Miriam Lord: Don’t let the proverbials grind you down, says exiting Kenny
Taoiseach bows out of leadership with advice for replacement in hot seat
Heather Humphreys was speaking about hedgerows and sunset clauses when Enda Kenny took his seat as leader for the last time.
It was midday in the Dáil chamber. Two hours later, the Taoiseach gathered up his files, tidied them with a definitive rap on the ledge, closed his little notebook and placed his mobile phone on top.
He turned and held a quietly animated conversation with the Minister for Social Protection.
Then he left the chamber.
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And Leo Varadkar, the man widely tipped to succeed him, moved into his seat.
It was simply business. Nothing more than a coincidence in the running order of the weekly rota for ministerial questions.
But the sight of Varadkar moving in the minute Kenny vacated the space he occupied as Taoiseach for the last six years wasn’t lost on observers in Leinster House.
Although it may have been lost on supporters of Simon Coveney, the other man in the race to lead Fine Gael.
They are still working furiously to convince at least six of their parliamentary party colleagues to switch their publicly declared support for Leo Varadkar when voting in Friday’s secret ballot. We hear Dr James Reilly – a big supporter of Coveney’s – has been doing a lot of house calls in the last few days, practising his best bedside manner on TDs and Senators who have been identified as possible waverers.
Senator Reilly and his fellow members of Simon’s Persuasion Party will be hoping their targets don’t take heed of the Taoiseach’s pithy parting advice to his successor when asked if he had any words for him.
Enda employed a famous old Latin adage: illegitimi non carborundum.
He duly translated, but in Irish, all too aware that the English version doesn’t measure up to the Dáil’s requirement for parliamentary language.
“Don’t let the bastards grind you down” is what he told them.
During Leaders’ Questions, which focused on the planned sale of part of AIB and the ever-blossoming fiasco within the top ranks of An Garda Síochána, Enda’s opposition counterparts kept back their tributes to the departing Taoiseach for the day when he actually hands over the reins of power in the Dáil. That should happen on Tuesday week, barring a major bust-up between the incoming taoiseach and Fianna Fáil, which must agree to continue its minority support for the new regime.
However, independent TD Noel Grealish, who was representing the Rural Alliance and won’t get a look in on June 13th, took the opportunity to pay a warm tribute to Enda Kenny. Then he asked him a series of soft-centred Hello magazine-type questions about his achievement and regrets and what advice he might have for Leo and Simon. And if he could “turn back the clock” would he still have made them Ministers?
Across the floor, guffawing deputies did “pass the sick bag” impressions.
As Grealish embarked on his starry-eyed, breathless interrogation, Enda began writing furiously in his little notebook.
“You have an hour to respond,” whooped Michael Healy-Rae.
“That’s a pretty novel question for the day that is in it,” remarked the Ceann Comhairle.
“It won’t be answered in three minutes,” drawled Fianna Fáil’s Barry Cowen.
“How long have I got, a Cheann Comhairle?” asked Enda.
Simon and Leo
Enda turned to the blushing candidates. “I have absolutely no regrets at all about having appointed Minister Simon and Minister Leo.
“You’re not so sure about the rest of them?” shouted Dara Calleary.
The Fine Gael backbenchers might have heckled him at this point, but only a handful of them bothered to turn up for their leader’s final business day. It’ll be a different story when the new man takes over.
As Simon and Leo simpered, Enda admitted they might not have been his supporters when Richard Bruton challenged his leadership some years ago, but that’s water under the bridge.
“Be that as it may, I was actually happy to appoint them to frontbench positions, to watch them grow as Ministers and to bring about a situation where they have very actively and vigorously campaigned for the right to lead this party around the country for the last number of weeks.”
Just two little boys, growing up in Government Buildings under his watchful eye. There wasn’t a dry seat in the House, people were laughing so much.
Then Enda came over all Frank Sinatra.
They should have dimmed the House lights and put him on a stool with a cigarette, a whisky and a trilby.
Regrets? He’s had a few.
Well, then again, too few to mention. “I don’t have any at all,” he breezily declared, setting off on a nostalgic ramble down Leinster House lane.
Oh, but in his time, he’s seen it all. “All the tensions, all the outbreaks of viciousness and sometimes fisticuffs when people moved on either after elections or in the course of being shoved out the gate.”
And more, much more than that, Enda is “very happy, after 42 years and 13 elections and 15 years as leader of a major party and six as taoiseach to be in a position to move on responsibility to a younger generation”.
His advice – and he certainly followed it himself – was simple, but his successor would do well to follow it.
“Anybody who stands in this position as taoiseach of the country had better have an optimistic and positive outlook. There is no point in going around looking like you’re weighed down with the problems of the world.”
Mattie McGrath was impressed. He looked across at Simon and Leo, wearing their bashful and modest Lady Di faces.
“Now lads. Put dat in your pipe and smoke it!”
Problems, mused Enda, will always be with us. “You deal with them head-on and make the best decisions that you can.”
Then he hit them with that bit of Latin.
The Dáil moved on to the more mundane business of pending legislation and questions pertaining to issues of the Taoiseach’s department.
The chamber emptied. Gerry Adams crossed to Enda’s side and shook his hand, whispering something in his ear. Their early spats about money-laundering and the Northern Bank robbery clearly hadn’t discommoded the Sinn Féin leader too much.
The Taoiseach’s duties ended with answers on Brexit and EU matters.
He concentrated on what he thinks needs to be done. The Border issue must be dealt with “early on” before other countries get bogged down with their own Brexit concerns.
“We do not want to have the case of negotiations coming to a finality at the European Council and finding ourselves stranded,” he cautioned, looking directly at Leo, who returned his gaze, listening intently.
Ireland has a fantastic negotiating team in Europe who know what is going on at all times, he said to Leo, who was still looking up at him. They will be of invaluable assistance to the new taoiseach.
The Leas Cheann Comhairle told him to finish up. “Taoiseach, you are abusing my generosity,” he smiled.
It was time to go.
The Taoiseach apologised, getting a little tongue-tied.
“I, now, I, ah, you won’t have me to deal with, you know, for too long more and I . . . you’ll be, you could have, you know . . . you . . . you . . . well . . . ”
It was as if he didn’t want, or know, how to stop.
“I could be dealing with worse,” murmured Pat the Cope Gallagher.
“Thank you, Ceann Comhairle. Thank you for your generosity and your flexibility,” said Enda quietly.
And that was that.