ALISON O'CONNOR: History books will treat Enda Kenny more fairly than the current commentary

Without doubt he damaged the party further by staying on too long in an act of self indulgence, writes Alison O’Connor

FOREIGN Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan remembers vividly his shock upon walking into the dining room of the rural Co Mayo hotel.

He and his wife had taken a weekend trip to Sligo with some friends visiting from Scotland. It was a well timed break, just days after the disastrous 2010 heave against Enda Kenny. It was disastrous for Flanagan because he had gone against the party leader, despite being personally canvassed not to do so.

On the way home from Sligo they decided to stop in Healy’s Hotel in Pontoon near Foxford in Co Mayo. The Laois TD was the first of his small group to walk into the diningroom. By the time he spotted the party leader he had just betrayed, dining with his wife Fionnuala, as well as Marie Louise O’Donnell and her mother at the same table, it was too late to walk back out. With a sense of dread he kept walking.

“I nearly died. Awkward doesn’t begin to describe it. I just kept going with my wife and our friends behind me. In fairness though to Enda he stood up and and could not have been more convivial or welcoming to us and our friends throughout the meal.”

Indeed the story sums up Enda Kenny in so many ways, decent, pleasant and sociable. But the second half of it also does: Charlie Flanagan may not have faced his leader’s wrath on that day, but did subsequently when he was excluded from the front bench and not promoted to Cabinet when Fine Gael finally made it into Government in 2011.

The unelected people who surrounded him over the years would tell you that for a politician — many of them can be a nightmare to work for — Enda Kenny was very even in his mood and a good team builder. However once he considered that you had crossed him he took that exceptionally personally indeed.

One aide who worked closely with him for eight years only remembers one occasion when he lost his temper. That was in 2004 when John Deasy, who would subsequently be a constant thorn in his side, failed to turn up for a meeting called after the Waterford TD had lit a cigarette in the Dáil bar. This was following the introduction of the smoking ban. Enda Kenny then fired him from the front bench in a telephone call. On the flip side relations between himself and his right hand man of many years Mark Kennelly are said to have been extremely strained following the controversy earlier this year, which reflected so poorly on the Taoiseach, involving conversations/non conversations between himself and Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone.

After finally being appointed to Cabinet in 2014 as Foreign Affairs Minister, Charlie Flanagan says he found Enda Kenny a great boss who “let you do your own thing, he let you off, he didn’t interfere.”

Those who were Kenny fans saw this as a plus, and those looking less favourably on him saw it as way of him not having to be across the detail of Cabinet briefs because he is not equipped with the intellect to do so. As ever with these things such bald analysis on either side does not do Enda Kenny justice.

The Mayoman may never be the Mensa material yearned for by some, but the history books will treat him far more fairly than current commentary. It will look less critically on the fact that he came from the west of Ireland and had a Mayo accent, facts that even many of his own party members wouldn’t have been than keen on when he became leader in 2002. Enda Kenny was always going to come up short when viewed through a Dublin 2 centered prism. His inability to really rise to big media occasions such as interviews and election debates fed right into this.

But the facts are that during his 15 years as leader of Fine Gael he first rescued the party which was in rag order, and then, after he became Taoiseach, the country. It is all the more remarkable that he won the party leadership given his disastrous first tilt at it in 2001 and after which his stock was so low within Fine Gael the Progressive Democrats considered approaching him to join them.

If someone had said back then he would go on to be the longest serving Fine Gael Taoiseach and bring the country back from the brink after a disastrous recession they would have been laughed at.

It’s far more recent but he is also the man responsible for giving us “new politics”. Our first go at it may not have been so successful, but it has been a seismic shift away from the manner in which we have done politics for generations and right now it’s difficult to see us going back.

By the time he took office as Taoiseach in 2011 his legendary energy, enthusiasm, and good humour were much needed. Ministers attest to how, if you were in the middle of a crisis at 3am in your Department and sent Enda a text seeking guidance on something, a response would wing its way back almost immediately.

Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Paschal Donohoe says that he found Enda Kenny to be “a brilliant boss. I’ve worked for people who run FTSE 100 companies. This is not plámás but my experience over three years as a minister”.

One TD recounted how if you texted him on a Saturday night or called on a Sunday he’d get back to you promptly. If you asked him to “ring a woman in your constituency who was 95 next Wednesday and a lifelong Fine Gaeler” he’d do it without question.

There is a belief built up that Enda Kenny did not have the traditional political ego but my belief is that he did, but it manifested itself in different ways such as his lateness for absolutely everything, a not so subtle way of reminding everyone who’s top dog.

A former aide had a different theory stating the reason for his chronic lateness was his inability to pass a conversation by. “You’d be standing there waiting and then you would be told something like: ‘Paddy over there has a problem with his herd number’.”

It is fascinating though to think of the political leader of our country engaging in such political minutiae, and it has a certain quaint charm. Equally though spreading yourself so thinly as leader showed a lack of strategic thinking and prioritising. It could also explain how Government controversies, such as the almost-too-numerous-to-mention garda ones, or Irish Water, could get out of control so quickly and take so long to subsequently reign in.

Leaving aside the disastrous general election result of last year it was always going to be difficult for Enda Kenny to continue as Taoiseach — after all he was the one to dole out the austerity medicine — to take us on to the next chapter.

His colleagues realised that some time ago, even if he did not agree with their assessment. Without doubt he damaged the party further by staying on too long in an act of self indulgence which also made his potential successors looks weak.

Whoever takes over from him has a very tall order in working out what it is the country and the citizens needs right now and how to make that happen.

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