Pragmatism over principle. The hallmark of Enda Kenny's leadership

Pragmatism over principle has been the hallmark of Enda Kenny's time as leader, suggests Political Editor Daniel McConnell.

“KENNYISM can be defined as being broadly lacking in ideology and being driven by pragmatism,” says Paul Rouse of the School of History in University College Dublin.

“His time in office can be seen as a pragmatic response to the events and circumstances which confronted him,” Rouse adds.

Now as the Enda Kenny era comes to an end, the time has come to assess his legacy in its entirety.

After 15 years as leader of Fine Gael and six and a half as Taoiseach, he stands as the most successful leader of his party in the modern era.

The first Fine Gael leader to be re-elected Taoiseach and the longest serving Fine Gael Taoiseach in history.

To his supporters, those two statements will be top of any description or eulogy given about Kenny in the years to come, notwithstanding the large but which hangs over both.

To his detractors, he is the energetic but lightweight character who could not be trusted and who would do anything to remain in power.

Kenny's story is a remarkable one. Foisted by circumstance into the Dail as a young man in 1975 following the death of his father Henry.

For almost two decades, he did nothing but linger on the backbenches, enjoy his social life in Dublin and expand his waistline, as happens to all in middle age.

At no stage in those early years did he show any inclination towards high office.

It was the influence of his wife Fionnuala who moulded him into the aspirant leader.

But even at that stage, there were doubts as to his abilities.

“We never took him seriously, how could you. You still can't take him seriously today. He was a chameleon, not to be fully relied upon,” said one TD.

He stood first to succeed John Bruton as leader of Fine Gael in 2001 but was defeated by Michael Noonan, who saw fit to leave Kenny off from his front bench.

When Noonan's own leadership went down in flames in the General Election of 2002 and with Fine Gael reduced to just 30 Dail seats, Kenny stood again and this time he prevailed. He saw off the challenge of Richard Bruton, Phil Hogan and Gay Mitchell and urged his party to believe again.

"Fine Gael's mourning period is over," Kenny told reporters outside Leinster House. "This party is getting up off the floor. We intend to demonstrate that we are a political force to be reckoned with in the future."

 

As Professor Gary Murphy of the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University describes it, the Kenny of 2002 was engaged in the “art of perseverance”.

“When he took the reins of Fine Gael in 2002 in the height of the Bertie era, there were doubts about whether Fine Gael could maintain their position as the second party of the state,” Murphy says.

Kenny for a long time appeared to be out of his depth.

Yet, despite his party's low ebb, Kenny could be vengeful. He banished his promising Justice spokesman John Deasy to the political wilderness, where he remains a decade and a half later.

After 2007, Fine Gael did restore itself as a viable political movement coming back with 50 seats, but fell short of what was required to shift Fianna Fail from office.

But it turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

With the onset of the worst financial crash in living memory, Fianna Fail were doomed to humiliation in 2011.

 

Kenny having survived an ill-fated heave in 2010, lead his party into Government with the Labour Party. The Coalition enjoyed the largest majority ever in Dail Eireann and set about saving the country.

“No one can deny that the Fine Gael-Labour Government succeeded in bringing the country back from the abyss. Locked into decisions which were the product of the previous government's, they did save the country. They made mistakes and caused a huge amount of pain and hurt, but top of Kenny's legacy is that he saved the country,” says Rouse.

The Kenny of this first term was one of "boundless optimism" says Murphy.

“This worked well in the first half of the 2011-16 government after the depression of the Cowen years. The walking to work, the can do attitude.”

“It started to wear thin from mid term but still there was a lot to be said for Kenny looking as if he wanted to do the job and do it as best he could rather than Cowen who also looked miserable as Taoiseach,” he says.

His scathing attack on the Vatican in the wake of the Cloyne Report in July 2011 was nothing short of phenomenal and a true high point of his tenure. Alas, such high points were all too rare.

He too though, proved himself to be a decent manager.

“Kenny clearly was a good captain without perhaps being the best player on the team. I agree with your assessment of him in recent pieces but he will be seen as the man who led the country out of the Troika, saved the state from bankruptcy and restored Ireland's position as a sovereign nation," says Murphy.

But when the Troika left much of the discipline of the first three years in office dissipated immediately.

The Government became beset with problems of its own making. Water, property tax and Justice to name a few.

But in this period we saw a far more ruthless Kenny emerge.

“I give you Martin Callinan, Alan Shatter and Lucinda Creighton. For all the niceness and optimistic nature Kenny was as ruthless in office as any of his predecessors. He wasn't to be crossed and if he was, well the retribution could be severe,” says Murphy of the various poor souls who felt the butt end of that ruthlessness.

Fine Gael and Labour before things went bad had been expected to serve at least two terms in office.

While Labour faded away to almost nothing, Fine Gael under Kenny in the run up to the 2016 General Election had expected to retain most of its seats, but a disastrous gaffe filled and ill-judged campaign saw them lose 26 TDs.

Ever since that defeat, and it was a defeat, Kenny's position was fatally wounded.

He clung on to form a Government which has barely functioned, he has engaged in a glorified vanity exercise in terms of his own position which has compounded the inertia surrounding Leinster House.

He has as Murphy describes it engaged in the "art of not knowing when to let go".

“All leaders suffer from this. This interminable long goodbye is doing neither him nor FG any favours but once you've been Taoiseach there is really no place else to go,” he says.

Now at the end, he has done it his way and in many ways he has enjoyed genuine success in office.

Yet there is a huge question mark over that success and in truth he never led his country with a sense of vision or purpose or ideology.

That is a shame.

 

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