The Taoiseach got what he wanted, writes Mary Regan, Political Correspondent
When the history is written of Enda Kenny’s leadership, this week will form a very significant part of the narrative.
It began with the handling of a painful historical legacy, and ended with the setting in stone of a new legacy for future generations to one day reflect on.
On Wednesday morning — when he failed to apologise to Magdalene victims — it looked like it was going to be the worst week of his term as Taoiseach.
But within 24 hours he had pulled off his greatest political triumph so far with a deal to push out the country’s bank debt.
Where the strange confluence of events will leave his standing in the eyes of the public will go some way to defining his success.
Observers including some of his own backbenchers watched on with disbelief on Tuesday evening when Kenny delivered his response in the Dáil to the report on the Magdalene Laundries.
Not only did he repeatedly refuse to apologise, he appeared to in some ways rationalise what had taken place in the institutions as a con-sequence of the Ireland of the times. “Ireland in the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s was a harsh, uncompromising, and authoritarian country. That is reflected in the stories of the women who had the courage to come forward and say their piece,” he said.
Kenny appeared to play down the level of State involvement in the laundries, saying it was responsible for 26.5% of the 10,000 women who had passed through their doors.
To the astonishment of some, he said there were others who had suffered in the past: “Women who underwent symphysiotomies, or thalidomide victims, or those who were in mental hospitals — or lunatic asylums as they were referred to in those days — or many other places.”
Within an hour, victims had reacted with fury to Kenny’s contribution, saying they felt their stigmatisation was prolonged, and that their suffering had been minimised.
After the reaction from victims came the reaction from backbenchers. Some TDs in both Fine Gael and Labour wondered how such an incoherent response could have been offered when the Cabinet had been aware of the contents of the report since morning.
The following morning, the junior minister in the Department of Justice, Kathleen Lynch, told Today FM: “My personal opinion is that there should be an apology.”
She distanced herself from the failure of the Taoiseach to apologise, saying: “You have to accept that I can’t speak on behalf of the Taoiseach, you have to accept that.”
The breaking of ranks by a junior minister spelled danger for the Coalition, which was already showing the strains of the uncertainty hanging over the promissory note issue.
The tensions between both parties had grown more fraught as the weeks dragged on. Labour was growing frustrated with the failure by Finance Minister Michael Noonan to keep it in the loop on the highly secretive talks with the ECB. Fine Gael, in turn, thought the junior coalition partner was playing politics with the negotiations and should just place its trust in Noonan and his team.
On Wednesday morning, most TDs were unaware of the looming emergency legislation coming down the line that night and were watching closely as to whether the Taoiseach would have a change of heart overnight and apologise to the Magdalene victims at the second time of asking.
It was hoped that overnight, the Taoiseach could come up with a more satisfactory response for Wednesday morning’s leaders’ questions.
But once again, he refused to apologise, although he did go further in his expression that he was sorry for what the women had been through.
His Dáil performance was almost worse than the evening before. And when he referred to some of the girls held in the Magdalene institutions as being “emotionally challenged”, he could have easily been talking about himself.
For a man whose political style since coming into office had been to show empathy for individual cases and concern for the vulnerable even while his Government imposes cuts on them, his response to this very emotive subject lacked courage, compassion, and leadership.
The question of what was going on with him was answered later in the day when it became clear that he had the huge issue of the financial stability of the country on his mind.
By midnight, emergency legislation was being presented to the Dáil to liquidate the IBRC in a panicked move instigated by the leaking of information.
This immediately raised the question: If the political system was able to act so promptly on this matter, why did we have to wait two more weeks for a Dáil debate to discuss the Magdalene report? And why was the Taoiseach willing to be bound by legal considerations on his approach to the Magdalene women while changing the law overnight for financial matters?
The next day, Kenny was on the Dáil floor again, just an hour after the ECB finally agreed on the bank debt deal.
And so his fortunes had turned around in 24 hours. He was announcing the deal that would probably secure his legacy and those who doubted his leadership ability were proved wrong.
What started off as the worst weeks turned into the best for Enda Kenny.
To borrow a phrase from another legendary tale, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the winter of despair and the spring of hope.
Picture: Taoiseach Enda Kenny talks to French President François Hollande during an EU budget summit
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