Enda Kenny’s legacy: a steady hand in tumultuous years

In spite of some mis-steps and political failings, Kenny delivered more than was expected of him

Enda Kenny: An innately conservative politician, he was willing to adapt to circumstances in a rapidly changing society. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Enda Kenny: An innately conservative politician, he was willing to adapt to circumstances in a rapidly changing society. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

Records are important to Enda Kenny. Journalists are regularly reminded that he is the longest-serving member of the Dáil. And the prospect of becoming the first Fine Gael leader to be re-elected taoiseach was cleverly used to neutralise his critics following a disastrous general election. It is all about status, having been cruelly dismissed as ‘Kenny light’ while in opposition.

During six years in office, Kenny confounded his critics by displaying a sure-footed and energetic approach. In the role of Cabinet chairman, he was particularly successful in making common cause with the Labour Party as they rescued the State from financial ruin. His genial, accessible approach underpinned the current minority Government. Playing political chief, however, he made a number of unforced errors.

A warm personality is a politician’s most useful weapon. When elected to the Dáil at the age of 24, Kenny was blessed with an open, engaging nature. That was tempered by harsh experience when – in spite of restless ambition – he languished for a decade on the backbenches. There, he learned the importance of personal alliances.

An innately conservative politician, he was willing to adapt to circumstances in a rapidly changing society. Empathising with the victims of clerical sex abuse, following the Ryan report, he delivered a scathing attack on the Vatican’s efforts to cover up the scandal. He supported the inmates of Magdalene laundries; promoted a referendum on children’s right; split his party by pushing through changes to abortion laws and advocated legal recognition of same-sex marriages.

Within Fine Gael, he displayed good judgment and utter ruthlessness, appointing able critics to Cabinet positions while banishing those who opposed government policy to outer darkness. His occasional ‘solo runs’ were ill-advised: announcing a referendum to abolish the Seanad without consulting colleagues and venturing specifics on water charges in a way that damaged Labour before the local elections in 2014.

Collective failures had a greater impact. Homelessness and a housing shortage grew dramatically. Health services remained dysfunctional. Promises of a democratic revolution and the benefits of ‘new politics’ were not realised. Responses to scandals within the Garda Síochána under two administrations were tentative and inadequate, leading to the departure of one Garda Commissioner and the loss of public confidence in a second. Kenny’s comments on these and other issues prompted a disillusioned Alan Shatter to remark he had “a casual relationship with the truth”.

In spite of such mis-steps and political failings, Kenny delivered more than was expected of him. His own assessment carries weight: while his governments did not have all the answers, they made honest attempts to get things right.

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