I’M FEARFUL for Enda. I think he may be on the verge of a mistake that will damage his reputation. He may be thinking, “I was such a success in America that they’re going to let me keep on going”. If he does think that, he is going to prove Enoch Powell right once again. It was Powell, after all, who said “all political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs.”
It was always the case, I think, that Enda had a plan to see a power-sharing administration formed again in Northern Ireland, and to be present at the European Council meeting that signed off on the negotiating response to the British triggering of Article 50. Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon specifies that a country that wants to withdraw from the European Union must notify the European Council of its intention. Enda is one of the most senior members of the Council, and wants to be there when the formal notification arrives.
(I suppose nowadays it will come by e-mail. There was a time in the good old days when the members would gather in some great hall, and a British courier would alight from horseback and stride into the room with a proclamation tied in red silk and affixed with Her Majesty’s seal. But whatever prosaic method is used nowadays, Enda wants to be part of the reception party.) But that was always going to be it. That was going to be the outer limit of the tolerance of his own party, in their anxiety to secure a different face on the next election poster. However, the vibes coming from Enda since he came back from the States are suggestive of someone who has a much longer timeframe in mind. The visit of the Pope next year? The need to engage in the new hoopla that is beginning to emerge around plans and proposals for a United Ireland? The task of bringing the Rugby World Cup to Ireland?
Who knows. But there seems to be a bit of a thing beginning, that Enda is actually going to go to his Parliamentary Party meeting this week and tell them that he’s not quite in a position to confirm his retirement just yet, because of all the really urgent things that command his attention. And if he does, it’s beginning to seem that all he’ll get is lots of dark muttering once the meeting is over.
And that’s when the mistake will happen. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’ve nothing against Enda Kenny. Quite the opposite, in fact, I’m a bit of a fan. But there is one inviolable rule in politics. When it’s time to go, go.
It’s such an unbreakable rule that in America, it’s written into the Constitution. Two terms and it’s over. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama may well have been elected for a third term, but it wasn’t even possible for them to consider it.
But on this side of the Atlantic, it’s more than possible to overstay your welcome. Margaret Thatcher did it and was greatly diminished by that fact. We had two lads of our own, Bertie and Charlie, who didn’t just hang on until well past their sell-by dates, but did enormous damage in the process.
It’s not a Fine Gael tradition. It is more usual for Fine Gael leaders, once they hear the discreet cough of the political undertaker at the door, to resign themselves to their fate. Garrett FitzGerald did it, as did Alan Dukes (perhaps a bit reluctantly). Michael Noonan and John Bruton went at the right time. And all saw their reputations enhanced in the aftermath of their parting.
But there’s a thing that happens to political leaders, especially when they go abroad. Even if they’re only away for a few days, it’s usually because they’re involved in something important. And while they’re away, the news tends to be fed to them in snippets.
There’s no reason nowadays for an Irish government minister not to be able to keep abreast of everything that’s happening at home. In the old days, newspaper clippings would be faxed out from his or her office twice a day while they were abroad. Because these snippets were always out of context, they tended to be taken far more seriously, and often taken out of proportion, than if the minster was at home. Many a minor crisis was caused by the over-reaction of a minister in Brussels to a faxed Irish Times editorial, when the same minister would never read such editorials from one end of the year to another if he or she wasn’t abroad.
But the availability of the internet can create an equally erroneous impression. Enda Kenny’s speech about St Patrick being an immigrant – a good speech, well delivered – has been viewed some 30 million times on the internet. Enda’s success in the States has gone global. And there’s every possibility that he could get that out of proportion too.
Here’s the truth that Enda needs to recognise. He’s had a good innings. In his time as leader he has seen off a major heave, before he was Taoiseach, and a little mini-heave a few weeks ago. He wouldn’t survive a third one.
But he has also built a good solid reputation, at home and abroad. He has done his job to the best of his ability. And he can claim a long list of major achievements – from the rescue of Ireland’s economy to the rebuilding of Ireland’s reputation to the passage of the equal marriage referendum.
He is about to become the longest-serving leader of his own party, and the only one in the history of his party to have been re-elected (albeit by a hair’s breadth). He has built a good political team around him, to such an extent that whoever succeeds him will immediately be seen as a politician of substance and stature.
People grow or shrink in the office of Taoiseach – nobody stays the same. Enda Kenny grew. But he will put all that at risk if he doesn’t make his position crystal clear this week, with a timeline that everyone understands. It doesn’t have to be measured in days or weeks, but it cannot encompass more than two events.
If he tries for a long goodbye, or even no goodbye at all, he is putting himself at the mercy of the next crisis, whatever that is. And Enda Kenny has surely learned that the next crisis is only just around the corner. It may or may not be something big – one of his predecessors as Taoiseach, after all, is still remembered for saying that it’s the little things that trip you up. Whatever the next crisis is, he will be blamed, his party will be merciless, and his departure will be tarnished.
So I hope he’s taking good advice and listening to it. The politician who goes at a time of his own choosing – Jack Lynch did it – is remembered kindly. The one who hangs on just one day too long is remembered for having failed.