A tale of two taoisigh: It’s not that easy to spot the difference

IT MIGHT appear that Enda Kenny is better appreciated outside Ireland than within it, now that he is the first Taoiseach since Sean Lemass to appear on the cover of Time magazine, subject of a largely very favourable piece about the hard work he is doing to rescue the Irish economy and praising his personal qualities.

That wouldn’t have happened to his predecessor, the dour Brian Cowen, would it? How lucky we apparently are that we made the change in the general election of 2011 and that the international media now recognises the benefit to us of that change.

Oh hang on. It is easily forgotten now but over two years ago, Newsweek, the main competitor to Time in the American news magazine business, nominated Cowen as among the world’s top ten political leaders. In an article entitled “Go to the top of the class”, Cowen was listed alongside other political luminaries such as Chinese premier Wen Jiabao, France’s Nicolas Sarkozy, and British prime minister David Cameron. (I’m not making this up). Both magazines cited, and praised, economic policies and supposed achievements that, on examination, are remarkably similar. Maybe that is not surprising, given that this government has carried on with the substance of the economic policies of its predecessor.

Which made me wonder: would an examination of Kenny’s performance as Taoiseach reveal him to be better than his predecessor, if indeed at all? It might have seemed automatic that Kenny has to be a better type of Taoiseach than Cowen. After all, the previous incumbent was perceived widely to have performed disastrously: he will go down in history as the man who signed this country’s economic sovereignty over to the troika. On a party political level, Cowen will be remembered as the man who oversaw the destruction of Fianna Fáil, leaving it in a position to win its lowest ever level of seats in the last general election.

By contrast, Kenny is Fine Gael’s most successful ever leader in electoral terms because of the 75 seats won in February 2011. But neither that party political failure on Cowen’s part nor success on Kenny’s part for Fine Gael matters a jot when it comes to their performance as Taoiseach.

So let’s compare and contrast the respective performances as Taoiseach and try to assess how much better Kenny is than Cowen at the job … if at all:

1. DEALING WITH EUROPE: Cowen failed abysmally in this regard. Scarred by losing the referendum on the Lisbon treaty in the first month of his leadership, he disastrously bowed to whatever the European institutions wanted of Ireland. One of his lowest points was signing a deal with the troika to surrender our economic sovereignty while trying to persuade the public that it was an achievement to find a source of future funding for our public finances.

But Kenny hasn’t enjoyed much success in his dealings with Europe either. His first effort at laying down the law, at a Council of Ministers meeting, was a dismal failure and since then his lapdog diplomacy has gained little, other than promises of little value that have yet to be implemented. (Yes, the interest rate on some loans fell, but that was a by-product of other rows). The failure to get a deal on our bank debt is a major blow, and recent developments suggest we shouldn’t raise our hopes about a deal for next March (when the next €3bn-plus Anglo payment is due) either.

2. DEALING WITH THE PUBLIC: Cowen’s failure to address the public directly during the crisis facing the country in late 2010 undermined him badly. His narky demeanour in the Dáil and during press conferences didn’t help either. Strangely, he apparently gave some inspirational speeches, witnessed by few: for example, he got a standing ovation at the Dublin Chamber of Commerce annual dinner in February 2009, such was the reported quality of his oratory.

Kenny has addressed the nation on television twice and neither of those performances could be described as inspirational or reassuring. Many of his Dáil performances have been pure waffle. Kenny keeps telling us that he meets “the people” on a regular basis; apparently everyone keeps telling him that he’s doing the right things and to continue doing them, or at least that’s what he says he hears. But the media has also reported him being berated too.

3. DEALING WITH THE MEDIA: Cowen hated large sections of the press, openly describing them in vulgar and abusive terms at times. Ironically, the distaste was not mutual. Cowen was better in one-to-one situations and was available reasonably regularly for interview. Kenny is not allowed to be interviewed regularly. (I have not been able to interview him since about a year before his election, despite him being available regularly previously; other broadcasters have the same experience). This can be put down to his handlers having little confidence in his ability to handle unexpected questions. But it has served to undermine public confidence in him. If he can’t cope with the media how does he fare at Council of Ministers meetings, for example?

4. DEALING WITH MINISTERS: Bertie Ahern was described as a chief executive, someone who made decisions, sometimes with the assistance of an inner cabal of advisers and favoured ministers — and got his cabinet to rubber-stamp them. Cowen was more of a chairman of the board, who took executive responsibility but delegated certain responsibilities to ministers, as long as he was able to keep a close watch over what they were doing, and who gave ministers preference over advisers. He lost his ministers though in November 2010 when he misled some of them as to the truth of the pressure being put on by the EU to agree a troika deal. That deception fatally undermined him. Kenny is apparently more presidential in his approach, more hands off than Cowen in dealing with his ministers, dipping in and out in a supervisory role.

5. RELATIONSHIP WITH COALITION PARTNERS: Cowen was instinctively dismissive of coalition partners, going back to the early 1990s. He inherited a deal Ahern ordered with the Greens and which he didn’t particularly favour. But the Greens felt he worked well with them until the pressure cooker blew. Kenny is keen to maintain a good relationship with Labour but is helped by the seemingly supine approach being taken by Eamon Gilmore. The problems caused by his deputy James Reilly have not all been overcome but Kenny is under no internal pressure since seeing off the Richard Bruton challenge of mid-2010. It doesn’t mean all his Fine Gael colleagues are necessarily impressed by him though.

6. PERSONAL BEHAVIOUR: Cowen clearly cracked under the pressure of the job and it was one of the main reasons he had to go. His drinking at a party conference in Galway in September 2010 and his radio performance the next morning were the clearest public manifestation of that. He looked and sounded unfit for office. Kenny by contrast is in fine physical fettle, as things like cycling the Ring of Kerry during the summer proved. However, even if he is clearly in better physical shape than his predecessor, with accompanying benefits as to his alertness, this doesn’t necessarily mean he brings a greater intellectual dimension to the job.

7. PUBLIC BEHAVIOUR: Let’s just put it this way: what would the public reaction have been had Brian Cowen played with his phone during a public audience with Pope Benedict?

OVERALL VERDICT: Kenny is more energetic and enthusiastic publicly about doing the job of Taoiseach. Other than that, is there any big difference?

The Last Word with Matt Cooper is broadcast on 100-102 Today FM, Monday to Friday, 4.30pm to 7pm.

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