The Enda effect

Enda Kenny came late to power, but so far he has wielded it well. Will instinct, energy and affability be enough to see the Taoiseach and Fine Gael leader through the next challenges?


A senior Fine Gael figure smiles as he muses on Enda Kenny’s reluctance to fill the vacancy for junior agriculture minister, a post that has been empty for no less than five months. “If you’ve only one sweet in your pocket, the longer you can keep it there the better.”

Amid contentious debate in the party about abortion legislation, Kenny’s failure to anoint a successor to the late Shane McEntee is widely seen as a ploy to keep potential dissenters among his TDs in check with the possibility that they might be chosen for ministerial advancement. The delay marks a sense of calculation and caution in the leadership of a Taoiseach who waited a very long time for the highest office.

Kenny is by now well into the mature phase of his premiership, his third year in power still dominated by the battle to revive the economy. His ways are set, his approach clear and his authority entrenched, though he and his allies guard it assiduously.

But the difficulties are glaring. The debate about abortion, never easy in Fine Gael, comes as his administration seeks to cut public pay and collect an unpopular property tax. Can Kenny get what he wants and still minimise the fallout?

For all the progress made since the Kenny crew took command, the challenges are still daunting.

Another harsh budget looms, and yet more money might be needed for the banks. Senators are growing restive over the plan to scrap the upper house. There are mutterings of discontent about the failure to fully confront the Lowry tapes revelations. And the all-important relationship with a jittery Labour needs constant attention.

The Taoiseach is acutely conscious of the need to maintain harmony with Labour, even if some in Fine Gael complain that he is too much in thrall to that goal.

Grasssroots Fine Gaelers must also be kept sweet. One insider says the party faithful have three pet hates these days: James Reilly, Phil Hogan, and Alan Shatter. Reilly is rarely out of trouble at the Department of Health, Hogan’s tenure at the Department of the Environment has been fraught, and Shatter’s righteous zeal at the Department of Justice leaves some people cold.

But a source who deals with Kenny regularly says the only occasions on which he has really looked his 62 years was when Reilly was in deep trouble over his personal finances and during his Reilly’s public confrontation with his former junior minister Róisín Shortall.

Kenny remains loyal to Hogan, the strongman who orchestrated the defence of his party leadership when Richard Bruton challenged him in 2010. Still, several close observers say the wily Minister for Finance, Michael Noonan, is now the pivotal Cabinet figure in the Taoiseach’s inner circle. “Politically, I think Noonan has become indispensable,” says a Fine Gael veteran, who cites the the Minister’s long experience and shrewd approach.

Some within the party see this as little more than a marriage of convenience. The two men were never particularly close, and it was only after the Bruton heave that Kenny brought Noonan on to his front bench.

The core team around Kenny includes his chief of staff, Mark Kennelly, economic adviser, Andrew McDowell, and press secretary, Feargal Purcell. His wife, Fionnuala O’Kelly, is a key person, and is known to keep both loyalists and sceptics in check. Within the permanent Civil Service, two figures are crucial: Martin Fraser, secretary general of the Department of the Taoiseach, and Geraldine Byrne Nason, second secretary general in the department with responsibility for EU affairs.

The sense in political circles is that Kenny relies heavily on these people. While there is some annoyance in the parliamentary party at the central role of “unelected” advisers, he is hardly the first leader to be criticised on that front.

Some Labour Party figures roll their eyes at a communications narrative that casts the Taoiseach as chief problem-solver. People in the junior Coalition party call this the Sheriff Kenny mentality and argue that the real picture is more complex.

Kenny’s carefully honed image of chairman-like, consensual leadership masks a tenacity and hunger for the fray. In times of strain he exhorts harried officials to stick at the task. “Keep taking the tablets,” he is known to say.

It is a mantra he observes himself. A TD since 1975 and chief of the party since 2002, he seems to have been around forever. If his rise was a slow-burn affair, his perseverance for nine years as Opposition leader shows his determination to keep going when the going gets tough.

Kenny never claimed to be a man of lofty intellect, but his allies say he is fixated on the task of securing the economic turnaround. The magnitude of the crisis and the presence of the troika in Dublin make his task both daunting and historic, of which he is always conscious.

“He doesn’t immerse himself in complex detail, but on the other hand he would surprise you with how quickly he can take on the broad detail,” says one Government figure who knows how he works.

“He has instinct more than conviction,” says a second Coalition insider. “He wouldn’t have fixed philosophies or rules in his head about how the world works. He relies on instinct or the feel of the thing. When his instinct is strong he will tell you that this does not feel right.

“Process is very important to him. He’s very skilled at using process. There’s always another meeting that can be had.”

Another Fine Gael figure bemoans the sense that all of this translates into “the most base form of pragmatic politics”. Even in the private forum of parliamentary-party and one-to-one meetings Kenny can be overly rehearsed on complex policy questions and a little too anecdotal.

Once his line is set he tends not to change it. “When he makes a decision it’s made, and nothing stops him,” says a TD who is not among the Taoiseach’s most ardent supporters. He adds that Kenny is apt to respond firmly when under pressure to change tack: “It’s not going to happen, pal. I’m in charge here, and that’s the fact.”

Relentlessly upbeat
Kenny’s friends and adversaries salute his abundant reserves of charm and affability, describing it as a key tool in his armoury. In private as in public, he is relentlessly upbeat.

While this sense of friendliness is in the man’s nature, his unerring repetition of the recovery story is at odds with the bitter experience of those who bear the scars of the crash. If these are dour times for everyone in Ireland, Kenny’s persona is anything but. He disposition is inherently positive, and he is determined to use that to his advantage.

That’s not to say he has not dropped the ball on occasion. His fiddling with his mobile phone at an event with Pope Benedict jarred with many observers, even if it denoted changed relations with Rome.The same goes for his claim in Davos that “mad borrowing” and “greed” were to blame for the crash.

Kenny still revels in the travelling-roadshow element of the job. “He positively glows with Americans,” notes a Cabinet colleague, and has a busy travel schedule.

At all times, however, the sense remains that he keeps constant watch on events in Leinster House. Parliamentary-party members believe the leadership takes careful note of who says what in internal meetings. Two TDs tell of their surprise at the Taoiseach’s ability to pinpoint exactly what they were quietly working on at a given moment.

“He manages to cultivate personal relationships very easily and remembers things about people and knows what’s important to them,” says one of them. The TD argues that this has enabled him to build up reserves of political capital even among those who hold the opposite view from his. “He’s very, very nonconfrontational, unless it’s the last resort.”

This provides a framework to deal with political problems, even if they cannot be made to vanish away. “He doesn’t comfortably do confrontation,” says a long-time Fine Gael activist. “He likes to manage a situation to avoid confrontation. When he sees things coming down the track, he tries to do something about them.”

That said, he was swift to remove the whip from the Roscommon TD Denis Naughten when he voted against the downgrading of emergency services at his local hospital. Likewise, the Dublin South TD Peter Mathews found himself at the receiving end of a 6.30am dressing down from the Taoiseach after he provoked a committee vote that the Government lost. Kenny’s statement on the Cloyne report, a denunciation of the abundant failings of the Catholic Church, struck a forceful note, as did the closure of Ireland’s embassy to the holy see.

These were public events, but what goes unseen outside the narrow confines of the political world is the way Kenny has discreetly amplified the powers of his office. In the shadow of bailout, he took European policy away from the Department of Foreign Affairs and into his own department.

His control of Government was also centralised by the establishment of the economic management council, through which he oversees economic policy alongside Noonan, Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore and Minister for Public Expenditure Brendan Howlin. The council meets weekly, usually on Mondays, and its work diminishes the importance of the wider Cabinet, to Ministers’ chagrin. This leaves a sense that many of the biggest decisions are precooked.

At Cabinet itself, Kenny is known to move the agenda on quickly but listens to everyone before making his own contribution. He does not like it if officials have not settled their view of a situation before demanding his attention. There is little enough debate about uncontentious items, but a ministerial source says he never skips anything on the formal agenda.

“His style is quite informal, anything but overbearing; calm and quiet and keeping things moving along,” says someone who knows how he works in this setting.

In public, Kenny’s presence is almost assured whenever IDA Ireland has jobs to announce. It makes him, rather than Richard Bruton, look like the man in charge of employment and engagements with multinational business. “Anything over 20 jobs and he’s there,” says a TD.

Whereas Kenny’s early time in office was dominated by the brouhaha over the bailout and the effort to extract better terms from the international lenders, there is some confidence that Ireland will regain full access to private-debt markets later this year.

While that remains largely dependent on the absence of any external shock within the euro zone, the sense in European circles is that the Government has essentially done as it was told and prepared for recovery.

The bailout supervisors are not enamoured with all they have encountered in Dublin, but from a weak starting point Kenny and his administration have gradually won the confidence of their international sponsors.

From the outset Kenny’s engagements in Brussels were marked by a Franco-German push to dilute Ireland’s corporate-tax regime. When he entered the EU summit chamber for the first time, within hours of taking office, both Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy told him directly that he would have to yield. He refused, prompting a long stand-off before Berlin and Paris finally dropped the matter.

Although the push in Europe to separate sovereign debt from banking debt remains to be settled, the Government’s focus is increasingly on domestic policies.

Kenny has personally emphasised the need to tackle the mortgage- arrears crisis, in the face of resistance by the banks and the Department of Finance. The Government will have only itself to blame if this fails.

The same goes for the questions of abortion legislation and cuts to public pay, although external forces feature in both cases.

The plan is well defined: smooth over divisions to the greatest possible extent by shunting debate into an exhaustive process of deliberation, dialogue and analysis. If conflict cannot be avoided altogether, loosen the tension by postponing the moment of confrontation in the hope that the inevitable fireworks can be kept under control.

His approach to the public-pay question is typical. There is the preference for process, within the formal negotiation of the Croke Park II proposals and through emergency talks under the stewardship of the Labour Relations Commission. There is the attempt to make the package more palatable by protecting the core pay of workers on less than €65,000. At the same time, concessions at the outset to prison officers held out the prospect of similar manoeuvres for recalcitrant unions.

In tandem with all that is the preference to push the process to its limit, even as deadlines come and go. It is exhaustive, but the push for sector deals union by union has clear appeal if strikes are averted, even if certain Fine Gael TDs would be happy to see Kenny jump forth with legislation to impose an immediate pay cut.

All of this is in line with the Taoiseach’s routine practice. He won’t back down on the overall fiscal target, but he’d rather massage public workers and their leaders into line than seek to antagonise them into submission. At the same time, the basic calculation has been made in Government circles that strikes would not receive overwhelming public support.

Strategy of containment
This strategy of containment is well established. Together with the storied energy Kenny brings to the job, he does his utmost to prevent disunity. He is keen, says a close observer, to avoid any repeat of the Fine Gael infighting that blighted the party in the past. He is known to invest huge time with his TDs and Senators, and is not averse to meeting at short notice, early in the morning or late at night, to tease out an issue.

His allies say his style is to talk to TDs quietly if there are issues to be settled, to seek them out as he goes about his work rather than calling them in for a chat. It’s all very informal, but it keeps him in the loop without conveying any sense that any tricky situation is any way urgent.

Kenny has little choice but to keep a close eye on everyone around him. The Coalition’s large majority makes it hard to keep TDs in line, unlike in coalitions with tighter numbers, when survival requires everyone to stay on side. Within Fine Gael the Taoiseach now has three groups to keep on board: the loyalists who have been with him since he took over a battered party from Noonan in 2002; the rump of former Brutonites who rejected Kenny three years ago; and the ambitious younger TDs who are showing signs of frustration with the limitations of backbench life.

Kenny came late to the fast lane. He was a TD for 20 years before he became a Minister, and he waited still longer to take command of Government. He’s in the thick of it now.

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