Analysis: Question marks surround his legacy but Enda Kenny did it his own way

He must now get used to being Enda the backbencher again, learn to drive again presumably and walk again as an ordinary decent citizen, suggests Political Editor Daniel McConnell. 

WHEN did Enda’s demise begin?

Was it in January when he made up a conversation about Sgt Maurice McCabe with Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone? No.

Was it last year when he botched Fine Gael’s best-ever chance to return to office during a woeful General Election campaign? No.

No, Enda Kenny’s demise as leader of Fine Gael and as Taoiseach can be blamed on one Paul Kehoe, the current Defence Minister.

Paul Kehoe.

It was in the depths of summer of 2015 and Kehoe had sat for interview with Shaun Connolly of this parish and he indicated Mr Kenny wanted to stay on for at least another six years.

“Enda Kenny intends to remain Taoiseach into the next decade after winning the 2021 general election, the Government chief whip has revealed. In a blow to the Fine Gael leadership ambitions of intense rivals Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar, Mr Kenny plans to serve a full term if re-elected, and then go on to fight another election, according to chief whip Paul Kehoe, who is a long-standing key ally of the Taoiseach,” the front-page article ran.

It caused mayhem, and it ignited so strongly purely because it was silly season.

But after a week or so of speculation and row backs and the matter dominating the agenda, Mr Kenny was doorstepped at Knock airport by RTE.

Mr Kenny said that it was “silly season”, that his chief whip had done “very good work”, but the Wexford TD had also used a “lot of poetic licence”

“It would be arrogant and presumptuous of any public representative to assume that they can be elected to anything, myself included, until the people vote. I’m very clear what I want to do. What I want to do is finish the job that I was given responsibility for, that was to sort out our public finances to put our country back to work. That job is not finished.”

“I have no intention of staying beyond the remit of the next government to be Taoiseach. Why should I try to impose myself on the electorate,” he said.

It was there he made his pronouncement that he did not wish to lead Fine Gael into another General Election after the one which was pending.

In that moment, the clock was ticking.

Now, as he has chaired his last Cabinet meeting and tendered his resignation to President Michael D Higgins, he is now yesterday’s man.

Politics can be cruel.

Outgoing Taoiseach Enda Kenny speaks to the media ahead of his last day as Taoiseach.

After 15 years in charge of what is now the largest party in Irish politics, six of those as Taoiseach, it took just seven minutes for Enda Kenny to become mortal again.

He must now get used to being Enda the backbencher again, learn to drive again presumably and walk again as an ordinary decent citizen.

Those few short weeks ago now, when he stood at the top of the long narrow Fine Gael party room on the 5th floor of Leinster House, under the glaze of Michael Collins, he called time on his leadership.

He has not been thrown under a bus as seemed likely back in January when the latest McCabe controversy erupted. But neither is he leaving completely on his own terms either.

Yes, 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.

He led the country out of a Troika bailout programme in 2013 which many will see as a crowning achievement.

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

He was always more popular internationally abroad than at home.

Enda Kenny was well received in the US in March.

He won praise from his European counterparts for inflicting harsh medicine on the Irish people and turning the economy around.

They didn’t have to suffer the consequences of his decision making.

Being well regarded in Europe was a constant mantra of Kenny’s supporters as being one of his greatest assets and one could argue the specific mention of Irish unity, known as the Kenny text in the Brexit talks agenda was his crowning achievement.

However, his friends let him down badly on relieving the €64bn debt off the shoulders of the Irish people and blocked his attempts to burn bondholders in March 2011.

The so-called game changer of 2012 around the treatment of bank debt has come to nothing for Ireland and we have abandoned any hopes of a debt write-down.

Kenny, too has ruled his party, through fear preferment of weak allies and a tribal disdain for internal opponents.

Waterford TD John Deasy.

Waterford TD John Deasy said: “The policy of rewarding failure has put the party in jeopardy”.

“When a party rewards failure to the extent that Fine Gael and Enda Kenny has, it’s in serious trouble,” Mr Deasy told RTÉ’s Today with Sean O’Rourke show.

“Bringing back James Reilly, making him deputy leader, bringing back people who had lost their seats, some of them very badly, picking them for the Senate; I think we have a major problem.

“That results in his power base being strengthened. So if he wants to take that viewpoint it would be difficult to shift him,” he said.

Deasy fell foul of Kenny back in 2002 and has remained in the wilderness ever since, despite his considerable ability.

He is just one of many who felt his wrath. Look at Lucinda Creighton, Brian Hayes, Billy Timmins and Fergus O’Dowd to name a few others.

As the curtain now finally comes down on Enda Kenny’s tenure, it can be said he did some good, like his speech against the Vatican in July 2011 and the recovery of the economy.

He also did some bad. His Seanad referendum loss, the debacle that has been Irish Water and water charges, the brutality of where the austerity hit on his watch, the rise in homelessness on his watch to name but a few.

He leaves office under a partial cloud but free of any personal scandal, which is unique in recent Irish political history.

One of his chief supporters once said to me that he will go down as the best Taoiseach since Sean Lemass.

I’m not sure about that.

“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.

Michael Noonan.

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 was Kenny’s Way.

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