This was one of the final sentences uttered by Enda Kenny in the Prime Time debate last Tuesday. The strange turn of phrase came about because the question was about regrets. And yes, he had a few, but then again, too few to mention, because in a stunning display of sophistry, he turned the response into a litany of his proudest achievements, which he regretted he hadn’t had a chance to do earlier. Joan Burton and Gerry Adams did the same. Only Micheál Martin answered honestly with real regret.
As it happens, Mr Kenny was well-advised to mention the tears of the Magdalene women and his anger at the sexual abuse of children in Cloyne. It was a harkening back to a time when he felt loved by the electorate. And his desperation to get it in, even in the ludicrous context of “regrets”, was an acknowledgement of how very far he has fallen from his blissful spring of 2011.
Yes. We loved him when, in his apology to the Magdalene women in February 2012 he said: “I believe I speak for millions of Irish people all over the world when I say we put away these women because for too many years we put away our conscience. Were these our values?”
And we loved him again the following year, when on publication of the Cloyne Report, he launched a blistering attack on the Vatican: “Far from listening to evidence of humiliation and betrayal, the Vatican’s reaction was to parse and analyse it with the gimlet eye of a canon lawyer.”
And we loved him because these strong statements cost him: “As a practicing Catholic, I don’t say any of this easily.”
In short, he had the courage to stand up to his tribe to speak for the most vulnerable and damaged in our society.
It took a lot for us to turn against him and his leadership so savagely: The collapse in his satisfaction rating is the one issue on which all the polls agree. So what changed? And when did it change? The steady slide in the polls is more than a reaction to his well-documented election campaign gaffes. Something has been brewing below the surface for a long time. Thomas Hardy’s poem ‘Titanic’ describes it best: “And as the smart ship grew, in stature, grace and hue, In the shadowy silent distance, grew the iceberg too.”
Whatever the election result, Mr Kenny, at the very least, has felt an icy wind these last few weeks.
The media feigned shock last weekend when he railed against “whingers,” first refusing to take it back, then taking it back, first saying he meant Fianna Fáil, then three specific Fianna Fáil councillors. It was a display of neckery at its reddest, which by the way has nothing at all to do with coming from rural Ireland.
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But why should we be surprised? It is the same style we have seen over the last five years in Dáil Éireann, where every time Mr Martin got to his feet, Kenny heckled him. Like a feral child, he yahooed “it’s all your fault” as riposte to everything. His persistence, long after Mr Martin’s apologies and the point of credible anger, merely revealed the stoicism in Mr Martin, who calmly rolled with punches and silent, in the distance, grew in stature.
Despite his pugnacity, Mr Kenny shows little stomach for battle. But a battle not fought is a battle postponed. And he postponed, for five long years, a battle called the Moriarty Tribunal.
In the last week of July 2012, the Taoiseach told the Magill Summer School he “accepted the Moriarty Tribunal Report in its entirety”. This meant he accepted that Denis O’Brien funnelled large amounts of money “in clandestine circumstances” to Michael Lowry, the Fine Gael minister at the department that awarded the mobile phone licence to Denis O’Brien’s Esat. That licence was the foundation of a sizeable portion of Mr O’Brien’s empire, which means that Mr O’Brien’s empire was built on a structure of unfairness which, Moriarty further stated, undermined Irish democracy. If Mr Kenny really did accept the findings, there is no way he could have avoided a deep feeling of shame at how the country was let down and by persons with whom he shared platforms.
Four years later, the thing he knew to be wrong and about which he did nothing, came back to haunt him in the person of Mr Lowry, whose support might become expedient.
Eleven times he refused to deny Mr Lowry.
This was much more than the first major gaffe of the campaign. This went straight to the heart of Fine Gael values and showed how the unfinished business of the tribunal has made a stone of the heart — a stone called cynicism.
In 2011, Fine Gael won 76 seats, six short of an overall majority. There were plenty of Independents ready to support them.
Political junkies, tuning into The Week In Politics the Sunday before that election, were confronted by an alarming scenario. The two big beasts of Fine Gael and Labour, Phil Hogan and Pat Rabbitte, side by side chortling and jovial. A deal they realised, was already done. A cynical deal for the most massive majority in the history of the State. A deal where dissenting voices would be stifled. Voices such as Lucinda Creighton’s. The hounding of Ms Creighton by her Fine Gael constituency rivals over a complaint to the Standards in Public Office, about which Sipo says there is no evidence, is a stain on Irish politics. Are these the Taoiseach’s values? Or has he put away his conscience?
If the Taoiseach’s feeling for “the brave women” springs from moral conviction, then he should have risen above political pettiness. A true leader would have stepped in a long time ago.