ENDA KENNY, Ireland’s most prominent Mayo man, will be hoping last Sunday’s All-Ireland semi-final football clash with Dublin is a metaphor for his political life, writes Gerard Howlin.
Seeming too far behind to catch up, Mayo dug deep and scored a draw against the Dubs to fight again next Saturday. Until he became Taoiseach, his own long history as an also-ran paralleled his team’s fortunes.
The Taoiseach, like Mayo’s football team, spent years qualifying for the final without bringing home the silverware. That thin analysis has a grain of truth, but it also belies a fundamental fact. He kept in contention longer, for the ultimate prize than any future Taoiseach in modern politics. His endurance and longevity are political phenomena of sorts. It is all the more so considering his near miss in 2007. In retrospect, losing then was a lucky break. But it almost undid him. Underestimated by some of his own, it was only an internal heave against him in 2010 that consolidated his leadership, eight years after he attained it.
Losing in 2007 had less to do with his own achievement in leading Fine Gael to a substantial political recovery. He added five percentage points and 19 seats to the Fine Gael tally. Kenny’s contribution to defeat in 2007 was ascribed to a view which took hold, not least in his own party, that he failed to close the deal with the electorate. The Kenny Lite tag was insidious and damaging. Labour, however, failed to move the dial in 2007 and returned, after the Mullingar Accord, with 20 seats — one less than it held previously. It is part of the decades-old abusive relationship between Fine Gael and Labour that the smaller party knocks itself out to make up the numbers, and then takes most of the flak.
Historically the rationale for that alliance was partly based on firm foundations. There was no other alternative government to Fianna Fáil. That held true in 2007. In 2011, it was different. Fine Gael won 76 seats out of 168. Labour could have pushed Fine Gael into a minority government, where they would have relied on the support of some independents and of Fianna Fáil, at least in the short term. Eamon Gilmore could have been leader of the opposition, and Labour at last, would have been in a position to lead a quantum change in Irish politics. Instead, Labour went into government and the rest is history.
Unappreciated by their own voters, they are also, if as yet only psychologically, less relied upon by Fine Gael. In politics utility is everything. And as of now, the future utility of Labour to Fine Gael is unclear to some in Fine Gael. Lack of appreciation by the larger party in government of its smaller partner can rapidly become a self-fulfilling prophesy. If Labour is under acute pressure, so too is Kenny. If he loses the next election, the chances of another outing are remote. The in-house undertakers will soon arrive.
It is a fundamental fact, that part of the Fine Gael and Labour seat tally at the last election was gifted to them by the implosion of Fianna Fáil. This was too little appreciated by the government parties when swept into office by a landslide. They acted with a political sectarianism that ignored an unprecedented opportunity — especially for Fine Gael — to fold into its foundations part of the half of the Fianna Fáil vote — about 20% of the electorate — who in Phil Hogan’s words had lent them their votes. Now that opportunity has passed permanently. The Taoiseach and his party are still in possession of the ball but, behind on the scoreboard. And Labour risks decimation. Digging deep, pulling ahead, and avoiding mistakes at all costs are now required if Kenny is to lead his party into the election in good order.
The physical and political pressures on a Taoiseach are extraordinary. It amazes me to hear captains of industry privately, and sometimes not so privately, denigrate the amateurishness of politicians. There is certainly a lot to criticise but no CEO I know, even the best of them, has a fraction of the skills required to win or hold down the office of Taoiseach. I heard a remark attributed secondhand to Enda Kenny that being Taoiseach was like standing on the beach at Achill with the waves rolling in. They never ever stop coming. The range and number of judgement calls that have to be made hour by hour is staggering. Albert Reynolds said: “It’s amazing. You cross the big hurdles, and when you get to the small ones, you get tripped up.” There have been a lot of stumbles. And now time is running out.
The next election will be the first Kenny features in as Taoiseach. It’s a different ball game to opposition, especially 14 years of opposition. He will be between the cross-hairs from the get-go. And something else, much more fundamental has changed. The landscape he acquired such an intimate knowledge of through 40 years is not only changed, it has permanently disappeared. Fine Gael’s bottom line, that it was against Fianna Fáil, is not only not enough; it is arguably not even relevant. The fundamental choice up to half of voters are considering is not as between the “establishment” parties, it is between the lot of them and any number of disparate alternatives. It is the disparate nature of the opposition that holds the last best chance for the Government. But if the protesting left manages to conjure up some semblance of a popular front, then the main point of attack against them will be partly muted.
The ultimate success of Kenny’s career depends on the next election. If re-elected, he will stand peerless in the Fine Gael pantheon. Lose, and he will be an also-ran of sorts. He must deliver for Fine Gael but also in ways for Labour.
Pulling the plug after the budget, leaving Labour without a lifejacket, undermines his narrative of reliability for the future. The issues are mounting up. Water, housing, Northern Ireland and, over the winter, I predict health will all be major challenges. The budget will not be a panacea for all. Neither is the narrative about bringing Ireland back from the brink. That is eaten bread. What people want to know, is what’s next. The Government self-references its achievements in terms of what it has done. It is conspicuously failing, for now, to deal adroitly with issues in the present tense.
Most importantly of all, it has yet to speak convincingly in the future tense at all. It is that pivot into the future, in the final minutes of the game, on which all depends. Few have dug deeper, more often than Enda Kenny. The coming months are the ultimate, defining fight of his political life.
The Taoiseach and his party are still in possession of the ball but, behind on the scoreboard
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