Enda Kenny tells a story describing his annual summer holiday in Co. Kerry. Each year he looks forward to getting the bike out and making an attempt at the Conor Pass. In the summer of 2006, he’d been struggling mightily up the steep incline, puffing and gasping, conscious that his tortuous progress was being observed by a native who was leaning against a wall, chewing a piece of straw. As the Leader of the Opposition struggled past, our friend against the wall enquired “Are you enjoying yourself, are ya?
Kenny replied that despite all appearances he was enjoying himself no end. Forming a credible opposition to the behemoth that is Fianna Fail was a similar experience. It was hard work, didn’t look pretty, but he thoroughly enjoyed the challenge.
In the past couple of months it looks like Kenny has stopped enjoying the fight. He seemed to take the loss of the general election alright. After all, Fine Gael had done their bit by winning 20 seats. These days he looks tired, worn and the constant criticisms of his media performances are hurting.
So what’s gone wrong and can it be put right? I’d start by asking another question. Where is Enda Kenny? I met him a couple of times when he was a Minister in the Fine Gael led coalition government. He was a hoot. He’s a naturally vivacious man; a great raconteur who can sing a ballad, sink a pint and speak Irish just as well if not better than the current Taoiseach whose talents in these fields are so widely advertised. He has that common touch and connection with people for which the most recent ex-Taoiseach was much admired. Despite the fact that Fine Gael were written off by the commentariat before the election, he did a great job in winning as many seats as he did. He’s clearly got a lot going for him, and yet he’s missing something else too.
The something that’s missing is his personality. It took a hit when he was elected leader of the party and it disappears the second a TV camera is put on him. He’s trying too hard to be a good leader and in the process forgetting to be himself. The result is that we can’t see his natural personality: the one that got him elected in Mayo and to the leadership of his party. His speeches and comments appear contrived. He’s trying so hard he occasionally takes on the look of someone pretending to be a leader instead of someone who is.
I suspect he’s been trained. I’ve worked in Public Relations and have witnessed the havoc that media training can wreak on an otherwise perfectly personable individual. They’ve had all their foibles and errors picked over to the extent they turn into quivering wrecks. The trainee, previously a high functioning politician or executive pays big money to be told that the charismatic qualities that enabled their rise to the top are now a liability that must be stamped out at all costs. It’s a disaster. Kenny bears all the hallmarks of the over-advised. He has no self-confidence and if he has no confidence in himself, then it’s hard for the casual viewer to have confidence in him either.
So what’s to be done? Well, the first thing is that anyone who talks about dumping him should seek urgent admission into a centre for political reality checks. There’s no one on the front bench remotely capable of doing the job any better. Richard Bruton is far too genteel, James O’Reilly too raw, Simon Coveney still has growing up to do and Brian Hayes needs ministerial experience.
Furthermore, Fine Gaelers have always made the huge mistake of getting rid of leaders the minute the polls take a dive. Fianna Fail leaders have to be practically taken away in handcuffs before anyone dares to utter a word against them. Party members refuse to break ranks and people admire that. Changing leaders every few years, as Fine Gael does, shows that they are unsure, disloyal and panicky. Who’d vote for a party like that?
Kenny must stay and sort himself out. The good news is that this is a simple enough job. First he needs to take a long holiday and get a good rest. He’s no use to anyone tired and right now, he looks worn out. Doing the Conor Pass a couple of times might give him a fresh perspective. When he gets back his handlers need to slow down his schedule and keep him perky.
Then he needs to start enjoying himself again and look on the bright side. After all, it could be worse. He could be Taoiseach. In the current economic and post-Lisbon mess, he can cheerfully tell himself, “Not my problem!” Kenny doesn’t have to take the flak and oh joy, Brian Cowen does.
It wasn’t always this easy. Bertie Ahern’s easy going nature was a disaster for the opposition who found it almost impossible to rattle him. Despite predictions that the arrogant and aggressive Brian Cowen would “wipe the floor” with Kenny in the Dail, this has not proved to be the case. Cowen is easily riled. That makes him vulnerable as the F*ckers incident has already demonstrated. Dail sketch writers like Miriam Lord have conceded that in recent weeks Kenny has gained the upper hand. Cowen talked the talk during Leaders Questions on the estimates during the week, but he looked pale and uncomfortable. The shell-shocked appearance of Brian Lenihan is little help.
Kenny’s anger at the hole in the national finances was genuine and deadly. The only pity for him is that the Dail is due to rise soon and he’ll be reliant on TV appearances again to keep him in the public eye.
This is his weak spot, but there is hope there too. I know he can forget the cameras and be himself because I saw him do it once.
During the general election campaign, RTE’s Brian Dowling did some informal one-on-one interviews with the party leaders.
Kenny was interviewed in a relaxed atmosphere: some hotel where he was sitting on a couch in his shirt sleeves. For 3 or 4 glorious minutes he forgot there was a camera in the same room. He chatted seriously but lightly to Dowling explaining his political priorities. It was unscripted, sincere, and the most genuine and believable performance of the whole campaign. Or rather, it wasn’t a performance at all. It was the Enda Kenny I had met many years ago and hadn’t seen since. The Kenny that is sharp, analytical and sincere in his desire for common sense governance and social justice.
Alas, it was a fleeting moment and most voters never got to see that side of him. His other television appearances were formal set-ups where he’d been primed and coached into a mannequin.
But at least we know that he is capable of letting go of the burden of his position in front of a camera. He just needs to do it more often. He might say the wrong thing the odd time, but trying to say the right thing isn’t working for him. People don’t believe it and so they can’t quite believe in him. If he can have confidence in his own instincts and his own heart, that could change. Let the real Enda Kenny stand up. If people don’t like him, fair enough. But at least let them reject the man he is and not the man he’s trying to be. At this stage he has nothing to lose, so why not?
Note: Now lads, BEFORE Crewser, B and everybody else take off I’d like to show you this, which Pete sent me last year and I love. Let’s keep some perspective!