Enda: fielding the hard questions

From the Village magazine archive on Politico: An interview between Enda Kenny and Vincent Browne from the 2007 campaign. The full digital edition (Enda: under the Hammer) is here (requires a subscription). 

On Monday, 14 May, Enda Kenny spoke to Vincent Browne about the nurses' strike, his inexperience of government, his capacity to be a credible Taoiseach, tax policy, his grasp of economic issues, abortion and Shannon. This is an edited version of the interview

 Credibility as Taoiseach

Vincent Browne: What is the difference between you and Bertie Ahern on the handling of the nurses' dispute?
Enda Kenny: I have shown an interest, the Taoiseach has not. He has not met them since 10 January. I have met them several times, attended their rallies. I propose invoking the relevant sections of the 1990 Industrial Relations Act and in parallel to that to have a verification process of the claims the nurses are making, to determine whether the productivity they speak of can be realised. I accept in principle the objective of reducing the number of working hours for nurses from 39 to 35.
The benchmarking process is very restrictive as far as the nursing profession is concerned.  They have put forward 14 amendments to broaden the criteria whereby their claims would be assessed.

VB: Did you say you would get involved personally as Taoiseach in the resolution of the dispute?
EK: I said this was a national issue. The election should be a referendum on the government's failure to provide health services. It [the nurses' strike] requires political intervention at the highest level to move this on. What I said was I would personally chair the first meeting that would start those negotiations. The day after I said that, the Taoiseach started to show an interest in that again.

VB: The difficulty with that [the personal intervention of a Taoiseach in an industrial dispute] is that it subverts the industrial-relations process. If the Taoiseach gets involved in resolving one industrial-relations dispute, there will be pressure on the Taoiseach to get involved in other disputes.
EK: No, that would not subvert the process at all. It would be merely giving political leadership. It would be within the confines of the 1990 Industrial Relations Act.

VB: Bertie made the point that you have no experience at all in industrial relations.
EK: As Pat Rabbitte said, Bertie's experience was mainly confined to putting his head around the door at 3 o'clock in the morning, just as a dispute was about to be settled. He was minister for labour for a number of years but I have been involved in industrial disputes myself. I was involved in settling a psychiatric hospitals dispute between the INO and psychiatric nurses, and involved in an industrial dispute in a bacon factory in Mayo and in other disputes.

VB: In what capacity were you involved in these disputes?
EK: In my capacity as a public representative.

VB: This brings us on to your experience in government. You were elected to the Dáil in 1975 and yet when Garret FitzGerald was forming a government both in June 1981 and again in December 1982 – that was seven years after you were first elected – you were not included even as a junior minister. You became a junior minister only in 1986 and held that post for just a year.
EK: There were a lot of others overlooked at that time. There were many contenders for positions. I suppose as a younger deputy you are happy to be re-elected and happy to work for your constituents. But I was very happy to serve in his government as a junior minister for education and labour.

VB: It was very limited experience. You were not appointed to office until you were 11 years in the Dáil.
EK: Yes and I had to wait 19 years until I was appointed to the cabinet. As minister for tourism and trade in 1994.

VB: And during that gap from 1987 to 1994 you were not appointed as spokesperson on any of the major areas: finance, foreign affairs, industry and commerce or justice.
EK: I was spokesman on education. We can't all be spokespersons in the major areas.

VB: You did have two-and-a-half years as minister for tourism and trade and, because Ireland held the EU presidency during that time, you chaired the relevant Council of Ministers.
EK: You should also bear in mind I did a lot of work on the trade end between the Republic and Northern Ireland when things were very bad in terms of the political relationships. And we shifted the balance of trade from being dependent in Britain to moving it into Europe. Irish exports were 60 per cent / 70 per cent dependent on the British market. I led trade delegations to Italy and France.

VB: You were back in opposition from 1997 onwards and again during that time you did not hold any of the major portfolios.
EK: John Bruton asked me to become chief whip. He appreciated my capacities to have constructive relationship with deputies. I do take responsibility for getting John Bruton to meet Proinsias de Rossa and Pat Rabbitte. I brought them to John Bruton's office [this was in 1993 and 1994] and said, these people don't have horns. From that the understanding of what Democratic Left was about changed.

VB: When Michael Noonan became leader, he dropped you from the front bench in 2001. The question arises: if you were not good enough for Michael Noonan's front bench, how can you be good enough to be Taoiseach?
EK: That is a matter for Michael Noonan. I made Michael Noonan chairman of the public accounts committee and I made him a member of the front bench, although without portfolio. I did say at the time that his non-appointment of Enda Kenny sent out the wrong signal.

VB: But if Michael Noonan didn't think you were good enough to appoint to his front bench, how can you be good enough to be Taoiseach?
EK: After the 2002 general election, Fine Gael was demoralised and on its knees. People said to me I was completely utterly mad, out of my mind, to become leader. And here we are now, just five years later, seriously challenging for government. This outfit [Fine Gael] has 35,000 members who are seriously motivated. Never has Fine Gael in modern times, with the exception of the Garret time, had such vitality and energy as it has now.

VB: From what we have seen today [in New Ross], it is certainly true you electrified the party, or was it that you promised to electrocute the party?
EK: (Laughs).

VB: During the period during which you were off the front bench while Michael Noonan was leader, it gave you an opportunity to speak out on various issues without the constraints of being confined to your specific portfolio. But you didn't do that. I have been looking back over those speeches during that time and you spoke only on local issues, suggesting that you really did not have anything to say on national issues.
EK: That's not true. When you are not on the front bench you rely on the front bench to speak out on the major issues.

VB: When Michael Noonan was off the front bench during the later period of John Bruton's leadership, he took what he called “leadership positions” on various issues.
EK: The leadership position that I am taking is, I am saying to the people is that Enda Kenny took a party that was on its knees, demoralised and that he resurrected it, injected in it a sense of self-belief and is now challenging for government. That is why the current outfit [the government parties] are trying to do me down but I am not going to let them.

Bertie's finances

VB: On the question of Bertie's finances, you have not wanted to engage on this issue during the campaign, saying you want to focus on what you call the ‘real issues', which raises the question, why did you make such a big issue of it last September and October? You said then it was a matter of the credibility of the Taoiseach, that it had to do with standards in public office. So if it was a major issue last September and October, how come it is not a major issue now?
EK: The tribunal was to start on Monday a fortnight ago. It has taken time off and will start after the election, so let them examine it.

VB: But that was true last September and October too...
EK: It is all about ethical standards in public office. A woman said to me in Tipperary last week, “I am far more interested in having my child's place in school than in the Taoiseach's finances.”

VB: She probably would have said the same last September-October. You took up a lot of Dáil time on Bertie's finances. Why if it was an issue then is it not an issue now? He is about to go before the people seeking a third mandate and the question of his ethical standards is surely relevant, but you are staying away from it, apparently not because of any principle but because you think this might rebound on you.
EK: It was an issue then and it is an issue now and it is an issue for the people.

VB: How do you see it as an issue for the people?
EK: It is an issue for the people to determine.

VB: What is that issue?
EK: It is the issue of integrity in office and issue for the people to determine and I am not going to be judge and jury, like the Tánaiste [Michael McDowell] has been.

VB: Last September-October you were insisting Bertie Ahern answer questions, now you just back away from it all.
EK: I have made my position very clear, this election is a referendum on the failure of this government to deliver public services. I was not going to get involved in an issue that will be decided by the tribunal.

VB: If the issue of the integrity of the Taoiseach was deserving of so much Dáil time last October, how does it not merit even one speech by you in the course of this campaign?
EK: I am standing in this election on the proposals we have worked out with the Labour Party and on my contract with the people and I am sticking to my guns on that. The tribunal will make its judgement on all those issues after 24 May.

VB: On the question of the allegations that Fine Gael has been involved in a smear campaign, the fact of the matter is that you had prior knowledge of a story to run in the Sunday Independent about Celia Larkin taking money out of a bank in O'Connell St, leaving it in a Garda car overnight and Bertie taking it to Manchester. Indeed, yourself an your close colleague, Jim Higgins, were involved in that story from the outset. How did you come to have prior knowledge of that story?
EK: Because Jim Higgins rang me and told me he had made a statement to the Sunday Independent about it, that is all. I was involved in a discussion on that issue some years ago but that is the extent of my involvement.

Tax and Economy

VB: Let's move on to tax. Why have you not proposed the lowering of the VAT rate, given that this is now the major single source of revenue for the exchequer? It is a very unfair tax because it falls on the poor as well as the rich and it keeps our inflation rate high, thereby damaging our competitiveness.
EK: You cannot focus on everything. Our priority is to make radical changes to stamp duty and reduce the standard rate of income tax to 18 per cent. You cannot do everything.

VB: Yes, but why not give priority to the lowering of VAT, given its unfairness and the effect it has on our competitiveness?
EK: I think the changes we are making on stamp duty will make a lot of difference. It will mean that people will be able to afford houses in their own areas, instead of having to move away as many people here [in New Ross] have to do, moving out of Dublin to Carlow, Kilkenny or wherever.

VB: On the question generally of the exchequer finances, why does Fine Gael join in the consensus that budgets have to be in surplus, not just on the current side but on the capital side as well? Why should not the capital budget be financed by debt and that debt repaid by the improved earnings from these investments?
EK: We have set out our programme with the Labour Party. It makes prudent economic sense.

VB: Why, when we need so much investment in public services, why tie the government's hands in this way?
EK: We are projecting government debt will be 0.7 per cent of GNP.

VB: 0.7 per cent of government debt? That's impossible. The debt is about 26 per cent of GNP at present. You are thinking of the target on overseas development aid. That is 0.7 per cent.
EK: No, our projection is 0.7 per cent in the lifetime of the government [at this his aide got involved and suggested he would look at a particular page in the election manifesto. He was unable to find the relevant figure. After some confusion, he said] We have set out our projections over the next several years and we reckon this is prudent.

VB: But this 0.7 per cent?
EK: We said that on overseas development aid.


VB: On the question of abortion. Promises were made by all the political parties in 1992 that if the referendum on the substantive issue was not carried, then legislation would be introduced to deal with the circumstances in which abortion is legal here. This has not happened. Are you proposing to do anything about that?
EK: I am not. I will not introduce legislation on abortion.

VB: But the reality is, abortion is legal here in certain circumstances and in the absence of legislation, arguably, abortion could take place here of an eight-month-old foetus.
EK: I am very clear on this. I do not favour legislation on abortion.

VB: So you are happy to have abortion here in certain circumstances that would be entirely unregulated.
EK: We have had a very sensitive High Court case on  abortion and the High Court dealt with that and certainly there is so much more we could do to limit the number of abortions abroad.

VB: But since the “X” case, it is clear that abortion is legally permissible here in certain instances. In one of the judgements in that case, a judge, Niall McCarthy, castigated the Oireachtas for its failure to introduce legislation following the passing of the first abortion amendment. Now 15 years further on, you are committing yourself to doing nothing.
EK: I do not favour legislation on abortion.


VB: On the question of Shannon, Pat Rabbitte said some time ago a precondition of Labour's participation in government would be that American troops on their way to and from Iraq would be denied facilities at Shannon. Is that your position too?
EK: Fine Gael  supported the first Gulf War [in 1990] because it was backed by UN resolution. We did not support the war on the second occasion [in 2003] because there was no UN resolution legitimating the war.

VB: So you agree?
EK: Without a second UN resolution, we voted against it. There is a very long history of the use of Shannon for the use of military flights.

VB: If you are Taoiseach, will Shannon continue to be used for the transport of  American troops to and from Iraq?
EK: I see no reason to change the current situation. FG and Labour have not discussed this issue. There is a very long tradition of Shannon being used for military flights. If your question  is, the day after the government is formed, will US flights through Shannon will be stopped, then the answer is no.š