WHEN Enda Kenny finally made his long-awaited announcement last week that he was resigning as leader of the Fine Gael party, and shortly also as Taoiseach, many commentators stated that history would judge his tenure in the upper echelons of Irish politics kindly. However, saying that is like damning someone with faint praise and even sounds patronising.
History has to be written dispassionately and being kind or otherwise to people is not what it’s about. The first draft of history is said to come from newspapers and Enda Kenny has had myriad column inches written about him over a long political career, which dates back to 1975 when he won a by-election in Mayo after the death of his father, Henry Kenny, TD.
Catapulted suddenly from primary school teaching into politics at the age of just 24, it took Enda Kenny quite a while to find his feet and he spent most of his earlier time in the Dáil, initially as a back bencher for two years in Fine Gael-Labour coalition government, concentrating on parish pump politics to cement the family dynasty’s power base in Co Mayo. He had to fight four general elections during his first seven years in the Dáil, securing his seat in all of them then and since.
For most of his time in the Dáil, he was on the opposition benches and he did not get his first big break until he was there almost 20 years, when at the end of 1994, the Labour Party pulled the plug on its coalition arrangement with Fianna Fáil and joined forces with Fine Gael and Democratic Left to form the unlikely ‘Rainbow Coalition,’ in which he was appointed Minister for Tourism and Trade by Taoiseach John Bruton.
That lasted until the 1997 general election when Fianna Fáil took back the reins of power, which they held on to subsequently in the 2002 and 2007 general elections, as Bertie Ahern became the first leader of that party to achieve three successive terms as Taoiseach.
While Fianna Fáil were presiding over the boom years, Fine Gael’s fortunes went into decline, especially after the Michael Noonan-led 2002 election campaign where they slumped to just 31 seats and needed major re-organisation to survive and stay relevant. Having lost the leadership campaign just the year before to Noonan – who also announced his impending retirement from politics last week – Enda Kenny was chosen as the next leader and, to his credit, did a decent job of reviving the party’s fortunes at grassroots level, achieving electoral gains at local and European elections in 2004 and 2009, but coming up short in the 2007 general election.
Despite his steady progress from the lows of 2002, some of the younger guns in Fine Gael lacked the patience and the confidence in Enda Kenny that he could lead the party to the holy grail of government office and led a heave against his leadership in 2010, putting up Richard Bruton as an alternative.
This led to the defining moment of Kenny’s political career when, with cold and calculating ruthlessness, he foiled the attempted coup and also showed the public that he had what it takes to provide decisive leadership.
His accession to power in 2011 was made easier by the implosion of the Fianna Fáil-led coalition government, which the hapless Brian Cowen took over as the economic downturn bit hard, ending in his resignation as party leader and Micheál Martin becoming the third one in that Dáil term. Fianna Fáil had become such a toxic brand by then that Enda Kenny was deemed by many to have been a lucky general, in the right place at the right time to sweep into power – although to say that is not giving him due credit for steering Fine Gael back into the position of being able to avail of the opportunity.
He also deserves acknowledgement for overseeing the unpopular austerity measures that got the economy back on track and for his government’s Action Plan for Jobs which had great success with job creation, reducing the unemployment rate from 15.1% to the current 6.2%. That said, there were several failures, including the Irish Water debacle and his botched attempt to introduce separate water charges, but much more serious was the failure to maintain a programme of social housing provision and to tackle the shortcomings in the public health sector.
His failed attempts at perspicacity, which saw him telling tall tales to try to illustrate points he was making, led to him looking foolish at times and then there other misjudgements, such as three referendum defeats, the most embarrassing being his botched attempt to abolish the Seanad, which had become a personal crusade that backfired on him.
On the international stage, Enda Kenny performed with far more assurance and helped rehabilitate Ireland’s image internationally, after the basket case economic picture painted by Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman in his infamous 2009 New York Times column, headlined ‘Erin Go Broke.’ From the acclaim of world leaders and appearing on the cover of Time magazine to being treated like a pantomime villain at home, there were Jekyll and Hyde-like perceptions of Enda Kenny, depending on what people thought of him.
But, all politics is local and when it came to fighting the 2016 general election – which was Fine Gael’s to lose – he fell down on the job with his strategists wrongly reading the mood of the people with their ‘Let’s keep the recovery going’ slogan, which seriously annoyed all those who had not felt its effects. Even though Fine Gael were still the party with the most seats, albeit 26 less than in 2011, he was forced into a minority government arrangement, which has proven to be the disaster it was predicted it would be, although it did fulfil his ambition to become the first Fine Gael Taoiseach to lead two successive governments.
However, towards the end, he got selfish and let his other personal ambition to become the longest-serving Fine Gael Taoiseach dictate how long more he was going to stay on, despite the chorus of calls for him to step down having been going on within the party since the disappointing general election result last year.
He may have overstayed his welcome and may not have been the most inspiring Taoiseach we ever had, but not even his most uncharitable detractors could deny Enda Kenny’s honesty, sincerity and commitment to politics and to the country over 42 years and across 12 Dáils, which – by even the most critical of standards – amounts to quite a decent legacy of public service.