Enda Kenny belongs high on list of greatest Irish Taoisigh

Surely the time has come to acknowledge what a substantial figure Enda Kenny is, and what a mark he has made on the Irish political landscape, says Fergus Finlay. He established a place in history last week as the first Fine Gael leader ever to have been re-elected to the office of Taoiseach.

Enda Kenny belongs high on list of greatest Irish Taoisigh

It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t pretty, but then, establishing a record like that was never going to be a straightforward task.

You know the way you often come across lists of great American Presidents? It can frequently be the case that the one you admire is way down on the list, and those you despise get much higher rankings than you’d expect. So I guess it wouldn’t be possible to rank great Irish Taoisigh without generating at least some controversy.

But I can remember with reasonable clarity every Taoiseach since Jack Lynch. The list from then on consists of Liam Cosgrave, Charles Haughey, Garret FitzGerald, Albert Reynolds, John Bruton, Bertie Ahern, Brian Cowen and Enda Kenny.

Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen
Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen

It’s a short enough list, even though it spans almost exactly 50 years, because several of the leaders I’ve named held office several times and for long enough periods. Lynch and Ahern account for 20 of those years between them.

Many will argue, of course, that the true greats — Lemass, DeValera, WT Cosgrave — all held office before my list. But I can only make a judgement about them based on what I’ve read, not on what I’ve seen and lived through.

I honestly believe that if you look at the 50-year list, and try to rank them objectively (and I have to be objective because I never voted for any of them!), you could only come to the conclusion that Enda Kenny is much closer to the top than the bottom.

I don’t think, however, that it’s ever appropriate to apply the word great to a serving politician — as Chou En Lai is alleged to have said about the impact of the French revolution, it’s too early to tell. Some of the people on that list had an infallible belief in their own greatness, some achieved great things that were overshadowed by failure or scandal. Some were thought great in their time, but their reputations have faded since. Others rose to the job in ways that were never expected of them, but perhaps never got the chance to leave a lasting mark behind. Some just shrank in office.

And of course in the 50-year period there have been other really significant political figures that never got the chance to be Taoiseach but nevertheless exercised considerable influence over the sort of extended period that merits a mention on any historical list. My list of them would include Des O’Malley, Mary Harney, Frank Cluskey, Declan Costello, and Dick Spring. You can choose your own list, of course, and no doubt you’ll include people I wouldn’t have thought of (and exclude some I would). But I don’t believe there is any doubt that Enda Kenny belongs high on any list.

And yet I can’t remember any Taoiseach who has been so derided, so constantly written off. All his predecessors had their critics on the issue of style during their tenure — Lynch for perceived indecisiveness, Fitzgerald for a seeming preference for theory over practice, Haughey for delusions of grandeur, Ahern for his famous malapropisms (and a few more substantial things that did him in). But the dismissal of Kenny as a complete lightweight, from the start of his leadership to right now, has been a constant refrain.

For a lightweight, he has done remarkable things. He inherited the leadership of his party when it was at its lowest ebb and its future was being seriously questioned. And he inherited that leadership from a backbench position — although he had served in government under John Bruton, he was dismissed from the Fine Gael frontbench by Michael Noonan. Unless I’m mistaken that makes him the first leader in modern times in any party to take control of his party from the back benches.

In short order he kept the promise he had made (when he ran for leadership against Noonan) to “electrify his party. In every election under his leadership up to the last one — local, European and general — Fine Gael grew. Despite that, he had to fight off a concerted challenge to his leadership from the so-called intellectual wing of his party.

They too thought they were dealing with a lightweight, and discovered how wrong they were.

You don’t have to agree or disagree with the policies he pursued when he did become Taoiseach five years ago, but there is no denying that he inherited the greatest economic crisis imaginable.

We’ve been through many periods of austerity before, but never lost our sovereignty as a result of a crash. We’ve seen many periods of economic slide, but never a collapsed as sharp as the 2008 one, and never from such great heights.

And although we all remember the disaster of 2008, we’ve forgotten now how close our entire administration was to collapse. After a period of utter chaos in government, the Taoiseach of the day refused to lead his party into the election and a number of senior ministers refused even to contest it.

There’s never been such disarray as there was when Enda Kenny arrived in government — and to make matters worse, there was a genuine possibility that the country wouldn’t be able to pay its bills, and its wages, before the end of the year.

It seems a distant memory now. Modern news cycles being what they are, the things a Taoiseach did before breakfast tend to be forgotten by lunchtime. But it’s worth remembering nevertheless that this Taoiseach inherited a huge mess, and helped to engineer a major recovery.

Along the way he did some other remarkable things — the apology to the Magdalene Women, his speech in the Dáil after the publication of the Cloyne Report (which changed the relationship between Church and State forever), the equal marriage referendum and the children’s rights referendum, and many others.

Yes, he’s never been a great debater. Yes, he doesn’t shine in interviews, and he’s not a great communicator in public (much better in small groups or one-to-one). But he has displayed incredible resilience, an astonishing capacity for hard work, discipline, humour and an ability to listen and learn. These are all key characteristics of leadership.

It’s intriguing that as he now embarks on the next phase of his leadership, he’s been written off again, already. Most pundits give him a year or less. It seems to me, however, that the single most destabilising thing that could happen to this fragile government is if Enda Kenny is forced to go. I just don’t see Fianna Fáil giving some bright young thing a year or two as Taoiseach before the next election.

My own guess is that he probably enjoys being misunderestimated, as George Bush once said. The thing that those who constantly write Enda Kenny off misunderestimate most is his resilience and his toughness.

Those qualities alone mean that Enda Kenny could well have a surprise or two in store for us yet.

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