about the people, really. I just happen to be their servant.”

His brother, Henry Kenny, recalled the emotion of the 1975 byelection caused by the death of their father, Henry snr, which started the Taoiseach's political career.

“In September we had lost our father. Two months later we were in the teeth of an election. It was tears all the way”.

Later that night, senior Fine Gael figure Richard Bruton told guests: "People will look back on the Kenny years as being very formative in putting the country back on its feet."

Kenny’s ability in 2010 to see off Bruton’s leadership challenge was one of the moments that transformed Kenny in the eyes of the public.

Re-elected yesterday, Kenny is the first Fine Gael leader to secure successive terms as taoiseach and the first European premier to survive the bailout era, but the Kenny years are, in reality, coming to a close.

Yet the curtain is not coming down in the manner those enjoying the festivities in the Breaffy House believed, a night when Kenny was in high spirits.

A month previously, speculation of an early general election, to be held in November, had reached fever pitch. Fine Gael wanted it and told Labour, their then partners in government. Labour protested, Kenny baulked. Yet the prospects for Fine Gael in a late spring election still looked good.

“He was in great form that night,” said one guest. “He thought things were going well, and he said they’d gain seats in the Dublin constituencies, which they did. The polls were showing well at that time, he felt he’d be going back. They could have afforded to lose a good few seats between the two parties.”

Election campaign

Others in regular contact with Kenny then agreed. “He believed what the pollsters were telling him, that the economy would be the biggest issue,” said one. “And he believed that as the campaign went on, they [voters] would come around to a fear of the alternative.

“He went into the campaign feeling the government would be returned. The scenario Enda bought into was totally plausible; but it was just wrong.”

The Fine Gael election campaign and its shortcomings – from the ill-conceived “Let’s Keep the Recovery Going” slogan to the stilted leader’s tour – are well documented and largely accepted by the party.

Since then, Kenny has told friends he should have been out and about more, rather than engaging in controlled press events and photo opportunities in factories, warehouses and Fine Gael constituency offices.

“Even the day in Castlebar, it was all Fine Gael people there,” said one source.

Kenny, a natural campaigner who enjoys meeting people, did not enjoy the campaign. “2011 was a happy campaign, this one wasn’t,” said one.

Equally, he was too central to affairs. In 2011, the emphasis was on Fine Gael's team. This time, many senior ministers underperformed. Kenny himself, who is nothing if not energetic, was tired, with a trip to Brussels for EU business shoe-horned into the middle of the campaign.

“He didn’t enjoy a minute of it,” said a source. “He sensed things were wrong; so did most of the cabinet. Politicians have a sense for it, but they couldn’t put their finger on it or what to do about it.”

Director of elections Brian Hayes and strategist Mark Mortell are blamed, since they advocated staying the course and sticking to the plan when others expressed concern.

Kenny was devastated by the result, particularly feeling for defeated colleagues.

“He had a dark period in the aftermath. I wouldn’t say depression, but down in energy, down in spirits,” said one campaign member.

Fine Gael performed below some people’s expectations. However, many in Fine Gael say 50 seats is the party’s historical level of support

Clarity

Sixty-five years of age last month, the result has provided clarity for Kenny about himself.

“The election brought him to face a couple of realties about himself: his age, his position.”

He was tired and remains so, having been in campaign mode since November.

“For the first time in his life, he is tired,” says a friend. Kenny is also said to be “very conscious” the effect holding the leadership of Fine Gael for 14 years has had on his family and on the support offered to him by his wife, Fionnuala, and children. “Fionnuala cannot be underestimated here. She is a total rock of common sense. She gives him good advice but not too much.”

He stood back briefly after the result, pondering the path voters had left him. “Enda knew what he had to do almost from the start. He just didn’t know how to get there,” said a well-placed source.

The plan he envisaged had three steps, and the first two were completed yesterday in a high-wire fashion typical of the ruthless and decisive side of Kenny’s character.

The first step was to ensure stable government. The second was that the Government be focused on major issues such as health and housing.

Broad agreement existed across the political spectrum on those issues, but forming a government took 70 days since polling day on February 26th.

While Fine Gael initially courted Independents, he was "quite prepared" to accept the idea of a rotating taoiseach and full equality at cabinet, despite "that old west of Ireland Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil antipathy". Those close to Kenny accept that Fianna Fáil believe it was no more than a tactical stroke - a charge they deny.

But he felt the offer would be rejected, since he was aware that Fianna Fáil preferred a Tallaght Strategy-style approach that facilitated a Fine Gael-led minority government and left it with room to manoeuvre.

Nevertheless, Kenny believes Irish politics is fracturing and that a Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael coalition at some stage is inevitable. Micheál Martin, he believes, should have given the offer greater consideration and at least attempted to take more soundings within the party.

He also turned to Labour. "He wanted Labour, but he really wanted Howlin," said a source, with Brendan Howlin earmarked to be the new minister for housing. The wooing of Labour extended to Kenny and Noonan taking the Wexford TD out for dinner and drinks, during which they offered wine and power.

Strident opposition

Kenny did feel a sense of solidarity with and responsibility towards Labour, although from the junior party’s perspective, this was shattered by Fine Gael’s deal with Fianna Fáil to suspend water charges.

Like a spurned spouse throwing a former lover’s clothes from the bedroom window, Labour has since readied itself for a stance of strident opposition, signalled by its vote against Kenny in the Dáil yesterday.

Despite Labour breaking away from its partner, the first two steps of Kenny’s plan are in place. The third step is to prepare Fine Gael for life after Kenny. “Get that government in place and prepare for an orderly process of change in his own party,” is how one close to Kenny explains it.

He has already acknowledged that he will not lead Fine Gael into the next election. There is a widespread desire in the party for a change of leader. Kenny, a seasoned operator, knows his time is up.

Even supporters accept his hold on the leadership is no longer the question. Instead, the outstanding issue is now the timing and manner of his departure. TDs say the grassroots want him gone, but not pushed.

The race to succeed him is well under way. Simon Coveney, Frances Fitzgerald and Leo Varadkar are the obvious candidates, with Paschal Donohoe an outside bet.

Some in Fine Gael believe the Taoiseach may pre-announce his departure, while others suspect that, once re-installed in office, Kenny will hold on as long as he can.

“That is not the beast I know,” said one TD of the idea Kenny will stand aside soon after his re-election as Taoiseach.

Sources close to him say that will not happen and he will step down in 12 to 18 months. He has told those close to him he will know when his time is up.

“He won’t be hanging around,” said one such person. “He said he’ll know when to go.” Nor will he pre-announce a departure date, but will go suddenly.

“Once he gives a date, he is dead. He is very aware of that.”

It is also argued that Fine Gael needs more time to see how those who could fill his shoes will perform. But Kenny does not intend to seek to play a role in deciding his successor.

Reform and renewal

Garret FitzGerald helped arrange for Alan Dukes to succeed him as leader when FitzGerald stepped down in 1987. Kenny maintained then that it was wrong to do so.

Fine Gael has become flabby in government, he believes: reform and renewal are needed. While still tired, closer observers say the worry lifted from the Taoiseach’s shoulders in recent weeks once he saw his plan was working and that Fine Gael was heading back into government.

In particular, his mood lifted when it became clear the talks with Fianna Fáil on a Fine Gael minority government would yield a result.

“A lot of the worry is gone. He hasn’t got the same anxiety eating away at him. Once he was clear in his own mind, he was at ease with himself.”

In recent weeks, he told those who sat with him in the outgoing Fine Gael-Labour cabinet that history would treat them kindly. He is likely to believe the same of himself.

Once again at ease with himself and back in power, Enda Kenny, the Fine Gael leader since 2002 and Taoiseach since 2011, is facing into the epilogue of his political career.