IT’S now almost five years since Enda Kenny became leader of Fine Gael. So stunning was his rise without trace that most outside the tightly-knit world of politics were moved to ask: Enda who?
Kenny became Fine Gael leader at the lowest moment in (almost) the longest losing streak in modern political history. The backroom people in Fine Gael surveying the train wreck of 2002 knew that, if the party lost again in 2007, the record would read: five successive leaders failed in five elections over 20 years.
When Kenny became leader, one of those strategists, Frank Flannery, set out a recovery plan. His key message was they shouldn’t expect a wedding at Cana miracle. They needed to give Kenny time to develop a persona and authority as a credible leader.
I spent some of the weekend looking over Kenny’s previous Ard-Fheis speeches; some more impressive than others. One of the recurring themes was he was not yet the finished article; and still a work in progress. Kenny’s favourite analogy was the GAA and his riff was the Championship hadn’t started yet.
Well, let’s start from the beginning. The time has arrived. The moment for judging Kenny’s leadership aura is now. No more work in progress. No more unfinished article. And the Championship? We’re approaching the knockout stages.
And cometh the hour, cometh the man. Kenny’s leadership address was the strongest, most cogent, coherent, mature and powerful delivered by any leader since the 2002 election.
Seven days before, Bertie Ahern stood on the same stage to deliver 30 minutes of non-stop giveaway in a showbiz razzmatazz spectacular.
Kenny’s speech was an exercise of studied contrast, consciously plotting a radically-different course.
“Last week, another man stood in this hall and made 53 promises,” he told the auditorium at CityWest.
Kenny instead offered that he would not seek re-election as Taoiseach in 2012 if he did not deliver what he promised.
Of course, that wasn’t the only promise. It was the only new promise. In a couple of weeks, all parties will publish their manifestos. In Fine Gael’s case, we know their policies on crime (as cynically “tough” as all the others); health (no private hospitals on public land, 2,300 more beds and free GP visits for under fives); and on finances (a €450-million stamp duty, tax cuts and incentives for stay-home parents).
But the tenor and tone of Kenny’s address was one of two big calculated gambles the party took this weekend.
The first was its decision to make this election a referendum on health. The British Labour Party tried that in the 1980s and bellyflopped embarrassingly. Fianna Fáil did it better in their successful 1987 campaign. It’s still a punt. And when Fianna Fáil and the PDs take out the pestle and mortar with the intention of crushing the Mullingar Accord to a pulp, Kenny and Pat Rabbitte will need to convince the electorate that they can be trusted to manage the economy.
The second gamble was Kenny’s approach. This was a no promise-fest. This was a leader selling himself as honest and trustworthy, matching his promises by deeds. He made the speech more personal than any other. His grandfather, father, wife, children all came powerfully in to the mix.
And to that end, this was THE key passage: “I believe it’s about time a politician stepped up to the line and took responsibility for their actions in government. I am that politician.”
I am that politician. It was Kenny saying: I’m the finished article. Leave aside your doubts. With me you’ll get honesty, integrity, no broken promises. I am the man for the job.
Kenny wasn’t selling policies. He was selling Enda Kenny. To upset what Bertie describes as the apple tart, Fine Gael needs to convince voters Kenny can step up to plate. This may be the moment he did.
The Contract for a Better Ireland will resonate. Kenny set out a list of failings of this coalition, describing his vision of what could be achieved. Leader’s speeches are becoming more like Ernest Hemingway short stories with repetition of key words and phrases. Last week it was “steps to a better Ireland”. With Kenny it was “The Contract for a Better Ireland”, “bond” and promise.
“If you have given me, that most precious and most powerful thing a democrat has, your vote, then I have a moral duty, a democratic duty, a patriotic duty, to live up to my end of the contract. I belive it’s vital that you know just how serious I am. Just how serious this is.”
That heady stuff could have left him exposed, especially the passage about his maternal grandfather, James McGinley, a Mayo lighthouse keeper.
Did he pull it off? I think so. Kenny’s reach will never be that of Bertie’s amazing technicolour anorak but he has scored higher on other counts. The Fianna Fáil promise-fest and BertieGate may come back to haunt the party like decentralisation, e-voting and the latent dishonesty of its “no-cuts” promises in 2002.
The polls show Kenny behind Ahern in popularity and ability but ahead in terms of honesty and integrity. Fine Gael will hope the electorate will be swayed by arguments on governance rather than promises.
And Kenny’s Championship? Well, it could be victory by the back door. Fine Gael’s target seat gain is realistically cut back to around 20 and will rely heavily on a solid Labour performance and a surge for the Greens (with perhaps a few independents).
The picture is so fragmented it increasingly looks the next coalition (led by Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael) will be the most complicated since 1948.