Enda Kenny - Taoiseach apparent?

Is Enda Kenny Taoiseach material? His critics, especially those in Fianna Fáil, want to make his leadership the central issue in the next election. They perceive he is the Achilles’ heel of FG and believe voters will baulk at a change of government with him as leader.

The case against Enda Kenny is as follows: He is uninspiring, a poor orator, has limited understanding of the economy, is wooden, lightweight, weak, indecisive, cautious, uncertain, and lost the leaders’ TV debate in the last election.

Successive opinion polls have shown, despite Fine Gael’s resurgence, Enda Kenny to be the least popular of all party leaders. After seven years at the helm he can only garner a 30 per cent satisfaction rating, with an ever reducing level of ‘don’t knows’.

There are considerable arguments in Enda Kenny’s favour. He has been an electoral success. He took over the leadership of the party in 2002 at a very low ebb. He has built up Dáil representation by 20 seats to more than 50 deputies.

He has had considerable successes in local, European, and by-elections. Some of these seat gains were attributable to his west of Ireland standing - most notable in Donegal and Kerry, where the party had consistently failed to make the breakthrough previously. Winning three out of five seats in Mayo was an outstanding achievement.

Kenny is the longest serving member of the Dáil. Elected in a by-election in November 1975, he has 33 years of service as a parliamentarian. He has government experience as a junior minister in the 1980s and at cabinet in the 1994-1997 administration.

His late father Henry Kenny was also a TD, so he is steeped in political tradition. He has dedicated his adult life to politics. This experience means that as Taoiseach there will be few circumstances he won’t have encountered before.

I shared a Dáil office with Enda for a handful of years in the 1980s. Enda is decent, modest, charming, calm, humorous, and excellent company. On a personal basis he is impossible to dislike.

I believe his marriage to Fionnuala greatly strengthened him. When I knew him best he was un-ambitious and easy going. She has transformed him into a late developer. He has the advantage of being the ‘Peter Pan’ of Irish politics - while everyone else goes grey or bald he appears ever more youthful.

During the last election campaign I was impressed by his energy. He invigorated the party. In the election aftermath I felt he was naïve and churlish in not recognising that FF had won. Most of my friends in the media and outside FG lament Kenny’s leadership.

Inside FG I am assured his leadership has been a non-issue and beyond doubt. Fine Gael had five leaders over a 15 year period and don’t want to return to that roulette. Given the proximity of the election, the only alternative is Richard Bruton, who will not challenge him.

Recent events relating to the communications strategy on The Late Late Show, the Naja Regan candidacy litigation, and a stormy parliamentary party meeting seem to have raised fresh doubts about Enda.

These criticisms reflect more on party apparatchiks than on the leader. He should not shirk from continually improving his team. His style is one of chairman of a team rather than one of chief executive.

My analysis of the positives and negatives of Enda is that he is well capable of being a good Taoiseach. The job of the leader of the opposition is the worst in Irish politics - all talk, no power equals limited credibility. Surrounded by the panoply of Government, Kenny’s image could be transformed. I saw this first hand with John Bruton.

The next Taoiseach will be determined by two issues: Which party has the most cohesive and credible economic strategy? Who will Gilmore/Labour endorse? Policy substance rather than presidential style will and should prevail.

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