CLOSE COUPLE Enda Kenny and his wife, Fionnuala.
Kenny: The man behind the politician
The second part of The Mayo News’s exclusive interview with An Taoiseach Enda Kenny
When you are leader of a government whose austere policies create a lot of anger among those on the margins, criticism and abuse becomes inevitable.
Every decision is held under close scrutiny, as most policy moves have an alternative that he and his government have decided to eschew.
You are not going to get consensus in politics at any stage, but you are guaranteed to get criticism and abuse. Especially in a recession. The Taoiseach says it doesn’t get to him.
“It doesn’t bother me,” he tells The Mayo News in his office in Government Buildings. “During the ABC [abortion legislation] case and all of that legislation we got a lot of that [personal abuse]. That doesn’t bother me. I’ve a job to do, and that job is about conviction and belief, but it’s also about having courage not to be beaten around the place by any individual or any individual groups or pressure groups.
“I fully understand that in a democracy people are entitled to have a whole range of views, but I’ve got mine. Leadership, in many ways, is about being clear and about being decisive and about having the courage to say ‘That’s what we’re doing’, because it is in the people’s interest as a country,” he adds.
Man in the mirror
He’s the first Taoiseach from west of the Shannon. He has come a long way from the fresh-faced 24 year old who was elected in a by-election in 1975 after the death of his father, Henry. When he holds a mirror up to his life, does he ever pinch himself?
“The office continues and the people who work here change, and that’s [people’s] democratic right. Do I pinch myself? No. I’m 35 years or more in this business now. It’s been a long process. I don’t get excited about it.
“I don’t take myself too seriously, but I take the job very seriously, and I expect people to do the job that they’re given because this is about all our people, young and old, and it’s an enormous responsibility.
“But I don’t get weighed down with individual problems because I’m long enough in the tooth and long enough at this game to know that there’s an answer to every problem if you can identify what it is and deal with it,” he says. “What I do like is action, achievements and results. Getting things done.”
Two-and-a-half years into his term as Taoiseach, is it like he thought it would be?
“It’s a great privilege, really. There are so many good people around the country who are working in their communities day and night, in their businesses and in their families, and it’s to make the way easy for everybody – to point the road ahead and show them that you understand their problems, and if the political process can help that, to take the stone out of their shoe as it were, then that’s what you do.”
The Dáil resumed last Wednesday, but even when The Mayo News travelled to interview the Taoiseach in his office in Government Buildings earlier this month, it was clear that time was a precious commodity.
The interview is due to begin at 2.45pm, but it’s 3.05pm when he finishes two photoshoots on the lawn of Government Buildings, and another ten minutes pass with three or four different conversations with people.
At 3.30pm, The Taoiseach is due to chair a meeting of the Economic Management Council, comprised of himself, Minister for Finance Michael Noonan, Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore and Minister for Public Expenditure Brendan Howlin – the hub of government many believe run the country.
Perhaps an interview with a local newspaper will not be seen as much of a priority. However, he talks for an unhurried 40 minutes.
On the way from the lawn to his office, where the interview will take place, he stops and talks to two workers tarring a part of the road network inside the gates of Government Buildings, taking time to admire and even touch the tattoos on the upper arm of one of them.
Whatever about anything else, there’s no doubt the Taoiseach has very high energy levels and can and will engage with everyone he meets.
“My job starts at a quarter to seven in the morning and you go right through until whatever time is necessary to finish up. I’ll go from here to the Economic Management Council and a couple of things afterwards, so your days are accounted for. I try to give as much time as I can to what we should do and not just be running and racing here and there for two minutes and move on.
“You need to talk to people and you need to hear what it is they have to say. Ideas are what’s good for government,” he says.
Enda Kenny is still feeling the benefit of the month of August where he holidayed in Kerry with his wife, Fionnuala (pictured), and three children.
They commuted from there for Mayo football matches and also for Minor hurling games. His youngest, Naoise, was part of the Mayo Minor Hurling team which won the All-Ireland C Championship earlier this month. His eldest two, Aoibhinn and Ferdia, are both studying in UCD.
So Kerry was a perfect chance to put the feet up and relax after a busy year? Not quite.
“I did the Beara ring down through Castletownbere, Allihies and Eyeries. I did the Ballinskelligs Ring, I did the Ring of Kerry, I did a few other cycles, climbed Carrauntoohil, by the Brothers O’Shea Gully Route up by Cummeenoughter and up Cnoc na Toinne and down the other side.”
It was the tenth anniversary of Mr Kenny’s scaling of Kilimanjaro with a Mayo group and to mark it, Christy Loftus from Newport, former Fine Gael councillor Paddy McGuinness and other members of the group joined the Taoiseach on the climb of Ireland’s highest mountain.
“We had an evening of remembrance and all the rest of it and they all did their party pieces,” he recalled, laughing.
Between cycling and hiking, it was some endurance test for a summer holiday. But then a greater endurance test – his first term as Taoiseach – is only at its halfway mark.
What was the last book you read?
‘Troublesome Young Men’ is the last book I read, there in the last fortnight. It was about the discussions and the carry-on that went on in the [House of] Commons in Britain when Neville Chamberlain was Prime Minister in the late 1930s, and the move was to kind of understand that there was going to be a war, and a phoney war, and that Churchill should become Prime Minister and that’s actually what happened. [It is a] fascinating story about the way British politics worked, the whole business about Hitler, the Nazis, the rise and fall of that, and how people got pulled in different directions. An interesting political book – I like that kind of stuff.
Do you watch TV?
I rarely see television to be honest with you now. I rarely get a chance to see television. No more than anybody else, I’d go to RTÉ player if I was looking for the news. Genuinely, I haven’t been able to sit down and watch a television programme for ages. So when I hear people talking about soap operas, unfortunately I can’t keep up with the Joneses in that sense, I don’t know what’s happening (laughs).
What music do you listen to?
Well I missed the Bruce concerts this year, we were tied up with other stuff. I’m not a musician myself but different kinds of music impact on me, really, and it depends on what you like ... Music, obviously, is something that is very important to everybody. I don’t have much time for listening to music though. When I travel in the car I’m either reading emails or documentation about the next meeting or whatever.
Are you a fan of the arts?
I’ll say this: I was in Croke Park [for All-Ireland football semi-final between Dublin and Kerry] when they read out the names there of the people who were being remembered and one of those was Seamus Heaney and the fact of the matter is 82,000 people stood up and applauded. There was a predecessor of mine who said the arts don’t matter much to people. Well Hill 16 were the first to applaud. These things do matter to people and they make an impact.
Do you have Bertie Ahern’s make-up budget?
There’s no budget here for that. Natural looks from the west of Ireland and good western rain!