The outgoing Taoiseach is not renowned for his scintillating oratory and is unlikely to miss Leaders’ Questions, but a couple of speeches made an impact, says Lise Hand.

It was lunchtime on a desultory day in the Dáil. Most of the denizens of Leinster House were in the restaurants or out enjoying a bit of sunshine.

The summer recess was only 24 hours away. Nobody was paying much attention as the Taoiseach entered the chamber and slipped into his seat, least of all the couple of journalists sitting on the press gallery.

But a couple of minutes into his speech on Wednesday, July 20, and the journalists began furiously scribbling notes. 

Staffers and politicians loitering in their offices while keeping one eye on the in-house live Dáil feed reached for their phones. Quick. Turn on the telly and watch Enda. No, this isn’t a joke.

It was his reaction to the publication of the Coyne report, and the day he delivered his powerful philippic against the litany of sex abuse perpetrated by the Catholic Church.

He stood in an almost empty chamber and delivered his denunciation in a calm tone which belied the searing language.

“The rape and torture of children were downplayed or ‘managed’ to uphold instead, the primacy of the institution, its power, standing, and ‘reputation’,” he read as the world sat up and took notice.

After all, the head of government was not a man known for his soaring oratory and was a practising Catholic, to boot.

It was perhaps Enda Kenny’s finest hour in the Lower House during his lengthy career as a Teachta Dála, and marked a significant sundering of the shackles which had so long bound the State to the Church in a stifling pact.

And today, almost exactly six years later, he stands up in the chamber for what will be his final question-time as leader of Fine Gael and perhaps — barring a total breakdown of post-election discussions between his successor and either the Independent coalition buddies or Fianna Fáil semi-enemies — his last one as Taoiseach also.

Although he will undoubtedly miss many aspects of both jobs, one suspects that he won’t pine much at relinquishing the bi-weekly duty of Leaders’ Questions. 

Mr Kenny is not a natural debater, nor does he do quick-fire repartee and — like several taoisigh before him — prefers to take a rambling, scenic route towards an answer.

Moreover, he doesn’t possess too many cherished memories of the almost nine years he spent in the seat assigned to the leader of the opposition, trying to deal with Bertie Ahern’s slippery replies and mangled vocabulary, succeeded by Brian Cowen’s sneering and heckles.

Mr Kenny certainly won’t dwell on the devastating put-down unleashed by an arrogant Mr Cowen in 2008 during a debate on the Mahon Tribunal, when the then-tánaiste snapped that Mr Kenny was “neither qualified or able” to judge the evidence against Mr Ahern. It was a cruel gibe, and a rattled Mr Kenny had no comeback.

But as Taoiseach he got into his share of scraps too, sparking uproar in the chamber two years ago when he suggested that heckling Socialist Party TD Paul Murphy should “toddle along” to a meeting with Irish Water executives.

And Mr Kenny has regularly had bitter exchanges with Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams. The two men have made little secret of their mutual dislike.

In February, the Taoiseach rounded on the Louth TD during a row over the Government’s handling of the Sgt Maurice McCabe controversy, excoriating Mr Adams as “an absolute hypocrite” who was “playing politics with an issue that is so sensitive and so personal that it goes to the very heart of the public soul of Ireland”.

However, by and large, the ghosts of the great orators of Rome will not be rising from their crypts to applaud Mr Kenny off the political stage.

But he had his moments in the Dáil chamber, though, and some of those moments were truly memorable, such as the Cloyne speech and also his eloquent apology on behalf of the State to the women of the Magdalene laundries.

In February 2013, tears flowed on the benches and in the public gallery where survivors and supporters sat and listened as an emotional Mr Kenny spoke.

“The Magdalene women might have been told that they were washing away a wrong, or a sin, but we know now — and to our shame — they were only ever scrubbing away our nation’s shadow,” he said.

Within a fortnight at most, or maybe as soon as the Dáil resumes on June 13 after a week’s break, a new taoiseach will be in the driving-seat, jousting with the opposition. 

If, as the odds indicate, Leo Varadkar is the winner, observers have already had a preview of his modus operandi in Leaders Questions. 

The Social Protection Minister took a spin in the hot seat in April, and turned in a commanding performance which could well have served as a job interview by his Fine Gael comrades.

The digs flew thick and fast, with Mr Varadkar having a simultaneous go at both Fianna Fáil and Paul Murphy, informing the latter that “the party of Lemass, the party that was once proud to stand up for things… that would do the right thing for the Irish people… is now in a position that it determines its position on water solely out of their fear of you and Sinn Féin”.

There may not be too many desultory days in the Dáil from here on in if Mr Varadkar is minded to maul the opposition and get some skin and hair flying in these snoozy sessions.


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