ENDA KENNY will resign as Taoiseach today, bringing to an end a journey that began in 1975 when he was elected to Dáil Éireann to succeed his father, Henry.
Though he travelled a well-trodden path — he was the 36th TD to take his father’s seat — he became just the 13th person to be Taoiseach, the 14th if you include WT Cosgrave, president of the executive council and first leader of an independent Irish government.
At this remove, as house prices soar and as the air crackles with talk of pay restoration, it is easy to forget how close to ruin our economy was when he was appointed Taoiseach by President McAleese in March 2011. Our economy had imploded and we were rescued by the very expensive kindness of autocratic strangers. That none of the architects of that pillaging have faced any real consequences is a blot on Mr Kenny’s record. It may seem churlish this morning to start at this point but that episode is symbolic of his governments’ failure to tackle the white-collar crime so well recorded by one tribunal after another. If we are to celebrate his achievements, and they are considerable, it is fair to point out that the grand promises of reform, promises that the culture of public life would be remade, have not materialised. The deep dysfunction in our health services, our police and housing market cannot be brushed under the carpet no matter how blue. An unchallenged establishment prevailed and prevails.
However, in social matters, Mr Kenny looked beyond his innate conservatism. It is almost impossible to think that any of his predecessors would have been as powerfully, viscerally critical of the Vatican’s appalling efforts to hide the abuses uncovered by the Ryan report. He supported marriage equality; he promoted a referendum on children’s rights and risked party unity by driving changes to abortion laws. His dignified apology over the Magdalene laundries’ abuses was a salve to those so who bore the brunt of our fundamentalist cruelties.
Those achievements stand even if he indulged ongoing delusion about carbon emissions; they stand even if the failure to introduce water charges was a capitulation to baser, destructive instincts that stymie a progressive society. They stand even if that great leveller — accountability — remains an untested principle in much of public life.
Of course, this tit-for-tat reckoning could go on until Mayo win an All-Ireland but that would ignore the essential decency of Enda Kenny, it would ignore the enviable fact that he retires from high office without a whiff of scandal. In today’s world that is exceptional. His comrade in arms for so long, Finance Minister Michael Noonan also retires from Cabinet today. He was a pivotal figure in our economic recovery and can be celebrated in those terms as well.
Mr Kenny and Mr Noonan leave Ireland a better place than the one that faced them when they reached high office and for that we owe them a debt. Their departure provokes a generational change but their successors would be unwise to see it just as that. The humiliation of Theresa May’s Tories shows that austerity policies have run their course and that much more is expected. In many ways, this represents a greater challenge than the one Mr Kenny faced six years ago.
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