Kenny ‘ready to lead country’

ENDA KENNY has acknowledged that he has had to work hard at certain aspects of his disposition and character to become a credible Fine Gael leader and a possible future Taoiseach.

But in an interview with the Irish Examiner, Mr Kenny says he harbours no doubts whatsoever about his ability to lead either his party, or the country.

“If an election came now, in September or October, I will be as ready as anybody else. I’m prepared for it, whenever it comes.”

Mr Kenny firmly rejects the notion that he was in someway a reluctant or makeshift leader in the wake of the party’s general election in 2002. He said once he made up his mind that he wanted the job, he was committed to take it for the long haul.

However, he does accept that he needed to improve his communication skills.

“The main thing was the clarity of response and clarity of message. I think, sometimes in the past I have used too many words when I could have used less.

“In a practical sense, it is to be ruthless in the way that you divide your time. What is a priority? What is urgent? What is necessary? What has to be done? My wife and family is my first priority.”

“I really had to struggle with this. I would have tended to say, I’ll meet you or your delegation. I am still accommodating but nowadays I prioritise.”

Mr Kenny also firmly rules out any suggestion of the position of Taoiseach being revolved between him and Labour leader Pat Rabbitte. He says that it is accepted that the biggest party will nominate the Taoiseach.

However, he stresses that the good relationship he enjoys with Mr Rabbitte has been instrumental in forging a close alliance.

“I sense on the streets that people are waiting for this election to happen and they do want a change.”

Could he be a contender?

Can Enda Kenny deliver the next General Election for the FG/Labour coalition? He’s prepared for the fight of his life to try, writes Political Editor Harry McGee

WITH a disposition as sunny as the morning outside, Enda Kenny happily whizzes around his office in Leinster House.

He’s getting his photograph taken. He banters and jokes all the way through. First it’s a very convincing Mohammed Ali impression for the close-in shot, telling the camera just how pretty he is.

And then he’s doing the sitting at the window-sill pose, you know the one, eyes gazing out distantly towards some inspirational future.

Except all the time he’s striking the pose, Kenny is telling a great story. About an incident in the 19th century involving the best-known landed gentry family from Mayo, the Brownes of Breaffy.

“Lord Browne was out shooting game one winter,” he begins. “And it was freezing cold, ice everywhere. Now he shot this duck that fell into the lake.

“One of his men said, ‘Will we send in the dogs after it?’. Browne said (Kenny changes his accent to plum): ‘No, no. It’s much too cold for the dogs. Send in Muldoon.’” Kenny must have felt a bit like the unfortunate Muldoon during the first 12 months of his leadership. His party was routed in 2002. He barely clung on to his own seat. There was a sense that he became leader because there was nobody else.

Everyone says what a nice guy Kenny is. But a nice guy does not a leader make. Was he tough enough? Could he swat with the proven big hitters? Did he have what it took to be a potential Taoiseach? Did he have the smarts? Did anybody out there know who he was? Kenny’s pre-interview antics tell you a lot about him. He is ultra personable and that goes down well with Joe Punter. He has made a virtue of that natural bonhomie. He’s also shown himself to be tougher than expected (but not yet tough enough), more articulate than expected (but not yet articulate enough), and more substantial as a politician (but maybe not the finished article yet).

He has shinned up the pole (and polls) in terms of leadership satisfaction, did well in the local, and European, elections, as well as in the recent Meath by-election. For the first time, people are now seriously considering the possibility of Kenny as Taoiseach.

Kenny had contested before for the top FG job and had come a distant second. He is keen to scotch that notion that he is in some way an accidental leader: “Well, election night (in 2002) was one of the worst days of my life actually, to watch the decimation and to see people falling like nine pins all around you. People who had served with you in the Dáil for a long number of years.

“I survived myself. It wasn’t any great sense of excitement that I was in a contest with Jim Higgins all day. At the very last count, I made it, Jim didn’t.

“Out of that, I had to look what you have done. I was over 27 years in the Dáil at that stage. You look at what is the future for me in politics.

“You either get stuck into this, use your own experience and talent and ability to make contact with the people. Or you just swan through the Dáil session and finish up.”

Kenny admits readily that he had work to do, that there were things he needed to improve on.

“The main thing was the clarity of response and clarity of message. I think, sometimes in the past I have used too many words when I could have used less.

“In other words, I had to work on concentration and focus and the ability to be direct and not be long-winded.

“In a practical sense, it is to be ruthless in the way that you divide your time. What is a priority? What is urgent? What is necessary? What has to be done? My wife and family is my first priority.

“I really had to struggle with this. I would have tended to say, ‘I’ll meet you or your delegation’. I am still accommodating but nowadays I prioritise.”

Another perceived weakness was his ability to handle some of the curved-ball questions fired at him. He refers specifically to leaders’ questions.

“It was a learning experience. I am not an actor but you do have to learn to be concise within your two minutes, get background, sub-edit facts and ask the correct question. I feel now that I am doing it better than I was at the beginning. Obviously I’m never going to be 100% from the media or public perspective.”

But has Kenny grown enough in stature to be Taoiseach material? Is he really ready and able? “Are you ever ready? When the ball comes into the square are you ready to catch it or are you going to let it hop.

“If an election came now, in September or October, I will be as ready as anybody else. I’m prepared for it, whenever it comes.”

One thing that has already marked out the 2007 election cycle is that for the first time in living memory, the economy may not dominate. FG has majored on simple messages on key (and eye-catching) issues - so far it’s been rip-off Ireland; stealth taxes; suicide; and law and order. The general schtick is that FF and the PDs have been in there so long they have become remote - and that FG and Labour will bring politics back to the people.

Kenny outlines his general approach. “A Fine Gael-Labour government will accept responsibility for its decisions. There’s also a real understanding among us that we can bring value to the taxpayer.

“We accept that low taxes are generally good. But on a whole range of social fronts we have lost when we have won economically. It’s what you do with those gains that matters, for the future of the people.

“You don’t need to be Saatchi & Saatchi to know that health is running off the pages. That’s followed by crime, where people are living in fear. Then there are pressures on people brought about by gaps in transport, education, childcare and infrastructure. Look at the whole business of building house after house and estate after estate, without putting in services or facilities.”

The relationship with Labour leader Pat Rabbitte has taken on a critical importance. Both parties will bloom or bust, depending on how their alternative coalition sticks will the electorate. Kenny is full of praise for Rabbitte’s courage in nailing his colour to the mast so early. Their rationale is there was no clear alternative in 2002. But will it be really different this time? “I think it’s clear from the discussions I had with Pat.

“We initially set out a broad agenda of items on which actions will be taken. You follow that with details of other items. When the time comes, people will be clearly aware of what they are going to get from a FG/Lab government.”

Despite the gains of late, the underlying reality is that Fine are still 20-25 seats shy of a winning position. It’s a big ask, isn’t it? “After the locals last year, we went to Kilkenny and analysed the results.

“We identified 30 constituencies where we can contest and win. It’s not going to be easy. We will concentrate on those 30 constituencies to win back all we have lost and more.

“Obviously to take a seat of a sitting TD is not an easy business if you are doing any kind of work. Personal possession is an advantage. I sense on the streets that people are waiting for this election to happen and they do want a change.”

But where does FG position itself nowadays? How can it distinguish itself when most parties have gravitated towards the centre? Kenny sets out his stall: “FG stands for the public interest, for truth and for integrity. We also stand for fiscal rectitude and law and order. We haven’t moved away from those traditional values.

“So while we are lined up with the European People’s Party as a Christian Democratic Movement, we are a party with a strong social conscience. That’s come more and more to the fore, given the way that the economy has moved.”

He returns to the theme of responsibility.

“We would approach problems with a different sense in terms of energy and competency. That’s a sad fact that no minister wants to accept responsibility for any thing these days. It’s hived off to one quango or another. Nobody is prepared to stand out front and say: ‘I am the boss here, I have made a mistake.’”

But on one of those issues, isn’t it hard to out-tough a Minister of Justice who comes from their own stock?

“I heard Michael McDowell on the radio saying the reason he left FG was over taxation policy when Garret FitzGerald was leader and Alan Dukes was Minister for Finance.

“He is a man of considerable academic capacity. But as Minister for Justice he got sucked in by the IRA and SF in signing on to let out the killers of Jerry McCabe not once but twice, which is something that never should have been on the agenda.

“While Michael McDowell has talked a strong line here, in terms of activity on the ground, in terms of the drugs scourge, we have had 83 extra gardaí appointed, no traffic corps, anti-social behaviour in every parish in the country.”

He recycles the Joe Higgins ‘handball against a haystack’ joke when asked about Bertie Ahern.

“I got on well with the Taoiseach. I have occasion to meet him socially at matches or whatever. There are always pleasantries exchanged. In politics, it’s different. The Taoiseach is halfway through his second term. He has let things drift on the airport and other major projects. People get very frustrated with that.”

There’s a sense that Kenny, like Rabbitte, will have only one shot at it.

He is circumspect when you ask him what he will do if FG are not in a position to form a government.

“Politics do excite me. If I woke up some morning and said it was not for me, I’d have an absolutely clear conscience. If it doesn’t attract me any more, I will pass the baton on.

“But I expect we will win in 2007. It’s there for us to win. I know the Government are going to fight this very hard.

“It’s not an easy road ahead but then in the last three years, we have climbed a number of hills. The big one is up front.”

“It’s going to be the most compelling and competitive general election for years and Fianna Fail already know that they are in a fight. That’s a fight for their lives and one they are going to lose.”

No Government too untouchable. No task too big. No waters too icy. Time to send in Muldoon.

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