YESTERDAY was Enda Kenny’s 2,233rd day as Taoiseach, matching the record of John A Costello as Fine Gael’s longest-serving head of government. Today, he wakes up knowing he is now the record holder for a non-Fianna Fáil leader.
It is a remarkable milestone for a man who has been written off so often by so many.
Kenny, since 2002, has been the leader of the second most successful political party in the history of this State and for most of that time his position has been undermined by constant concerns over his abilities.
But, time and time again, he has confounded his critics by his sheer ability to survive and muddle through.
Now that he has passed this all-important personal milestone, he will once again find himself under pressure to announce just when he will depart from office.
On becoming Fine Gael leader, he took charge of a deeply demoralised party which had been ravaged by an electorate in love with the cult of Bertie Ahern.
But slowly and doggedly, he built the party up to being a real contender for government. Yet, all the time, he was an unconvincing leader.
Dull, wooden, and lightweight, he seemed destined for failure. Such was that frustration that in 2010, his own party tried to get rid of him.
Most famous of the critics at the time was one Leo Varadkar. Arguing for a change in leader, he said he would not want Kenny to be at the end of the phone if a 3am financial crisis call came in from the Central Bank governor.
Yet, Kenny won the day in relation to the heave and has proven to be a successful Taoiseach in some ways, as reflected by the points above.
However, those lingering doubts as to his limitations, expressed so pointedly by Varadkar, persist — the simple truth is that few people love Kenny.
Throughout the course of his premiership, Kenny has enjoyed and endured many ups and downs but his time in Government Buildings has been different to those who have occupied that office before him.
He has not been involved in any financial-related scandals as there were with Charlie Haughey, Albert Reynolds, and Bertie Ahern, nor have there been any question marks over his personal lifestyle as there was with Brian Cowen.
Kenny delivered Ireland from the clutches of the IMF/EU/ECB troika in December 2013 as he said he would and the economy is no longer in recession. You could argue it is now overheating but the turnaround from what he inherited in 2011 has been remarkable.
His speeches in the wake of the Cloyne report and his highly emotional apology to the survivors of the Magdalene laundries were two of his clear highlights in the Dáil and as leader.
In those brief moments, he was a true leader of this country. It was Kenny at his best.
Such strength, however, has been all too elusive and rare — more often than not, his time in office has been dominated by bouts of adequacy piled on top of rank incompetence.
Irish Water, of course, is Kenny’s greatest black mark. By trying to do a five-year job in little over 18 months, he has put back the cause of water preservation by generations. The debacle has also made it near impossible for future governments to consider new charges.
Another major failure of his tenure has been the mishandling of Garda-related scandals since 2013. As the so-called law-and-order party, Fine Gael has paid a heavy price for its botched handling of the Garda whistleblower issue, which led to the departure of one Garda commissioner and threatens to do the same to another.
Kenny’s bungling of the matter saw his justice minister Alan Shatter forced from office and an old ally is now scathing in his criticism of his former leader.
In a blistering attack on his leader, Shatter in theclaimed Kenny was placing self-preservation above the needs of the country.
“Enda Kenny has only one strategy — continuing political survival and to remain Taoiseach and in government for as long as possible. Retention of power is the only game in town,” said Shatter.
“Principles, values, fiscal and economic objectives, social priorities, concepts of public service, and of the public good, or the long-term political health of the Fine Gael party have long ceased to be his primary focus when determining how issues should be addressed.
“For the Taoiseach, doing what is right for the country has come to mean doing what is required to politically survive and remain Taoiseach for as long as he can string it out.”
It is hard to disagree with much of what Shatter said.
Since losing the general election in 2016, Kenny’s sole desire has been the preservation of power.
The entire bid to stay in office, dressed up as responsible politics, was far more self- serving. He was willing to do anything and everything to ensure he remained on as Taoiseach.
He was prepared to enter government with Fianna Fáil, the old enemy, on a 50:50 full partnership basis. He was even ready to consider the notion of rotating his own position of Taoiseach in order to secure his re-election.
Internally, he set about healing old wounds within the party with those who had been cast into the wilderness.
Michael Creed was brought in from the cold after many years in isolation and made a senior minister. Kenny even offered his bête noire, John Deasy, a job. Deasy rebuffed the offer but it was an illustration of how Kenny was willing to consider everything.
But, since cobbling the current minority administration together, Kenny has shown time and time again that he is prepared to compromise on any point, prepared to do a deal on any matter, solely to extend his time in office.
This current farce of wondering when he will stand down is a case in point.
He had no intention of coming back from Washington DC and resigning, as many had said he would.
Some of his supporters then said he wanted to stay on until the summer.
Junior Minister Dara Murphy has said Kenny should remain on for at least another 18 months, and at this stage I wouldn’t bet against him chancing his arm.
So, on one level I congratulate Kenny the survivor for reaching this personal milestone.
But I would also appeal to his sense of duty and put an end to the nonsense now around his position. It is time to stop thinking about yourself and put the country first.
Now on his 2,234th day as Taoiseach, it is time to think about relinquishing the reins of power and let the rest of us move on.
Highlights and lowlights
He led Ireland out of the worst recession in living memory, then called people “whingers” for not realising it.
He gained credibility in a scathing Cloyne clerical abuse speech, then saw credibility slip away in a dreamy haze of multiple two-pint men and imaginary soldiers manning banks.
And, while he marched his party up the hill after its disastrous 2002 election, he risks marching them right back down by refusing to step aside.
Enda Kenny’s record-breaking time as Fine Gael leader has never been far from controversy.
But while he will be lauded by supporters today for surpassing John A Costello’s record as the party’s longest serving taoiseach, his period in power has as many depressing lows as it does intoxicating highs.
In 2002, under Michael Noonan, Fine Gael won just 31 seats, losing 23 and gaining a paltry 5% general election share. After replacing Noonan and declaring he would “electrify the party”, Kenny rebuilt, with steady growth in the 2004 and 2009 local elections and a respectable 51-seat haul in the 2007 general election.
Fianna Fáil’s overseeing of the economy, the presence of the troika and Brian Cowen’s failing leadership meant Fine Gael was always going to gain power. The 76 seats secured and the “democratic revolution” is unquestionably Kenny’s career highlight.
On July 20, 2011, Kenny’s decision to take aim at the Vatican in a powerful Dáil speech led to further public support. In a passionate attack on the Church over the Cloyne sex abuse scandal, the Taoiseach — a devout Catholic from an older generation — received plaudits for his scathing response.
The obvious question is which one. In 2010, with almost all of cabinet preparing to wield the knife, Kenny avoided being ousted by Richard Bruton. Seven years on, it is unclear if the far more polite heave taking place will produce a different result.
While not universally accepted, Kenny has repeatedly pointed to guiding Ireland through the economic crisis as proof of his success as Taoiseach. The positive spin is the troika has left, the economy is one of the fastest growing in Europe, unemployment and emigration have consistently fallen since 2012, with Kenny’s supporters claiming his stewardship is — dare we say it — keeping the recovery going (see part 2).
For his backers, Kenny’s alleged chiding of US President Donald Trump and ability to press home the special Brexit needs of Northern Ireland to EU allies will prove to be another symbol of his long-lasting success. However, like the economic recovery, it is far from accepted the White House “achievement” and his Brexit negotiation skills have been the resounding success that is claimed.
Kenny’s most embarrassing verbal faux pas occurred during an unguarded moment in 2002 when he told reporters a racist joke about murdered Congolese leader and revolutionary Patrice Lumumba. Despite his apologising profusely, Mr Lumumba’s now Irish-based relatives were not impressed.
Like it or not, last year’s election result and the eventual creation of a minority government left Kenny as a lame duck leader, and opened the door for Fianna Fáil’s return. Calling critics “whingers” and saying the public doesn’t need to understand “economic jargon” has hardly helped, while the “keep the recovery going” election slogan is now accepted to have been a self-inflicted disaster.
Folksy remarks may work when abroad, but they hardly create confidence at home. Despite seeing himself as an international statesman, the Taoiseach’s oft-lampooned tales of men with two pints discussing water charges, soldiers stationed outside banks and an imaginary meeting with Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone means a less charitable image is often in the public’s mind.
Every leader faces difficulties, but Kenny’s approach to multiple commissions of investigation, Garda whistleblowers, the retirement of ex-Garda commissioner Martin Callinan, IBRC/Siteserv, water charges and Nama — to name just a few — takes some beating. Coupled with the failure to live up to opposition promises like “ending the scandal of patients on trolleys”, the Taoiseach’s time in power will most likely be remembered for what went wrong as much as what went right.
Kenny’s stewardship of the economy is far from the fairytale Government spin suggests. Surging house prices and rental bubbles along with Nama, vulture funds, zero-hour contracts, homelessness, a two-tier recovery and an alleged too-cosy approach to tax-dodging multinationals means while the Taoiseach’s policies may have ended one crisis, they risk starting another.
Youtube liked last month’s White House visit but Kenny has also been widely criticised for being too close to the US president and, as one party claimed, acting like a “lapdog”. Similarly, while the Government spin suggests Ireland’s voice is being heard on Brexit, the formal agreement to protect Gibraltar won by Spain indicates our own Brexit successes are not quite what they seem.
With time no longer on his side, the now longest serving Fine Gael taoiseach’s response to these two latter issues could ultimately make or break his legacy.