We never doubted Kenny’s steel, but slipping mask of amiability reveals his ruthless core

Posted By: June 15, 2014

Shane Coleman.Sunday, Independent. ( Dublin). Sunday, June 15, 2014

Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s toughness beneath the smiles is becoming increasingly apparent
Watching the Taoiseach in action in recent months calls to mind the Greta Garbo line that anybody “who has a continuous smile on his face conceals a toughness that is almost frightening”.

Behind the outwardly benign persona, Enda Kenny is increasingly showing himself to be hard as nails. So much so that it seems to be clouding his judgment.

The mask of breezy amiability slipped entirely last week with his handling of the banking inquiry.

Earlier assurances of an impartial inquiry sounded utterly hollow as Kenny railroaded his way to a government majority on the committee.

The only logical conclusion to be drawn is the Government wants to be absolutely sure the inquiry sticks it to Fianna Fail. What other interpretation can be drawn from the Taoiseach’s comment that there had to be a coalition majority in order to set the terms of reference? The jaw-dropping line left colleagues cringing with embarrassment.

For the first time in a largely successful tenure as Taoiseach, questions are being raised about Kenny’s judgment, and the advice he’s getting. It’s obvious the banking inquiry will be damaging to Fianna Fail regardless of whether it has one or two TDs/senators on it. Their only chance is to play a completely straight bat on the committee – take the toughest line, ask the hardest questions. Anything else and they’ll be laughed out of court.

The hierarchy of Fine Gael should know that. Having messed up on the vote for the membership of the committee, the party should have sucked it up and let the inquiry proceed. The outcome would be the same.

Instead, they’ve come across as incompetent and arrogant. Not to mention vindictive – the campaign to undermine Marc MacSharry leaves a particularly bad taste in the mouth.

That there is toughness in Kenny shouldn’t, of course, surprise. You don’t get to the top job in politics without some steel. That steel was very much on display four years ago this very week when he routed the conspirators in his party who sought to overthrow him.

Was that challenge – with a majority of his own front bench turning on him – a point of no return for Kenny, a realisation that politics is a ruthless, friendless business, where survival means attending to the needs of number 1? Or was that flintiness always there, lying dormant during three largely anonymous decades as a TD?

Either way, it’s a lot more obvious these days.

Ask Martin Callinan. Or Frank Flannery. Or Alan Shatter. Or, in a few weeks, James Reilly.

All have been victims of political expediency. Callinan may not have been sacked by the Taoiseach, as Alex White has suggested, but he was clearly left in little doubt his position was untenable.

The closeness of the relationship between Kenny and Flannery has been overstated. They were never that close – it’s doubtful the Taoiseach has any real friends in politics. But Flannery was hugely important to Kenny’s ascension to power. However, when the strategist became a liability to the Coalition, Kenny wasn’t long about putting clear blue water between the two of them.

The same goes for Shatter and, if the speculation is to be believed, for Reilly when the reshuffle happens.

Nothing personal, just business. Or is it?

Every Taoiseach has to make such difficult calls – former allies cut loose to stay in power. But Kenny’s ruthless streak, perhaps due to the pressure he’s under at the moment, seems to run deeper.

His treatment of Lucinda Creighton & co when they voted against the abortion legislation, on grounds of conscience, seemed entirely personal. They needed to spend time in the sin bin for defying the whip. But to effectively cast them into the outer darkness was petty and politically unwise.

Then there’s his overt political partisanship, which has been on display long before the farce of the banking inquiry.

It would be naive to ignore the reality that taoisigh are also party leaders. But the current incumbent never misses an opportunity to stick the boot into the Opposition. Rarely a week goes by without him reminding Fianna Fail of its role in the crash or Sinn Fein of its ‘troubled’ relatively recent history.

Fair enough, you might think. But over three years into the job it has long ago started to wear thin. And there are times when it is just plain inappropriate for a Taoiseach. His attack on Public Accounts Committee (PAC) chairman John McGuinness last year while standing beside the Italian Prime Minister in Rome particularly stands out as the very antithesis of statesman-like.

One theory doing the rounds is that having spent so long kicking their heels in opposition, Kenny and those around him are determined to do things their way. One would hesitate to use the term ‘una duce, una voce’, if the similarities with Haughey this past week weren’t so obvious. If that is the case, Fine Gael is in deep trouble. That approach won’t wash nowadays. It certainly won’t with a new Labour leader determined to put the junior party’s stamp on the Coalition.

Right now the summer recess cannot come quick enough for the Coalition. There is an unnerving sense not just of drift, but free fall. The lessons of the local elections seem to have been completely missed. Kenny’s ‘continuous smile’ is less evident these days and the odds continue to drop on a general election within 12 months.

Shane Coleman is the presenter of ‘The Sunday Show’ on Newstalk 106-108FM.
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