Rose without trace but could well be Taoiseach

Enda Kenny never impressed in politics until well after he became leader of Fine Gael. But he has rescued his party from the doldrums of defeat in 2002 and now has a real chance of heading the next government. By Vincent Browne

Enda Kenny has risen without trace. He will be the father of the new Dáil, having been elected first 32 years ago. Throughout that time, certainly not until he became leader of Fine Gael and he had people writing speeches for him, he never said anything memorable, for long stretches not speaking at all. When not speaking to a brief, he waffled on local issues, with that feigned seriousness and profundity that is now familiar.

By November 1982, he had been in the Dáil for longer than Michael Noonan, Alan Dukes, Jim Mitchell, Gemma Hussey, Sean Barrett, Nuala Fennell, George Birmingham, Paul Connaughton and others, and yet all these got preferment by Garret FitzGerald before he did. Only in 1986 was he made a junior minister and he served then for only a year.

He was never given a senior portfolio when in opposition. Not by Garret FitzGerald, nor Alan Dukes, nor John Bruton (his close friend in politics) nor Michael Noonan. Indeed Michael Noonan dropped him from the Fine Gael front bench entirely and only he, Enda Kenny, protested.

Prior to the election of Fine Gael in June 2002, after the debacle of the election of the previous month, I interviewed Enda Kenny and asked what policy initiatives he would take if elected leader. He said: “I would like to think that policy would not be laid down by the leadership; it would be determined by the membership.” He went on to speak in very generalised terms about Fine Gel being a free enterprise party, anti-social behaviour, male suicide, “the growth of greed and individualism”. It was evident there was no hard core of belief there.

Incidentally, in the same interview, I asked him if he would involve Sinn Féin in a coalition government in 2007, if the numbers required it. He replied, “It's a long way ahead. The people who elected Sinn Féin TDs to the Dáil are the same people who elected me. 2007 is very far down the road and I do hope that by then the IRA will have been disbanded.”

And yet, as he protests himself in the interview that follows, he has transformed Fine Gael from the demoralised, defeated rag-bag of a party it was in 2002 to being a real contender for government office. He has done it through energy and through a personality that is gregarious, unthreatening, outgoing, smiling. Like Bertie Ahern, he is a nice fellow, and niceness matters hugely in politics.

For the first time in years, probably the first time since around 1983, shortly after Garret FitzGerald got back into government, Fine Gael is at peace with itself. There is none of the back-stabbing there was during the reigns of Alan Dukes, John Bruton and Michael Noonan. It is a happy party.

Although, if Enda Kenny fails to make it to government this time, it will probably revert to its familiar psychotic state.

The expectation was that Fine Gael could never recover by 2007 from its disastrous showing in 2002, but amazingly it has. The projections by its astute director of elections, Frank Flannery, that it would take 55 seats seemed preposterous a few months ago. They now seem merely overblown. Fine Gael could recover up to 20 of the seats it lost five years ago and, if it does, it will be in government with Enda Kenny as Taoiseach.

There is more to him than he has let on so far in his career. He seemed merely a storyteller, a bluffer, a lightweight, but he has shown a capacity for work, previously disguised, and for focus. He was coached for years by Anton Savage of Carr Communications and that accounted for his much more assured Dáil performances. But coaching can only build on what is there already, and there was material in Enda Kenny to work on.

He is not as clever as Bertie Ahern, but then who is? Certainly not Michael McDowell. Neither is he at all as hardworking, nor does he have Bertie's capacity to absorb a brief. But he is less complicated than Bertie. He married late in life (in 1992, aged 41), which in part accounts for the stability of his relationship with his wife, Fionnuala O'Kelly, who herself is a formidable person. (They held their wedding reception in Le Coq Hardis, one of Charlie Haughey's favorite restaurants. Charlie, who had a fondness for Fionnuala O'Kelly, who used to work for Fianna Fáil, sent his best wishes.)

Journalists following Enda Kenny on this campaign tell of the enthusiasm he is generating on the road, of the humour and sparkle of his stump speeches, of the sense of impending change there is about. To the surprise of many of them, and even of his party colleagues, suddenly Enda Kenny now looks like the next Taoiseach and the polls are suggesting this could be so.

If Fianna Fáil continue to slide to, say, 34 per cent, and Fine Gael rises to 27 per cent, with Labour holding at around 11 per cent and the Greens around six per cent, the alternative coalition of Fine Gael, Labour and the Greens will be in government. But it is not assured. The Fine Gael electoral strategy is compromised by running too many candidates in 13 constituencies, which means they will fail to take seats they would have won. This is a reflection in part of Enda Kenny's indecisiveness and an unwillingness to take the tough decision to stand down candidates. They are also running weak candidates in several constituencies where they should take seats, such as Dublin South East and Dublin North.

Fianna Fáil, in contrast, has a tight vote strategy, aside from Bertie Ahern's own constituency of Dublin Central. With just 35 per cent of the vote, Fianna Fáil is capable of taking 42 per cent of the seats, which would give them almost 70. If that happens, Fianna Fáil remains in power, with Labour, which will find no difficulty or even embarrassment about reneging on the repeated assurances of Pat Rabbitte that Labour would not put Fianna Fáil back in office. Remember how in 1989 there was a pre-election pact between Fine Gael and the PDs, committed to preventing Charlie Haughey resuming as Taoiseach and, following that election, the PDs went into coalition with Charlie Haughey?

But there is a real chance Enda Kenny, who rose without trace, may be the next Taoiseach and perhaps in that capacity he will surprise as much as he has done as the savior of Fine Gael.