His supporters believe that he has been the best taoiseach since Seán Lemass. As he steps down, Political Editor Daniel McConnell look back at Enda Kenny’s highs and lows as leader of Fine Gael and of the country
When did Enda’s demise begin?
Was it in January when he made up a conversation about Sgt Maurice McCabe with Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone? No.
Was it last year when he botched Fine Gael’s best-ever chance to return to office during a woeful general election campaign? No.
No, Enda Kenny’s demise as leader of Fine Gael and as Taoiseach can be blamed on one Paul Kehoe, the current defence minister.
It was in the depths of summer of 2015 and Mr Kehoe had sat for interview with Shaun Connolly of this parish and he indicated Mr Kenny wanted to stay on for at least another six years.
“Enda Kenny intends to remain Taoiseach into the next decade after winning the 2021 general election, the Government chief whip has revealed,” our front-page article ran. “In a blow to the Fine Gael leadership ambitions of intense rivals Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar, Mr Kenny plans to serve a full term if re-elected, and then go on to fight another election, according to chief whip Paul Kehoe, who is a long-standing key ally of the Taoiseach.”
The scoop caused mayhem, and it ignited so strongly purely because it was silly season.
But after a week or so of speculation and rowbacks and of the matter dominating the agenda, Mr Kenny was doorstepped at Knock Airport by RTÉ.
Mr Kenny said that it was “silly season” and that his chief whip had done “very good work”, but the Wexford TD had also used a “lot of poetic licence”.
“It would be arrogant and presumptuous of any public representative to assume that they can be elected to anything, myself included, until the people vote,” he said. “I’m very clear what I want to do. What I want to do is finish the job that I was given responsibility for, that was to sort out our public finances to put our country back to work. That job is not finished. I have no intention of staying beyond the remit of the next government to be Taoiseach. Why should I try to impose myself on the electorate.”
It was there he made his pronouncement that he did not wish to lead Fine Gael into another general election after the one which was then pending.
In that moment, the clock was ticking. Now, as he has chaired his last Cabinet meeting and tendered his resignation to President Michael D Higgins, he is yesterday’s man. Politics can be cruel. After 15 years in charge of what is now the largest party in Irish politics, six of those as Taoiseach, it took just seven minutes for Mr Kenny to become mortal.
He must now get used to being Enda the backbencher again, learn to drive himself again, presumably, and walk again as an ordinary decent citizen.
Those few short weeks ago now, when he stood at the top of the long, narrow Fine Gael party room on the fifth floor of Leinster House, under the glaze of Michael Collins, he called time on his leadership. He has not been thrown under a bus, as seemed likely back in January when the latest McCabe controversy erupted. But neither is he leaving completely on his own terms either.
Yes, he stands as the most successful leader of his party in the modern era. The first Fine Gael leader to be re-elected Taoiseach and the longest serving Fine Gael Taoiseach in history.
To his supporters, those two statements will be top of any description or eulogy given about Mr Kenny in the years to come, notwithstanding the large but which hangs over both.
He led the country out of a Troika bailout programme in 2013, which many will see as a crowning achievement.
To his detractors, he is the energetic but lightweight character who could not be trusted and who would do anything to remain in power.
He was always more popular internationally abroad than at home. He won praise from his European counterparts for inflicting harsh medicine on the Irish people and turning the economy around.
They didn’t have to suffer the consequences of his decision-making. Being well- regarded in Europe was a constant mantra of Mr Kenny’s supporters as being one of his greatest assets and one could argue that the specific mention of Irish unity, known as the Kenny text in the Brexit talks agenda, was his crowning achievement.
However, his friends let him down badly on relieving the €64bn debt off the shoulders of the Irish people and blocked his attempts to burn bondholders in March 2011. The so-called game changer of 2012 around the treatment of bank debt has come to nothing for Ireland and we have abandoned any hopes of a debt write-down.
Mr Kenny, too, has ruled his party through fear, preferment of weak allies, and a tribal disdain for internal opponents.
Waterford TD John Deasy told RTÉ’s Today with Sean O’Rourke: “The policy of rewarding failure has put the party in jeopardy. When a party rewards failure to the extent that Fine Gael and Enda Kenny has, it’s in serious trouble.
“Bringing back James Reilly, making him deputy leader, bringing back people who had lost their seats, some of them very badly, picking them for the Senate; I think we have a major problem.
“That results in his power base being strengthened. So if he wants to take that viewpoint it would be difficult to shift him.”
Mr Deasy fell foul of Kenny back in 2002 and has remained in the wilderness ever since. He is just one of many who felt his wrath. Look at Lucinda Creighton, Brian Hayes, Billy Timmins, and Fergus O’Dowd, to name a few others.
As the curtain comes down on Mr Kenny’s tenure, it can be said he did some good, like his speech against the Vatican in July 2011 and the recovery of the economy.
He also did some bad: His Seanad referendum loss, the debacle that has been Irish Water, the brutality of where austerity hit on his watch, the rise in homelessness.
He leaves office under a partial cloud but free of any personal scandal, unique in recent Irish political history.
One of his chief supporters once said to me that he will go down as the best taoiseach since Seán Lemass.
I’m not sure about that.
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