Enda Kenny: Skilful creature of the old politics
Outgoing Taoiseach’s rare political instinct enabled him to rebuild Fine Gael, manage the State during crisis . . . and know when to let go
If there were omens, those observing the slow retreat of Enda Kenny from power these past few months have learned to mistrust them.
And yet the crowd attending the launch of a report on end of life issues on Wednesday afternoon was suspiciously large.
Cameras awaited, seeking to capture the Taoiseach somewhere near a “Finite Lives” sign.
Kenny seemed pensive, resigned, melancholy, emotional even.
As the event progressed, word reached the many constantly checked phones in the room that the Fine Gael Parliamentary Party meeting had been brought forward an hour, form its customary 5.30pm slot to 4.30pm. This was, Fine Gael said, at the request of the Taoiseach.
All day Ministers, TDs, staff and journalists pestered one another around Leinster House. Would he finally do it? He would, for sure. Wouldn’t he? What if he didn’t?
Just before a quarter to five, he did.
Called on by the party chairman Martin Heydon, Kenny made a short, emotional speech. Simultaneously, his staff released a statement. He would step down as party leader effective from midnight.
The party would chose a new leader by June 2nd, and after that, following a period for the new leader of Fine Gael to consult with party leaders and Government colleagues, he would resign as Taoiseach.
The room heaved with emotion, and maybe, with relief. Since then, it has rained tributes.
At the helm
And so, after a decade and a half at the helm, after leading the party to a never-before-achieved second consecutive term in government, Kenny’s career as leader of Fine Gael is over.
The contest to succeed him starts immediately. In truth, it started months ago. Kenny has not exactly been a lame duck, but he has been in the departure lounge; inevitably the work of politics and government has wheeze and clanked and slowed, as power seeped away from the Taoiseach’s office, first slowly and then quickly. That’s just the way the currents of power flow.
In a few weeks he will travel to Áras an Uachtaráin to hand back his seal of office to President Michael D Higgins, and drive away an ordinary TD, a mere messenger of the people, their leader no more. His days in executive office will be ended, whereupon the power and privileges of his great office will fall away from him and pass to another. His Garda escort will be reassigned; he will transfer from the Department of the Taoiseach to an ordinary office somewhere in the Leinster House complex or nearby. His personal office will shrink and his political advisers and staff will lose their jobs.
In recent weeks he has veered from philosophical to defensive, from mischievous to indignant. There is a psychological process at work, you’d expect. At the launch of The Irish Times Nealon’s Guide, a handbook of the 32nd Dáil and 25th Seanad, the Taoiseach appeared slightly melancholy, wistful maybe. He did not seem like a man relishing the next phase of his life. It must be hard to let go.
There will be tears and farewells, manly handshakes and hugs and forearms punched and thumbs raised. There will be pints and speeches. Kenny is liked by most of his staff, something that is not always the case in politics. It speaks well of him. The feelings of his party are more complicated, but they are positive in the main. They may have wanted him gone, but they did not want him turfed out either. Not many of them did anyway, and even some of those speak admiringly of his service to the party and to the country. Of all the ways that it could have happened, all sides are content enough that it happened this way.
But he was pushed, of course he was. That’s the cold political fact of this unsentimental, sometimes brutal business. They are nearly all pushed, in the end. Few go willingly.
In Kenny’s case the push came in February, three months ago now, when his catastrophic handling of the latest in a long procession of Garda scandals – this time involving allegations against Garda whistleblower Maurice McCabe – found him unable to say what he knew and when. He delivered contradictory accounts, finally issuing a humiliating mea cupla to the Dáil. In fact, Kenny was to blame for nothing except not being able to get his story straight and consistent; nobody was suggesting wrongdoing on his part. But then it is the way of politics that men are often hung for the wrong crime.
Once Leo Varadkar rose at the Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting to tell his colleagues that they needed to prepare for a general election – he was followed by Simon Coveney – the writing was on the wall. Kenny had previously told his party – unwisely – that he would not lead them into another election. Telling the party it had to be ready was the same as telling them that Kenny had to go. Nobody in the room was under any illusion as to what was going on, and neither was he. He would, he told them, deal with the leadership issue when he returned from the United States, where he was due to meet President Donald Trump during the St Patrick’s Day visit. If the execution seemed polite, almost gentlemanly, it was no less ruthless for that. From that day on – February 15th – Kenny was on the way out.
Oh, he has played and parried them with some skill for three months. He returned from Washington and delayed again, saying he needed to ensure that Ireland’s negotiating position for the Brexit talks was settled. Then there was the Northern Executive to re-establish. These are uncertain times, you know.
His party acceded to each delay, partly out of tolerance, partly from loyalty, partly from a reluctance to dump him and partly out of self-interest. The two princes, Coveney and Varadkar circled each other warily, outdoing each other with their declarations of their respect for Kenny. But the authority was flooding away from the outgoing Taoiseach, and TDs and ministers were getting more and more restless. They wanted to give Kenny time and space; but they didn’t want him to make eejits of them, either. That sense has sharpened in recent days, and it led directly to Kenny’s realisation this week that the time had come. He has always been a canny reader of his own party.
The process which culminated on Wednesday began with the disastrous election of last year. Ultimately politicians are judged by their peers on election results, and the returns of February 2016 showed that Kenny had shed a third of Fine Gael’s seats. The result shocked Kenny and his party; Fine Gael ministers and election strategists believed that the strength of the economic recovery would guarantee them a return to power.
The recovery was real and substantial, but uneven and contended. The experience of many communities and individuals on the ground, especially in Fine Gael’s rural heartlands, was that the economic recovery was something politicians talked about on the news, not something that was real in their lives. They came, many of them, not just to dismiss the “Keep the Recovery Going” slogan, but to actively resent it. The defeat was comprehensive and unspinnable. It represented a huge rejection of Kenny.
But if the electorate had thrown out the coalition, it was much less clear about what it wanted to put in its place. Kenny filled that void with a mixture of his characteristic doggedness and a fair degree of political cuteness. The peculiar Government he put together has lasted, even if its effectiveness it limited, to say the least of it. It has preferred procrastination to progress, delay to action. Its will is flakey, its capacity uncertain at best. But among other things, its construction bought Kenny another year as Taoiseach.
How will he be judged? His political career (which continues, of course, at least until the next election) spans an extraordinary period in Irish history, one that has witnessed the true transformation of Ireland. For much of this period, Kenny was a spectator. Even as Taoiseach, it could hardly be said that he defined an era by the force of his will. Rather, like the Duke of Wellington, he did the business of the day on the day.
Confronted by immense tasks – the rebuilding of Fine Gael, the management of and exit from the bailout, the correction of the public finances and the stimulation of economic growth, the construction of a Government with only 50 seats – he applied himself to the task and kept working and working until it was done. These are not inconsiderable achievements; they match those of most taoisigh and exceed a few others. But he never dominated.
His temperament has been exceptional, and temperament is vital in the job. Being taoiseach is unlike any other job, and if you think anyone could do it, you simply don’t understand the nature of it.
Kenny has also been gifted with a keen political instinct; in fact, he has been a mostly intuitive politician. His shifting positions on abortion, on same-sex marriage, and on the Catholic Church have been informed above all by his sense of how the country has moved on these issues.
He is a naturally conservative politician, but he realised he was living in a time of change, and he adapted to that. He has been supremely pliable, adapting himself to circumstances, rather than changing them.
In a political culture that demands politicians do the bidding of voters, Kenny has always sought to deliver what they want. That is why he has been a successful politician.
And yet, there has always been a missing piece. Too many people just never bought Enda; they just didn’t believe him, didn’t find him convincing.
They all say that history will judge him well, and they’re probably right. But if history offers perspective and context, it also blurs the detail. Perhaps we know the true personality of Kenny in a way that the historians, delving through archives and statistics and declassified government documents, won’t. After all, we saw him up close. We all saw all the gaffes, the stories, the strokes. That’s part of the picture too, and how people will remember him.
Perhaps we didn’t see the dedication, the discipline, the daily devotion to doing the business of the day on the day. To this he applied the judgment and political skill learned through half a lifetime practising the craft of political survival at Leinster House.
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.
Kenny’s career will be remembered for two great achievements above all. He resuscitated his party when many thought it was dead or dying, leading it 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 Fine Gael’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.
Presented with a daunting challenge in 2011, Kenny faced up to it and overcame it. He restored much of the old dispensation, maintaining the basics of the State built by generations of politicians a bit like him since independence. There are, no doubt, downsides to all of that; there are certainly missed opportunities. But there are many things to be grateful for, too.
For all the guff about new politics, Enda Kenny was a creature of the old politics. And he was very good at it.