If you follow a political leader around enough on a campaign trail, you find certain words, phrases, even speeches have a habit of repeating themselves. It’s a bit like a Buddhist mantra, only they are often made up of meaningless banalities.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s favourite recurring phrase since 2011 has been: “I want to make Ireland the best small country in the world to do business in by 2016.”
Thankfully, that phrase has been put out to grass. On a day following Kenny around the West of Ireland it was not uttered once. Perhaps it is mission accomplished. More likely Kenny has been told by his handlers that it has become as annoying and repetitive to people as Jedward ditties in the Eurovision.
So what’s today mantra? There are two actually. One is all possible variations on Fine Gael’s election slogan: “Let’s Keep the Recovery Going”.
The other, bizarrely, is the chorus from the Bruce Springsteen song "Everybody's got a Hungry Heart". So far today, Kenny has travelled through Sligo, Leitrim and Roscommon and at the end of almost every speech, every interview, every engagement he has spontaneously erupted into song.
“Everybody’s got a hungry heart, Lay down your money and play your part”.
In the interests of research we gave the lyrics the once-over for political meaning. As far as we could make out, it seems to be a song about a guy who walked out on his family and life, and has been struggling ever since.
“Like a river that don’t know where it’s flowing, I took a wrong turn and I just kept going.”
You could not imagine any of Kenny's predecessors in his party giving half-corny, half-endearing renditions from the back catalogue of The Boss. In that sense, he is very much an outlier in the Fine Gael context. Traditionally, its leaders were drawn from the party's intellectual elite and tended to be urbane and at a bit of a remove from the hoi polloi. Kenny is not an intellectual and his image remains very much rural, very much West of Ireland.
The conundrum was this for Fine Gael in the past. Leadership required other qualities such as a surfeit of energy, fire in the belly, and a populist disposition. Leaders who lacked some or all of of those qualities - as Michael Noonan, John Bruton and Alan Dukes did — finished up their leadership journeys with a walk along a plank.
All of those leaders came into the job with high expectations and ultimately (Bruton excepted) disappointed. By contrast, Kenny came into the job with zero expectations upon his shoulders. He finds himself close to surpassing all the rest, on the verge of leading Fine Gael into a second successive term in government.
Like Springsteen’s hero who “just keeps going”, Kenny is an impressive campaigner. The high tempo of his whistle-stop tours around the country is reminiscent of Bertie Ahern’s. Unlike Bertie who gave a handshake and then 15 seconds for a chat (usually “How’s the hard working man?”) , Kenny gets involved in long conversations. He is patient, tactile and seems content to spend the whole day engaging in light banter.
It is early afternoon in Drumshanbo, Co Leitrim. Storm Imogen has passed. It still feels crisp but there’s no wind and this attractive village is bathed in sunshine. The mountain overlooking the village, Cnoc an Iarainn, has a light dusting of snow on its summit. Boats are tied up for winter at the Acres lake. It is all so stilly their images are reflected without distortion.
At the boundary of the village, a big poster on the hard shoulder depicts the three Fine Gael candidates in Sligo-Leitrim: Tony McLaughlin; Gerry Reynolds; and John Perry. Like the day they all look placid and stilly. In reality, their campaigns are anything but.
The taciturn scene is shattered by the arrival - 40 minutes late - of Kenny’s large entourage. There is a small motorcade carrying Kenny, his advisers and security detail as well as a mini bus, for the media and Fine Gael press officers.
Their destination is the Food Hub. It was once Laird’s jam factory, making Bo Peep marmalade. Now it has been reinvented into a workspace for small food and drink enterprises. It includes Connacht’s first distillery for over 100 years, the Shed.
The distillery is handsome: big copper stills with exotic shapes, old oak casks and the overpowering smell of fermenting sugar. Owner Pat Rigney introduces Kenny to the entire staff, including the Californian master distiller. The Taoiseach is particularly interested to learn the two assistant distillers here came through Jobs Bridge. He will use that anecdote of another great jobs policy success more than once in subsequent speeches the day.
The firm's main product is Drumshanbo Gunpowder Gin, a drink full of political pun possibilities. Later Sinn Fein's Danny Morrisson tweets that Kenny does not want to take the gin out of Irish politics.
There’s a microbrewery on site too, Carrig, and Kenny does a full tour there. He then does the same with the food companies on site. It seems endless but then he seems endlessly interested in it all.
Kenny’s stump speech revolves around Fine Gael’s central message of recovery and stability, with a bit of local colour and whimsy thrown in. Ever the marathon runner, he speaks a lot of his 40 years in politics. Nor does he hold back. The volume is always pumped up towards the end. He is also expressive with his hands. It is “pass the parcel” when explaining a process; waving two pistols in the air when making a point; and then a fist banging the table in front of him to drive the message home. There’s plenty of table-thumping stuff today.
With Kenny there is always a ritual at the end of a set piece. There will be a slight pause. Then he invariably flashes a Troy McClure smile that is sustained and sustained.
The next stop is Ballaghaderreen, Co Roscommon. It's a town that has been in decline in recent years. Once full of passing traffic, it was also bypassed two years ago. The Fine Gael candidate in three-seat Roscommon-Galway, Maura Hopkins, is a native of the town and is opening an office in a former bicycle shop, where she bought her first pink cycle as a child. A big crowd of local activists crowd into the tiny space for an impromptu rally. The scene is simple and a throwback, as are the speeches. The Ballinasloe senator Michael Mullins gives a rousing partisan speech that — if he delivered it in Croke Park — might have won the Galway hurlers a few Liam McCarthys. Kenny is also in rousing form.
“I just came up from Drumnshanbo, “ he roars. “You would swear on your oath listening to some people that there was nothing happening in provincial Ireland.
“In the old Laird jam factory there are now eight companies working away flat out from brewing to distilling to food production.”
He warms to the theme: “Remember this,” he warns. “There are leaders in every community. Didn’t we have two of them down the street many years ago at the famous junction down there? The Dillons (former Fine Gael leader James and his father John) were leaders in Irish politics for so many years and did so much to change things…
“You are not going to sit on a three-legged stool where one falls off every week. You need stability. You need a Government that is clear.”
For the media, there is access but it’s strictly controlled. The trick for modern politicians is constant motion. The standard interview these days is a doorstep one, where journalists get to lob a number of questions, usually on the issue of the day. If the question is too probing, a skilled politician can quickly change the subject by moving on to the next questioner. The result is everybody ends up swimming in the shallows.
We have arranged a short video interview with Kenny, through a press officer, who is uber-vigilant that no media organisation gets preference over anther.
“Is it colour or politics?” he asks.
“It’s colour,” we reassure. We are interested more in context than in hard news.
We are ushered into a simple country kitchen at the back of the shop, with a Stanley range and a dozen cups drying on the draining board. We sit at the table with the Taoiseach.
I begin to ask my questions. The second is a relatively innocuous one about the gap between polls and Fine Gael’s target. As as soon as I utter the word “polls”, I hear an audible “Colour, Harry” warning shot coming from the wings. For a moment, I am flummoxed. What does “colour” mean? His favourite film? His daily diet?I persevere under the disapproving eye of the press officer.
Kenny gives the impression he is oblivious to this sub-plot and answers away: “It’s very hard to call this obviously. I don’t pay that much attention to polls I see in another countries polls indicated one thing and people did something very different.”
Is there also a sense that like the Tories in Britain, people might not really like Fine Gael but might potentially vote for them because they trust them most on the economy?
“Naturally people are going to be upset. Of course, there are thousands of people who do not yet feel the benefit of this but is that the very reason we want to continue the recovery…
“That’s the challenge. It’s also the choice. When they vote on the 26th that’s what they are going to decide on. Who can they trust to keep this going?
“We have a proven record over five years in exceptionally different circumstances. It’s a people’s choice. I say to them make your mind up. Because there are alternatives. But they bring with them consequences. That’s democracy.”
He plays down his legacy potential: “The idea of being the first Fine Gael leader to be reelected does not interest me. What interests me is the country and the job opportunities and the excitement of a young person having a job here and not in Australia.”
To appease the press officer, I ask why he’s been singing the Springsteen song all day. “It’s Everybody has a Hungry Heart,” he replies. “I relate it to politics because…We are going to blow them off the pitch,” he declares.
As he stands up to leave for Ballyhaunis, he sings the chorus, in a loud tuneful voice. As he finishes, he pauses for an instant before flashing that Troy McClure smile that sustains, and sustains, and has sustained him through 40 years of campaigns.