It’s now almost five years since Enda Kenny became leader of Fine Gael. So stunning was his rise without trace that most people outside the tight-knit world of politics were moved to ask: Enda who?
Kenny became Fine Gael leader at the lowest moment in (almost) the longest losing
streak in modern political history. The backroom people in Fine Gael surveying the train wreck of 2002 knew that, if the party lost again in 2007, the record would read: five successive leaders failed in five successive elections over 20 years.
When Kenny became leader, one of those strategists Frank Flannery wrote a position paper setting out a recovery plan. His key message on Kenny was that they shouldn’t expect a Wedding at Cana miracle – they needed show patience and give Kenny time to develop a persona and authority as a credible leader.
I spent some of the weekend looking over Kenny’s previous Ard Fheis speeches; some more impressive than others. One of the recurring broad themes was that he was not yet the finished article; and still a work in progress. Kenny’s favourite analogy was the GAA and his riff was that the championship hadn’t started yet.
Well. Let’s start from beginning. There is no patience. There is no waiting. The time has now arrived. The moment for judging Kenny’s leadership aura is now. No more work in progress. No more unfinished article. And the championship? Well, we’re approaching the knockout stages.
And cometh the hour cometh the man. Kenny’s leadership address was the strongest, most cogent, most coherent, most mature and most powerful that has been delivered by any leader of any party since the 2002 election.
Seven days beforehand Bertie Ahern had stood on the same stage in the same hall to deliver 30 minutes of non-stop giveaway in a showbiz razzamatazz spectacular.
Kenny’s speech was an exercise of studied contrast. He was conscious of this – conscious that he was plotting a radically different course.
"Last week, another man stood in this hall and made 53 promises," he told the crowded auditorium at City West.
Kenny instead offered only one; that he would not seek re-election as Taoiseach in 2012 if he did not deliver what he promised.
Of course, that wasn’t the only promise. It was the only new promise. In a couple of weeks, the party’s will all publish their manifestos and reveal what we all already know. In Fine Gael’s case, we know just about everything about their policies on crime (as cynically ‘tough’ as all the others); on health (no private hospitals on public land, 2,300 more beds and free GP visits for under fives); and on finances (a E450m stamp duty, tax cuts and incentives for stay-home parents).
But the tenor and tone of Kenny’s address was one of two big calculated gambles the party took this weekend.
The first was its decision to make this election a referendum on health services. The Labour Party in Britain tried that when trying to take on Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s and bellyflopped embarrassingly. Fianna Fail did somewhat better when it became the linchpin of their successful 1987 campaign.
It’s still a punt. And when Fianna Fail and the PDs take out the pestle and mortar with the intention of crushing the Mullingar Accord to a pulp, Kenny and Pat Rabbitte will need to convince the electorate that they can be trusted to manage the economy
The second gamble was Kenny’s approach. This was no promise-fest. This was a leader selling himself as honest, trustworthy, a man who would live up to his promises by his deeds. To do that, he made the speech more personal, more exposed, more confessional than any other. In the process, his grandfather, his father, his wife, his children all came powerfully in to the mix.
And to that end, this was the key passage in his speech. "I believe it’s about time a politician stepped up to the line and took responsibility for their actions in government. I am that politician."
I am that politician. It was Enda Kenny saying: I am the finished article. I am a work that is complete. Leave aside your doubts, your reservations, your qualifications. With me you will get honesty, integrity, no litany of broken promises. I am the man for the job.
Within minutes, Brian Lenihan of FF was on to complain about the lack of specifics, the reliance on rhetoric. But he was missing the point. Kenny wasn’t selling policies. He was selling Enda Kenny. For Fine Gael to upset what Bertie describes as the apple tart, it needs to convince them that Kenny can step up to plate. And this arguably, was the moment he did it.
The Contract for a Better Ireland will have a resonance. In a cleverly constructed passage, he set out a long list of failings and alleged failings of this coalition, described (in very simple and broad terms) his vision of what could be achieved. Leaders’ speeches are becoming more like Ernest Hemingway short stories with the repetition of key words and phrases. Last week it was ‘steps to a better Ireland’. With Kenny it was ‘The Contract for a Better Ireland’ and ‘bond’ and promise.
"If you have given me, that most precious and most powerful thing a democrat has, your vote, then I have a moral duty, a democratic duty, a patriotic duty, to live up to my end of the contract. I belive it’s vital that you know just how serious I am. Just how serious this is."
That heady stuff could have left him exposed, especially the passage about his maternal grandfather, James McGinley a Mayo lighthouse keeper.
Did he pull it off? I think so. Kenny has travelled a long road in five years. His reach will never be that of Bertie’s amazing technicolour anorak but he has scored higher on other counts. The Fianna Fail promise-fest last weekend and BertieGate may come back to haunt the party like decentralisation, electronic voting and the latent dishonesty of its ‘no-cuts’ promises in 2002.
The polls show Kenny lagging behind Ahern in terms of popularity and ability but ahead in terms of honesty and integrity. Fine Gael will hope to capitalise on those, hope that the electorate will be swayed by arguments on governance rather than on more promises.
And Kenny’s championship? Well, the way things are panning out, it could be victory by the back door. Fine Gael has clipped its wings a bit in terms of ambition. It’s target seat gain is realistically around the 20 mark – where once it was 30 – means it will rely heavily on a solid Labour performance and a surge for the Greens (with perhaps a few independents thrown in).
There was a perception that Fine Gael had flat-lined since last September. My own instinct is that they’re back in the game. The whole picture is so fragmented now that it increasingly looks that the coalition that emerges later this summer (whether led by FF or FG) will be the most complicated configuration since 1948).
This is my analysis piece from this morning's Irish Examiner