Just over 12 hours after he addressed the nation in a live Sunday evening (December 16 ) broadcast on Ireland’s exit from the Troika bailout, An Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, was back at his desk in his constituency office on Tucker Street in Castlebar. His familiar voice could be heard outside the door of the office as he chatted to old school friends and passers-by as he arrived to the door of the office, ready for another full day of engagements on his home turf. After 38 years in national politics, the Islandeady native is heading into his third Christmas as leader of the country and is very positive about the future for Ireland in the coming years.
While it took him 35 years to get to the summit of Irish political life, the job is a challenge he has enjoyed despite the difficulties he has had to face over the past few years, he explained when asked if being Taoiseach was everything he imagined it would be. “It is, I've been around a long time, this is my 38th year in national politics, I've seen governments come and go, I've seen people who assumed they were Caesar Augustus and all the rest of it and they move on. I think the important thing from a politician’s point of view is... look, we're all ordinary people here, we know exactly what a mandate is, and is given in trust by the people, [to] use it strictly in the interests of the country and the people. It's a great a privilege.”
Delivering on expectations
Coming into power with the largest mandate ever given to his party and his coalition colleagues created a great swell of expectancy that they would bring in wholesale change after the 2011 election, but it has been a hard road they have had to travel so far and there are a few more twists along the way. “Expectations can be very high. I think the one thing the people did do was give the country stability, the majority of the Government is exceptionally strong and it gives you stability. That lets investors and markets know that you are not going down, so that gives consistency and clarity. Investors and markets like definition, they like a horizon. They like to know what is your story, are you going to change your corporation tax rate, are you going to put it up or move it down. We confirmed for them no, no change at all. So they like that, so even if the road ahead is rocky they can see where the obstacles are and we can deal with them, so that's why we have been able to deal with the promissory note, the interest rate reduction, loan maturities. While these were obstacles, you deal with them and the same with the provision of service throughout the country. Property tax was an issue, not easy for people to put up with. But once you explain to people what this is used for and you don't have reliance only on rates in towns, which are increasing every year to the detriment of business and jobs. For me it's all about jobs, because if you have people working, you have them spending, the economy is growing, they build their careers, you have happier people who are building their lives and that's the way it should be. So to get to a point, we didn't increase any income tax, so that means your investment line is still strong and very strong.
“Just last week there were 1,200 new jobs created and they were running at over 1,000 per week. We're out of the bail out, if and when the ratings agencies decided to look at Ireland again. The expectation, we can't confirm it, but the expectation is that Moody’s well may change Ireland's rating to investment status, which would further increase the attractiveness of the country as a competitive location to invest in and which would also be good then for local business because it's small and medium enterprises we are going to depend on for jobs over the next number of years.”
No time for resting on his laurels
The financial crisis and trying to get Ireland back on the right path is something that has taken up a lot of Kenny’s time since becoming Taoiseach, and even when the Dáil clocks off for Christmas he will not have much time to rest up, he explained when asked if he is ever really off duty. “ No, you’re not. Even next week we have a couple of very difficult meetings with the European Council dealing with the question of single resolution mechanisms in banking union. These are complex matters that are going on and clearly there is an issue here that is of interest to Ireland and other countries.” With these complex negotiations that have serious impacts on Ireland and its future, I asked the Taoiseach if he thought the message was getting across to people as to what goes on in these complex negotiations so the general population understand. “It is difficult for the average person to comprehend what goes on here. The European Council is made up of the 28 leaders of the European countries. Some of these prime ministers are kept in office by minority situations or with multiple parties in government so the stability may not be as strong as it is here. So every time you go out there, there could be another resignation or another change of Prime Minister, different systems operate in different countries. So when you have somebody new, it can be hard to know what their philosophy is or where they are coming from, or how well they are acquainted with the details of what has gone on. We have great experience with this in Ireland, because we had a very complex European presidency [EU presidency was held by Ireland for the first six months of 2013]. The entire services, the diplomatic service, the civil service, the agencies of state all did their thing exceptionally well. We required ministers and ministers of state to attend their meetings up to a year beforehand, so they would be well acquainted with the European Parliament as well. Since Lisbon, the European Parliament has a co-responsibility with the European Council, that makes it, if you like more democratic, but also more difficult.”
Moving on from the bail-out
As for having Ireland emerge from the bailout, the Taoiseach sees it as a very important step for the future of the country and its people. “I think it was an important date for Ireland in the sense that two years ago I said, 'this is an important issue here, the recovery of economic sovereignty. For Irish people all over the world today they can legitimately point out that here is a small country that came through very difficult times and is still facing very difficult challenges, but at least we have emerged from the bailout programme. What does that mean? Well what it actually means is that when we were not able to borrow any money on the international markets, we had to have a bailout, and in order to avail of the draw downs of that bailout we had to comply with certain conditions that were determined by the Troika. That meant that they came here once a quarter on 12 successive occasions, with a really deep analysis of where you were at and how you were managing the conditions. Ireland complied with 260 conditions and we have drawn down the last of our money. So, what it means today is that Government are now entitled, and the agencies, like the National Management Treasury Agency can go back out to the market if they wish, but also allows a little more flexibility than we had before. Now it means of course that Ireland is the same as any other Eurozone country, because we were a bailout programme country, we will have one more visit a year than anybody else. That's what it means.”
Working through the terms of the bailout to emerge at the other side, required a lot of hard work and tight deadlines that had to be kept to, despite these difficulties, Kenny believes that Ireland did it very well. “You had to deal with some very technically complex pieces of legislation here and we don't have the resources of a lot of other countries. It meant an enormous amount of pressure on the system, particularly the parliamentary council system. To put through pieces of legislation there that were complex and timelined. So it also meant that people were claiming we don't have enough time to talk about these things, because other countries have different systems. But that has all worked. And it's an important statement about Ireland I think. People have had to put up with an awful lot of sacrifices, at least we are out of the bailout situation now and we can move on.”
There are no easy hard decisions
The last few years have seen the Government he leads have to take a number of very unpopular decisions to cut spending and try to rein in costs. None of them has been an easy decision, he told me. “There are hard decisions every day, it's not easy make decisions from a budgetary level where you have to take things off people. It must have been very easy to draft budgets when what you were saying to ministers was, can you spend another €100 million, it's a hell of a different story when you say you have got to cut €100 million and another €100 on top of that. That's difficult. It's like the old story, that the medicine is not nice, but the patient is going to get better. The economy is improving, our country is growing, there is a very strong reputation now for Ireland. That's why you go to Canada and talk to Canadians about the beef deal, to Japan and have the prime minister approve access of Irish beef in there again, go to China and meet the president at his invitation. These are all opportunities we have to take, there is no time to waste, there are no days to waste or hours to waste.
While he is in constant contact with his Department and officials, with information flowing over and back continuously, with such a busy schedule even getting time to read the newspapers each day can be tricky, said the Taoiseach. “Sometimes you don't even get time for that. I get up at 6.30am, start at 7am, I could be going till whatever time the following morning. So modern communications, you read the headlines off the mobile phone and whatever else. If I was to start reading the papers, sure half the day would be gone.” And as for social media where the news changes and is updated by the second, Kenny used to follow the flow and exchange of ideas on it, but does not have the time to do so now he admits. “No, I used to be on Twitter, but you could end up getting diverted and wasting too much time on Twitter. I would answer emails on my mobile myself, but there is so much stuff coming into the Department of the Taoiseach itself, it's a conveyor belt all the time, But that's what government is about. You allocate responsibility to people and your Ministers and Ministers of State, and you expect them to deal with those things, and if there's a problem you try to help them to sort out that problem and you move on. For me it's about making decisions all the time. If you stand still you are not going to make progress, and there are so many things that need to be done and then you get vested interests and little empires built up here, structures that don't work anymore, amalgamations, assimilations, how do you prioritise your money. You have to start with your front line services and work from there across the board.”