Enda should have quit while he was ahead

From highpoints such as challenging the Vatican, to lows like being ensnared in Garda scandals, Political Correspondent Juno McEnroe looks at the career of Enda Kenny

‘YOU always want to quit while you are ahead. You don’t want to be like a fighter who stays too long in the ring until you’re not performing at your best.”

These wise words, from no less than actor and award-winning director Clint Eastwood, are fitting for politicians who think twice about not stepping down after passing their best-before-date. It is arguable whether Taoiseach Enda Kenny has or has not reached his. Still, should he have stayed in the ring for so long? Many might argue no. Undoubtedly though, he passed his zenith sometime back during his six-year tenure as Taoiseach.

There were highs and lows in his time at the helm in Government Buildings on Merrion St. Ones to be proud of are when the Mayo man lifted the nation. Equally, there were dark days when the fighter lost, badly, publicly and, at times, from his own punches.

Infamously, Enda Kenny began his command when the new Fine Gael government in 2011 promised a “democratic revolution”. It was brave, but also naive and potentially unrealistic. Kenny’s newfangled coalition with Labour had promised political change.

In a way, Kenny had what Shakespeare once coined “vaulting ambition”. He was eager to rescue Ireland, to undo the damage from the recession. He was energetic and eager, a quality that let him down when it emerged the revolution was, in fact, a lethal dose of bad medicine and cuts to the economy.

So what were his moments of brilliance as well as blunder?

One memorable moment was when the Taoiseach challenged the Vatican after the damning Cloyne report into clerical sex abuse. An emotional Enda Kenny took to his feet in 2011 and in an unprecedented fashion for a head of state tore strips out of the Church over its handling of the abuse cases. It was a speech which saw Mr Kenny receive plaudits for weeks afterwards. Equally, his State apology to the Magdalene women will be remembered, where he became emotional over the Church-run workhouses in a historic 2013 Dáil moment and the house give him a standing ovation. That year, it could be said, was a climax for Enda Kenny.

Earlier that year, the Fine Gael government managed to rip up the Anglo Irish Bank promissory note and instead delay debt owed for the odious bank, thereby allowing Ireland not pay €3bn back a year. The postponed financial pain reduceds borrowing costs by €20bn, the department of finance said.

However, the exit of Ireland from the Troika’s financial bailout was one of the defining moments for the Government that year. From being a financial basket case to standing on our own again, Enda Kenny was able to make a TV address to the nation that December. And it had all happened under his watch.

“It is now clear that your sacrifices are making a difference, Ireland is moving in the right direction,” he told the cameras days before Christmas, the first in many years where Ireland’s independence was intact. He sent out his vision for the next seven years: “A plan to ensure that never again will Ireland’s stability be threatened by speculation and greed. We are never going back to that culture.”

That same month, a resurgent Fine Gael climbed back up the polls to 30%, its first substantial rise since the government party had started losing support rapidly after taking power in 2011. These were to be Enda Kenny’s better moments.

Then came the annus horribilis for Kenny and his party — 2014. Revelations by garda whistleblower Sgt Maurice McCabe, which were clearly ignored and even repulsed senior members of the force, eventually resulted in the squeezing from office or resignations — of a garda commissioner, a minister for justice and a department of justice secretary general.

Looking back, it is shocking to think that the highest-placed justice authorities in the State were effectively run out of office by actions by or lack of support from the Taoiseach. Such chaos would inevitably bring down a government in any normal democracy.

The Garda whistleblower scandals which ensnared the Fine Gael government were its low point. The troubles were added to by the outrage over the cut in discretionary medical cards, which resulted in a severe bruising for Fine Gael in the local elections. The unpopularity was added to by the introduction of water charges. This was all under Enda Kenny’s watch.

But there were more glorious moments for the Kenny reign. Undoubtedly, it is impossible to forget the visit of Queen Elizabeth II here in 2011, just after the first Kenny government. Equally, the celebrated visit of US president Barack Obama will always be remembered as a success.

These international occasions were high points for the Mayo man as were some of his foreign visits. Most recently, Enda Kenny received international acclaim for his St Patrick’s Day speech in Washington in March in which he effectively gave newly-elected US president Donald Trump a coded lecture on immigration. The speech was watched all over the world.

In a similar vein, the Kenny administration’s Brexit win at the recent April 22 summit in Brussels was one of its top moments. EU leaders have now agreed to allow the North reenter the bloc after Brexit in the event of reunification. Clearly, Ireland’s priorities have been set out for the negotiations ahead, a key victory for Merrion St and departments. Kenny will be remembered for helping reduce unemployment from a high of 15% during the crash to almost 6% recently, for being returned a second time consecutively as a Fine Gael Taoiseach and for taking the country out of recession.

But many blunders and cock-ups will darken his final days. Most notably was the alleged conversation he said he had with Minister for Children Katherine Zappone over Tusla and Garda whistleblower Maurice McCabe. The conversation never took place — we found out that it was a fiction. Equally, there have always been questions about claims that the army were ready to protect the ATMs, as Kenny claimed. Some of Kenny’s final days were also overshadowed by setting up a neverending queue of inquiries and commissions, effectively kicking the can down the road on crucial issues in relation to the gardai, banking and health. His successor won’t thank him for that.

Whoever takes the reins in Fine Gael will unlikely be able to replace his zest, energy, enthusiasm and, it could be said, likeable charisma. In the darkest of days when in Government, a determined Enda Kenny kept the chin up, pedalled on and dragged a damaged country and fickle Dáil with him. Legacies take time to bed down. Equally, maybe Kenny should have taken off his gloves before now. The next Fine Gael lead fighter though will have to last the rounds like their predecessor.

© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved

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