Village Interview with Enda Kenny
Enda Kenny spoke to Vincent Browne about his inexperience of government and his capacity to be a credible Taoiseach.
Prior to the Fine Gael leadership election in June 2002, after the debacle of the general 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.
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.
Vincent Browne : 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.
Enda Kenny: 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. 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 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.
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.