“I think that this is a time for courageous and strong government. It is not a time for government that might self-combust or that would be dependent on the whim of any mercenary Independents. This is a judgment call for the people.”
— Enda Kenny, 2011.
Enda Kenny’s election as the new prime minister of Ireland comes at a time when the country is turning a new page in its history, politically as well as economically. Kenny, 59, is no stranger to politics, having served in Ireland’s lower house of Parliament for the longest period, and earning the sobriquet, the “Father of the Dáil.” For Kenny’s Fine Gael party, which has joined hands with the Labour Party to form a coalition government, the victory is especially sweet as this is the party’s first electoral win since 1982.
In fact, politics run deep in Kenny’s family. His father, Henry Kenny, was a Member of Parliament for two decades, first winning from the Mayo South County in 1954. By the early 1970s, Enda Kenny was helping out his father in his work for the constituency.
Born in Castlebar, Kenny is the third of five siblings. He studied at St. Patrick’s National School and St. Gerald’s College in Castlebar. Kenny went on to study at St Patrick’s College of Education in Dublin and even worked as a primary school teacher for a short while, until his father’s death made him take the political plunge in 1975. After his triumphant entry into the Irish parliament at the age of 24, Enda Kenny has had a roller coaster ride in a political career spanning more than 35 years. Out and out a family man, Kenny has been married to Dubliner Fionnuala O’Kelly since 1992, and has three children.
Kenny’s stints as a parliamentarian were eventful, be it in the opposition or as a part of the government. In late 1994, Kenny made his mark as minister for Tourism and Trade. Under his stewardship, Ireland became a much sought after tourist destination and also made good progress in developing trade relations. Kenny was instrumental in reviving the Saint Patrick’s Day parade in Dublin and shifting part of the 1998 Tour de France to Ireland. But the normally unassuming Kenny did stir up a controversy in September 2002 over his racist remarks about the late Patrice Lumumba, the revered African hero who had served as the first prime minister of Congo.
By 2002, Kenny had grown in stature to become the undisputed leader of his Fine Gael party, whose ascent was punctuated this month with an impressive 76-seat victory, the highest in its history of nearly 80 years. In all fairness though, Fine Gael’s triumph against the Fianna Fail party, which has ruled Ireland for the past 13 years, has to be seen from the right perspective. Fianna Fail was voted out for its inept handling of the financial crisis, which pushed Ireland into bankruptcy. In short, the Irish really voted for a change.
The Fine Gael party in this election is the only party that is categorically saying that there will not be any increase in income tax over our period in government.
— Enda Kenny, 2011.
Kenny himself acknowledged the huge responsibilities beset upon him as the new leader of Ireland when he recently stated that Fine Gael had “a massive endorsement” to govern, and the election marked “a transformative moment in Ireland’s history.” The former primary school teacher would do well to realize that the Irish now want him to be a quick learner who can address some of their deep-rooted economic issues. Though public memory is famously said to be short, the ignominy of the €85 billion bailout from the European Union and the IMF last year still rankles in the hearts of the fiercely proud Gaelic people. In fact, Kenny’s first task at hand will be to renegotiate the terms of the bailout, at least press for lower interest rates. Though they realize that the “Celtic Tiger” boom of the 1990s may not be achievable, the Irish want their nation to be counted as a small, typical European nation with a functioning democracy and a diversified economy.
As expectations run high, Kenny may not have a smooth run ahead. Fine Gael does have policy differences with its partner, the Labour Party, which will have to be sorted out amicably in the interests of national stability. Both parties, though, seem to agree on a few things such as abolishing the Senate, Ireland’s upper house, and cutting the size of the Dáil Éireann by 20 seats. The Gaelic footballer, who has also climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, may have to really sweat it out to achieve these political and economic goals.
A quiet man, once described by a broadcast journalist as possessing as much charisma as boiled potatoes “left in the fridge for about four days”, Enda Kenny will need more than just charm to cure some of Ireland’s ills. Amid the backdrop of property bubbles and bank bailouts, the people of Ireland are pinning their hopes on this veteran politician to redeem their country’s pride.
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© Thomas White International, Ltd. 2014