When Harry met . . . Enda Kenny

Taoiseach moves at a constant velocity, stopping only for external forces

Populist party leaders invariably obey Newton’s laws of motion on incessantly moving objects.

The Irish Times has tested the law in the laboratory conditions of Sligo town in recent years. In May, 2007, then taoiseach Bertie Ahern arrived into town on the day this newspaper published the final opinion poll of that general election campaign. Ahern had been under all kinds of pressure during the campaign over his personal finances – and the famous 'dig-outs'. But the poll showed that that was all behind him and he was poised to lead Fianna Fáil into a third term of government.

Following Ahern that morning was like trying to hold on to the tail of a comet. He zoomed through Sligo greeting all and sundry with a “howya” and “the hard-working man” before moving on. Whatever other failings he had, politically, Ahern had perfected the art of canvassing.

Fast forward seven years and we are looking at the same kind of phenomenon, though only slightly less hurried and urgent.

A small crowd of supporters, media people and petitioners await him outside the Glasshouse Hotel on the banks of the racing Garavogue River. Across the river, a gorgeously conceived statue of WB Yeats peers blankly at the scene.

The petitioners include a group concerned about medical services as well as Máirín Uí­ Fhlaitheamh, from Gaelscoil Chluainn in Manorhamilton, Co Leitrim who is determined to hand Kenny a letter highlighting the need for the school to have a permanent home after seven years.

Kenny and his entourage don’t make it that far.

After leaving their cars at Tesco they had decided to walk along the banks of the Garavogue, but didn’t get too far before being mobbed. And so the mountain moves downriver to Mohammed.

Flanked by MEP Maireád McGuinness (the other Euro candidate Jim Higgins is elsewhere, but nobody can tell you why) and local politicians, you can spot the Bertie-like skills immediately. One of the skills a politician requires to survive is infinite patience – an ability to listen for hours to mind-numbingly boring presentations and banal small talk and make the person feel like they are telling them information only slightly less exciting than 'you have won the lotto'.

It’s obvious Kenny loves this kind of thing. He throws himself into the small talk and the back-slapping and the constant photo poses and will engage in every argument as if he’s the person who brought it up in the first place.

Over the space of five hours, the pace never relented. Bertie-like, he zipped from a photo opportunity to a selfie to the next photo opportunity.

No flagging.

No impatience.

No bad humour.

A word for everybody.

And then on to the next town, moving with the urgency of fugitives getting out of Dodge City. His canvass signature is a little different from Bertie’s. The how-ya is replaced by a lop-sided smile that takes about 20 second to wind up, and that almost looks comicbook when delivered. Máirín did her ‘bean an phoist’ job and delivered the letter to him. She also got 10 minutes to make her pitch as did a few others. There were also a couple of speeches in Sligo.

At the new stop, achingly beautiful Lough Key Forest Park the cortege swept past woods carpeted by bluebells with no time to admire their beauty. At the visitor centre, Kenny met every member of staff and listened to staff members sing a self-composed song in Irish that had to compete with the very loud background muzak in the centre.

So what does it tell you?

He’s very good at canvassing and has a genuine, common touch, as Ahern had.

Other leaders don’t.

Michael Noonan was disastrous when Fine Gael leader. He went around the country in 2002 sucking all remaining atmosphere from already lifeless midland towns. Pat Rabbitte was a dead loss at it too, reluctant to move more than a block from Kildare Street.

And the reaction to Kenny? Well, there was no hostility. Surprisingly, there were no protests either. Nor anybody shouting inanities or insults from across the street. I’m sure there has been a bit of that, but it doesn’t seem to be a feature.

On the other hand, we did not see the kind of mobbing and adulation that happened in 2011 during Kenny’s tour of the country. Three years of Government has taken away a lot of the gloss and lustre and the party’s campaign is very much a standard mid-term election one – no longer loved but not yet despised.

There's another of Newton's laws that says every action has an equal but opposite reaction. Fianna Fáil and the Greens experienced it three years ago.

If Fine Gael is to encounter it, there are few signs that it is happening yet.

Harry McGee

Harry McGee

Harry McGee is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times

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