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Stephen Collins: Enda Kenny underestimated throughout his career

Along with achievements on world stage, Kenny has prove a successful leader at home

By any yardstick Enda Kenny has been one of the most successful political leaders in the history of the State, yet he has been consistently underestimated at almost every stage of his long career.

His crowning achievement was to lead the country out of the financial crisis that brought it to the brink in 2010, and preside over a government that transformed it into the fastest growing EU economy for the past three years.

Kenny’s mixture of political skill, sheer stubbornness and incredible stamina enabled him to achieve what many deemed impossible, but he never managed to win the level of public popularity achieved by some of his less successful predecessors.

The scale of Kenny’s achievement has been widely recognised abroad. In the EU he is regarded as one of the senior prime ministers, and that has enabled Ireland to punch far above its weight in recent years.


He has earned his EU reputation through hard work and persistence. Membership of the powerful European People’s Party (EPP) has been important in enabling him to build up an unrivalled network of contacts.

From the time he became Fine Gael leader in 2002, he religiously attended EPP leaders' meetings. Throughout the dark decade of opposition when another leader might have given up on the hard slog to concentrate on more pressing domestic issues, he kept going to Brussels.

Immediately on becoming Taoiseach in 2012, Kenny was plunged into the maelstrom of a European summit at which the then French president Nicolas Sarkozy tried to intimidate him into compromising on Ireland’s corporate tax rate at the price of a bailout. He blew that suggestion out of the water, but was in a position to do so because he had earned the respect of other EPP leaders during his wilderness years of opposition.

Ireland’s concerns

Kenny is now the longest serving EPP prime minister after Angela Merkel, and his status has helped to ensure that Ireland has got its concerns at the top of the agenda for Brexit negotiations.

As Taoiseach he has also made a succession of visits to the United States to meet politicians and leading businessmen to drum up support for investment Ireland. Wilbur Ross, now the US commerce secretary, remarked after attending a function with Kenny back in 2012 that he was one of the most impressive politicians he had ever met.

In tandem with his achievements on the international stage Kenny has proved to be a truly successful political leader at home.

The government he led faced huge challenges when it came to power in March 2012, after the implosion of the Fianna Fáil/Green Party coalition. To be fair to his predecessors, the government led by Brian Cowen had taken the correct and very tough decisions to prevent the country going over the edge in 2010, but it was by no means certain that the Fine Gael/Labour government would have the ability and resolve to see them through.

Kenny’s first two years were very tough, and it seemed at times as if the country was going backwards rather than forwards. Yet with the help of Labour tánaiste Eamon Gilmore and Minister for Finance Michael Noonan they stuck with the task.

As leader of the government Kenny showed the necessary resolve to get the job done, and not be deflected by passing political squalls that beset every administration.

Major mistake

His major mistake during the lifetime of the Fine Gael/Labour government was to insist on bringing in a water charges regime that proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back in terms of public acceptance of the need for corrective measures.

Kenny overrode the objections of his tánaiste and ploughed on with a policy that did far more damage to both parties of government, particularly Labour, than the issue warranted.

In this instance his stubbornness was to prove his undoing, but taken in the round that quality enabled him to be the successful political operator he was. It kept him going during his decade-long period as opposition leader when his chances of ever becoming taoiseach were widely dismissed by the media, much of the political system and, indeed, many in his own party.

During the leadership heave of 2010, when almost his entire front bench resigned, it was widely assumed that he did not have a chance of surviving, but his refusal to bow to what looked like overwhelming odds saw him through.

In fact, it was the way he resisted the heave that gave the public the confidence that he had the qualities necessary to become taoiseach, and in February 2011 he led Fine Gael’s greatest ever election victory.

War cabinet

He proved his leadership ability by putting together a coalition with Labour that effectively amounted to a national government. The establishment of the Economic Management Council was effectively a war cabinet with equal representation for both parties. That structure was pivotal in enabling the government to take the range of decisions required to get the economy back in shape.

Kenny’s public image never reflected his success at home or abroad, and that proved fatal to his first government’s prospects of winning a second term. In hindsight, the range of cutbacks that it found necessary to implement always made that an unlikely prospect, but a poorly fought general election in February of last year compounded the problem.

Yet in spite of that disastrous election campaign Kenny managed to put a minority government in place with a complex arrangement that required the involvement of Independents and the acquiescence of Fianna Fáil.

The long-term viability of that arrangement may be doubtful, but it meant that there was somebody in charge to deal with the big issues such as Brexit even if routine business in the Dáil has ground to a halt.

Kenny may not have been given his due while he remained in office, but time is likely to judge him far more favourably.