The Kenny paradox: Lightweight or born leader?
A poor communicator, a procrastinator - and set to be Fine Gael’s most successful boss
‘He’s like an embarrassing uncle at a wedding,” groans a younger political operative who has had frequent dealings with Enda Kenny recently.
“Every time I met him it was all high fives and fist bumps. It was mortifying.”
But with the next breath comes a litany of admiring references: to the Taoiseach’s energy; to his lack of ego; to his ability to motivate those he leads; to his political instincts.
You encounter a mass of contradictions when you try to assess Kenny. He is the longest-serving TD in Leinster House but retains a youthful zeal and a rare lack of cynicism.
He seldom loses his temper, but when he is crossed he neither forgives nor forgets.
He is regarded as a nice guy generally but is ruthless when he needs to be. He is wooden and formal on television, and when speaking in the Dáil, but chatty and full of brio in any informal situation.
He is a procrastinator when it comes to making a decision but stubborn and unbendable once he has made up his mind.
He can seem lightweight and supercilious to some, but that disguises reservoirs of political skill and strategic nous honed over 40 years in the game.
Some of these paradoxes have been illustrated by the mess over the timing of the next general election.
Would he call it soon after this week’s Budget or wait until the spring? Part of it was Kenny stubbornly refusing to be forced to make a decision until he himself was ready to make it.
Part of it was ambiguous communication that created a wedge between the Coalition parties.
Part of it was underestimating the extent of the media hype. He is not a Taoiseach without flaws or blemishes.
What is true about Kenny is that he has been underestimated throughout his career.
Trawl the archives from a decade ago and the notion of the Fine Gael leader becoming Taoiseach was inconceivable.
His success in seeing off his rivals in the 2010 heave was a watershed, but he has been a far more successful (and relaxed) Taoiseach than expected.
Four months from now he will be on the cusp of making history for his party by becoming the first Fine Gael leader to win a second consecutive term in office.
Within two years he would also become the longest-serving Fine Gael leader and taoiseach.
A person who knows Kenny well approvingly quotes Charlie Haughey’s line about Bertie Ahern – he is “the most ruthless, the most devious, the most cunning of them all” – but then adds, “He is also the most hard working, toughest, hardest, unrelenting of them all.”
It’s an effort to capture the qualities of Kenny’s leadership that are not immediately apparent.
Father of the Dáil
The Irish Times has spoken to many people who know the Taoiseach well, including Ministers, former ministers, advisers, colleagues and rivals.
Some strong themes have emerged about the man who is now Father of the Dáil, having held his seat since 1975, when he was 24.
“He came into the Dáil as a very young man,” says a veteran watcher. “I would say from his youth he was always ambitious and energetic.
He was not given responsibility and left too long on the backbenches. Garret FitzGerald” – who led Fine Gael between 1977 and 1987 – “did not rate him. He was bored and spent a lot of time socialising, became a bit of a dilettante.”
Kenny, who will be 65 next April, has retained his energy and ambition.
A Labour colleague says that, unlike most politicians of his age, the Taoiseach is neither cynical nor world weary but full of zeal.
“His general default is optimistic. He sees the good in most people.”
Just about everyone attests to Kenny’s energy, his work ethic and his youthfulness, both in his appearance and in his desire to be down with the kids.
Kenny will often begin an argument with a folksy reference, perhaps to a woman he met in Geesala the other day.
“He’s an instinctive politician and human being,” says another Fine Gael watcher.
“His instincts tend to be informed by his engagement with people. He absorbs stuff in a way that is extraordinary. He gets a sense of what people are thinking. He’s been around politics for a long time. He has seen a lot of things.”
Éamon de Valera said, “If I wish to know what the Irish want I look into my own heart.”
Kenny has a touch of this outlook, perhaps, but he has also learned from bitter experience.
He would not loosen the Fine Gael whip for the controversial vote on abortion in early 2013 because he had seen before what could happen as a result.
In the 2010 heave he used tactics from his time as John Bruton’s chief whip: in the 1990s four TDs had indicated that they would come to Bruton’s office and ask him to resign as party leader.
Kenny arranged for them to be met by four senior figures; they were summarily fired.
He did the same when he fired all the frontbench rebels who called for Kenny’s head in 2010.
“He retains a very strong feeling that the power of the leader comes from members of the parliamentary party,” says the veteran.
“If you lose the dressing room you have no business hanging around. Others, like Alan Dukes, folded, but he knew where his authority derived.”
Not for turning
That Kenny is not for turning once he has made a decision can lead to great moments such as his speech on the Vatican – in 2011, after the Cloyne report, he accused it of downplaying the rape and torture of Irish children by clerical sex abusers – his eventual response to the survivors of the Magdalene laundries, and his seismic shift on same-sex marriage.
At other times his stubbornness can walk him into trouble, as with his simplistic quest to abolish the Seanad.
Kenny is not a policy generator and has never been a policy wonk. “He is very political and has very good political antennae and instinct. But he is not a policy man,” says a Minister.
“He is not interested in the details or in the figures. In that way he is very different to John Bruton or Garret FitzGerald.”
He is different in other respects, too. Kenny is not a micromanager; he leaves Ministers to their own devices.
He is a chairman rather than a chief executive, his style most often compared to that of Seán Lemass or Liam Cosgrave.
The Cabinet has some big egos; that his is not one of them helps Kenny, those close to him say, as it stops him from being seen as a threat.
“He does not want to be the centre of attention or necessarily the driver of everything,” says a Fine Gael colleague.
“He is quite happy to set direction and let people at it. He does not feel threatened by Michael Noonan. He is happy to let him take responsibility.”
Kenny’s relationship with Eamon Gilmore, his Labour Tánaiste between 2011 and 2014, was very close.
It has been more awkward with Joan Burton, Gilmore’s successor.
She is very different from Kenny, very political, perhaps more tribal. He has been patient, and they have forged a good working relationship.
A number of colleagues say that patience is another of the Kenny’s virtues.
“He can take a lot of shit. He has been patient with colleagues and with Joan Burton,” says one Labour figure.
Wearing leadership lightly
“The biggest ingredient required for leadership is temperament,” says the same figure. “He is a very good example. Tony Blair and David Cameron had a lightness of touch.
“He does not sag or feel oppressed by the hand of responsibility on his shoulders. Gordon Brown, all he wanted was to be prime minister. Brian Cowen was exactly the same.
“They could not handle it and were paralysed. Kenny wears it lightly.”
The Taoiseach’s background also distinguishes him from his predecessors. He is the first nonintellectual to lead his party.
“Fine Gael was traditionally a morph of the Law Library and rich farmers,” a colleague says.
“He is neither. He is west of Ireland, country and western. There is a bit of snobbery about that. He does not mind the fact that the more urbane observer finds him too rural or twee. He is happy being who he is.”
Even people who like him accept that Kenny can be ruthless. “He has to be. It’s not the core thing about him, but nobody has got there without being like that. There are many bodies strewn along the way that testify to that ruthlessness,” a Labour person says.
Unlike Cowen or Charles Haughey, Kenny rarely loses his temper. But when he senses betrayal he takes on a coldness and will shun people, often for years.
One person who has fallen out with him perhaps paints too negative a picture:
“He has not forgotten any bad turn that was done to him right back to the day he entered the Dáil in 1975. He is not prepared to forgive.”
But some evidence points the other way. Kenny has brought back some of the colleagues who went against him in 2010.
And he showed more grace to Noonan, his only Minister for Finance, than Noonan did to Kenny after the Fine Gael leadership election of 2001, which both men stood in.
When Noonan won that contest he exiled Kenny to the backbenches.
Cabinet’s rubber stamp
But Kenny is not collegiate when it comes to big decisions. When John Bruton was leader everybody discussed everything.
Kenny is much tighter. Critical policies are decided by two core groups, the Economic Management Council and his closest advisers.
The Cabinet effectively then rubber-stamps their decisions.
The three most influential figures within Fine Gael are Mark Kennelly, Kenny’s strategy and operations adviser, Andrew McDowell, his (strongly ideological) policy adviser, and Mark Mortell, the party’s top electoral strategist.
Kenny’s wife, Fionnuala O’Kelly, a politically savvy former press adviser to Charles Haughey, is a huge influence on the Taoiseach. Her views invariably inform his thinking.
Some see Kenny’s reliance on his advisers as an impediment, as they sometimes brief him too much; he can falter when dealing with complicated economic data.
“He can come across as stiffer and more wooden when interviewed than he is in person,” says the veteran. “And that’s a weakness.”
Another says, “He has said some silly things when left to his devices, such as ‘Paddy likes to know what the story is’ ” – a phrase Kenny used the night he became Taoiseach, to express the idea that voters like to know what’s going on – “and his idea of scorecards for Ministers. But he is better when he can let rip rather than being briefed to within an inch of his life.”
That’s why Kenny so rarely gives long interviews. Like Bertie Ahern, he has become adept at short “doorstep” interviews, which allow reporters no follow-up questions and enable the Taoiseach to move on quickly and avoid awkward questions. Micheál Martin, the Fianna Fáil leader, will outperform him head to head on television.
But Fine Gael strategists think that Kenny and the party brand are strong enough to take a hit on that one.
But the way he can come across was one of the reasons for the attempted coup of 2010. “He was crap in the media,” one of the group says.
Another says, “The overwhelming reason was that I thought the public did not really like him. He was not a very good media performer, especially up against Brian Cowen. We thought Richard Bruton would have done better.”
Some have revised their opinions. The only way to gauge a taoiseach is to see how he or she performs in office.
A close colleague believes that Kenny is the type of politician who is better in government than in opposition – and says the reverse was true of Eamon Gilmore.
“In government somebody like Enda Kenny can blossom. The kind of supports and resources available, and the apparatus of government, suit somebody like him.”
Another key point for most of the people The Irish Times has spoken to is that Europe and the United States have an extremely positive view of Kenny.
His chutzpah – “Call me anytime,” he told businesspeople in the US – doesn’t wash as well at home.
But that energy and positivity prompt many sporting metaphors to describe Kenny’s regular pep talks to psyche his troops up for battle.
Like Mick McCarthy, the Republic of Ireland soccer captain under Jack Charlton, he might not be the most dazzling centre half ever to pull on the Taoiseach’s gansey.
McCarthy was asked once why he always cleared the ball into touch instead of finding another player. “I have never seen anybody scoring a goal from row G,” he replied.
It might not be pretty, but Kenny has been an effective Taoiseach and is on the brink of becoming Fine Gael’s most electorally successful leader.