Why always us, Taoiseach?

Enda Kenny has been less visible than his predecessors, but his appearance in Madrid recently was a showstopper, writes Caroline O’Doherty
Why always us, Taoiseach?

It was the political equivalent of returning from a fishing trip, arms flung out as far as they would stretch, declaring for all to hear: “It was this big.”

But the problem with Enda Kenny’s fisherman’s tale told to the European People’s Party congress in Madrid was that he wasn’t talking about a four-and-a-half-foot salmon wrestled from the rapids of the River Moy.

He was talking about the four-and-a-half million people he claims to have wrestled from the jaws of economic ruin.

Us. The people who were going to go so mad during the eurozone crisis — descending on bank buildings in our droves, ripping ATMs out of the walls with our teeth, and turning bank managers on their heads to shake the coppers out of their pockets — that he’d have to have the Army deployed to quell the anarchy.

The same people who also “simply went mad borrowing” during the boom, as he told the 2012 World Economic Forum in his own particular guide to why the country went into economic meltdown prior to his galloping into view on his white steed.

The same people who approach him swigging pints into every orifice while simultaneously complaining about water charges, as he told the Dáil on two occasions this year when he introduced us all to his handy, all-purpose ‘man with two pints’ anecdote.

Thanks to his own guacheness, it’s almost irrelevant that there’s a nugget of truth in what he said. He saw the nugget and kept mining, digging and blasting until there was a deep scar on the landscape of the national psyche.

We’re all mad, rash, illogical creatures and aren’t we lucky he’s there to put a steadying hand on our tremorous shoulders and restore a bit of order. Insulting? Just a tad.

But is that what he really meant to imply? Surely not, for if he did then how could he possibly ask us to vote for him next spring, knowing that if we did, it would be the act of a mad, rash, illogical electorate and therefore not at all to be encouraged.

He has created for himself a sort of electoral Catch-22 and in doing so has left his party with a dilemma of what to do with their leader as the countdown to Election 2016 gets into full swing.

Satirist Oliver Callan has a recurring sketch where he has the Taoiseach kept securely in an underground bunker, visited only occasionally by his front bench who feed him an endless supply of excuses as to why he won’t be going outside any time soon.

Oliver Callan as Taoiseach Enda Kenny
Oliver Callan as Taoiseach Enda Kenny

There may be some sense in that strategy. Certainly, Kenny has been less visible than some of his predecessors, although the ubiquitous Bertie may be an extreme comparison.

When he is let out, he is slow to show his best side. Not only does he make factual errors on not-insubstantial issues such as taxation and debt writedowns, but for a modest man with a refreshing absence of self-consciousness, he has a tendency to self-aggrandisement that reads like a lack of self-awareness.

Take his bizarre ‘the public can call me anytime’ claim to the US Chamber of Commerce in Washington last year, or his assertion earlier this year that grateful workers were phoning him up after the budget saying there must be a mistake in their payslips because their wages had gone up.

He was let out during the summer to be interviewed by Sean O’Rourke on RTÉ radio. Despite the wide-ranging nature of the discussion, the lingering image is the one he created of himself, placing that steadying hand on the shoulder of Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and saying: “Alexis, let me give you a piece of advice here, if I may.”

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras

It doesn’t matter what the advice was. It doesn’t even matter if there was advice. It was someone else’s crisis and putting yourself and your big white steed in the middle of it just comes across as someone who enjoys taking a paddle-boat trip to fantasy island.

But the bunker strategy won’t work coming up to an election. An invisible leader suggests a leaderless party and that’s like dressing yourself in the carcass of a dead sheep and lying down under a flock of circling vultures.

Besides, it’s a big deal when the leader of the country comes to town on the election canvass. And Kenny is a good hand-shaker and eye-contact man so it would be wasteful not to use him to meet as many voters as possible.

So what advice might the strategists consider? They could go with the line that there may be an ‘i’ in taoiseach but there’s none in ‘leader’. Yours may be the face on the posters, Enda, but it’s the eyes looking at it that matter. To turn them into ayes at the ballot box, you need to not, not, NOT insult your electorate.

They could tell him to let the figures do the talking. Growth, job creation, falls in unemployment, debt-GDP ratios — believe it or not, a lot of people do now understand the finance-speak that was once the preserve of chief economists.

The figures are improving so let them speak for themselves. Don’t, however, give them their own opera — the people may understand them but they don’t love them so much they want to hum along with them.

They could get him on the campaign trail immediately, out to local and regional openings, gatherings, celebrations, commemorations so that he has as many hands shaken and selfies taken as possible by next spring. Just don’t let him turn the encounters into anecdotes.

Alternatively they could rely on the Justin Trudeau defence. Trudeau has just become prime minister of Canada despite a string of gaffes that most commentators were certain would sink him at the polls.

Prime minister of Canada Justin Trudeau
Prime minister of Canada Justin Trudeau

After taking over leadership of the Liberal Party in early 2013, he somehow managed to mangle his thoughts into words that seemed to express admiration for dictators and extreme Muslims.

He has dropped the f-word, been photographed grinning with a topless woman, and talked about bombing IS in a way that sounded like a joke, and a lewd one at that.

“Every now and then I give a little extra fodder to my opponents,” he has admitted of the perils of spontaneity in politics. But he insisted that fluffing his lines, or working without prepared lines, simply showed him to be the genuine guy he was.

“I think Canadians are tired of politicians that are spun and scripted within an inch of their life, people who are too afraid of what a focus group might say about one comment or what a political opponent might try to twist out of context, to actually say much of anything at all.”

But Trudeau didn’t get into power by going entirely au naturel. A very clever campaign saw him photographed boxing, canoeing, and jogging through country trails — all things he actually does in real life.

Enda doesn’t box, outside the political ring anyway, but he does bike so he could be made to grab this campaign by the handlebars and get out among the commuters, the racers, the week-end escapees and be a man who knows the roads, trails and boreens of the country for real – and not just the two-pinted bogeymen he thinks inhabit them.

What Trudeau’s strategists didn’t let him do was engage in “inauthentic” activities for the sake of the camera if it wasn’t something he personally pursued.

So despite Canada’s great lakes, vast rivers, extensive coastline, and huge numbers of wader-wearers, the one thing he was barred from doing for the campaign was to go fishing.

Kenny, Honohan and the ATMs

Governor of the Central Bank, Patrick Honohan
Governor of the Central Bank, Patrick Honohan

Timeline on Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s different claims that he was advised by the governor of the Central Bank, Patrick Honohan, about the potential need to get soldiers to guard ATMs during the eurozone crisis.

October 7, at a Fine Gael fundraiser he said: “It was more interesting when the head of the Central Bank came in on a Wednesday and said: ‘I have to tell you, Taoiseach, that it’s probably likely that you will have to put the army around the ATM machines on Friday.’”

October 22, Madrid: “The governor told me, ‘It looks like this weekend’ a few years ago, ‘You’ll have to put the Army around the banks and around the ATM machines, and introduce capital controls like they had in Cyprus’. So we’ve pulled back from that brink.”

October 27, Dublin’s Merrion Hotel: Mr Kenny says there was “no specific briefing” given to him by the Central Bank governor about the possibility of needing to put the Army around ATMs during the eurozone crisis.

October 29, Convention Centre: “If the currency was to collapse, what would you do? Would you use a draft currency, would you revert to another Irish currency or whatever? Clearly that was a matter of major importance not just for Ireland but for other countries. All of the issue surrounding security at banks was raised at that general discussion.”

October 29, Dublin. Central Bank governor Patrick Honohan said: “There was contingency planning and all sort of ideas were discussed. I wasn’t directly involved in most of those conversations. The Central Bank was. But we also do our own contingency planning that we don’t tell anyone about. But we also participated fully in the Government’s exercise.

“I have no doubt that he [Mr Kenny] had officials in other departments talking about contingencies of that type. That’s not territory the Central Bank is or was involved in. That’s clear now from what he is saying.”

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