Taoiseach Enda Kenny is loved on foreign soil but typically doesn’t get the same reception at home — to the point he provokes anger by suggesting he may stay for a full term. Political reporter Fiachra Ó Cionnaith examines why this is so
IN the early hours, Taoiseach Enda Kenny met with a receptive audience who rejoice at Ireland’s escape from austerity and how it remains the “best small country in the world to do business”.
It’s just a pity for him that, as with almost all his successful public appearances these days, no one in the room is eligible to vote here.
As the Fine Gael leader is lauded by Irish Americans while taking in the sights and sounds of Washington DC’s 1916 commemoration events today, he will no doubt be thinking of the contradiction his position as Taoiseach now represents.
From Brussels to Berlin and in the US where he spoke late last night, Mr Kenny is coveted abroad by politicians and economists who play up the Irish recovery as proof you can work your way out of a recession.
But back home, he is criticised as a lame duck leader in a lame duck government most believe will be shot out of the sky by the time the next hunting season comes around, and who provokes outrage at the mere hint he will remain in power for a full-term.
Loved abroad— not so much here. Given the ‘all politics is local’ mantra, it is hardly a situation that best suits his needs.
At the Kennedy Center in Washington DC in the early hours of this morning, Mr Kenny was guest of honour at the opening night of the Ireland 100 Festival to highlight this nation’s cultural achievements.
— Irish Examiner (@irishexaminer) May 16, 2016
Sitting beside him at the black-tie event was US vice president Joe Biden, who said at the recent St Patrick’s Day festivities in March that Mr Kenny was doing “a hell of a job” and “would get 80% of the vote” if he ran in the US.
In front of him was an array of invited guests hanging on his every word, while today at a tree-planting ceremony on the US Capitol Grounds to mark the 1916 centenary and in the House of Representatives a similar scene will take place.
Other than the historical reasons of 100 years ago, there is a clear reason for the céad míle fáilte which is equally apparent when Mr Kenny travels to EU gatherings: outside of Ireland, the top-line recovery figures over the past five years are eye-catching.
The country which faced economic oblivion just a few short years ago is now the subject of 5.1% Central Bank growth projections for this year, and is among the fastest-growing economies in the EU.
Unemployment levels which stood just shy of 15% in 2010 — the worst rate since the early 1990s — have now been practically halved to just over 8%. And, after years of austerity, the era of savage cutbacks has at least officially ended with the departure of the Troika.
As they ham up the Irish “miracle” you can almost hear well-wishers from abroad whispering “keep the recovery going” to Mr Kenny as they take turns to pat him on the back. But that phrase, as the Fine Gael leader now knows all too well, is the entire problem.
It might look like a juggernaut of a recovery abroad, but back home problems hidden from outside eyes mean the wheels are still at risk of coming off:
Other than the man Mr Kenny said on Monday that he recently met who “thanked me for volunteering to run our country”; the infamous two pints man, or men given the Taoiseach told the tale twice; and a homeless person he said last autumn he met near the Dáil; the Fine Gael leader has fewer well-wishers here.
In short, many people have yet to see any sight of an end to austerity — an end that is lauded outside of Ireland.
This reason alone explains the contradiction between the Taoiseach’s image abroad and the one at home, and underlines why despite the fist-thumping ‘success’ of finally forming an already shaky government earlier this month, Mr Kenny’s approval ratings are slumping fast.
According to the latest Red C/Paddy Power poll for RTÉ Radio One’s Today with Sean O’Rourke last Friday, just 36% of people want the Taoiseach to be... well, the Taoiseach, with 6% saying they would even prefer Donald Trump to the Mayo man.
More than half the population (52%) do not have confidence in his government to run the country, including 20% of Fine Gael voters; while 25% of people said they believe Mr Kenny should step down now; with just one in four saying he should remain for a full second term in office.
Today in Washington DC the image of Mr Kenny, the saviour of the old country, will continue to be apparent, with the shiny surface level image of the Irish recovery glimmering in the summer sun. But a closer inspection of rural and urban communities decimated by the recession here, reveals the dents in that same surface caused by a near decade of crisis.
The Taoiseach is undoubtedly doing his best to bring the recovery to all households, but for many, his focus on the companies and jobs vital to doing so has so far failed to see them feel any real end of austerity in their wallets.
Loved abroad, he is at times not at all as popular at home, a fact underlined on Monday after his latest suggestion he plans to stay a full term in power.
So you might understand why Mr Kenny joked to an audience during the March St Patrick’s Day trip at the height of the government formation crisis: “Bejaysus, it’s a pity I have to go back to Ireland and face what I have to face back there.”
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