Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition on the 11th July 2016:
Amidst all the pre-heave foreplay and long lingering glances going on within the Fine Gael parliamentary party, let’s put two facts about Enda Kenny on the table.
One: he didn’t win the 2011 election. Fine Gael can dress it up all they like, that a desperate nation turned to the men in blue to step forward and restore a nation’s honour, but that’s not what happened. The country voted for the largest non-Fianna Fail blunt object on offer, and that was Fine Gael.
Two: he has, to his credit, had some achievements. The economy is in better shape than when he found it, and he has to get some credit for that because if it was in a worse state he’d almost certainly get the blame. Secondly, unlike almost every government since the last abortion referendum, he actually did something on abortion. Too much in some people’s eyes, not enough in others, but he did do something. Finally, he kept his word on offering a vote on Seanad abolition, making him the only Taoiseach in a generation to actually deliver action on a major attempt at political reform.
That’s what you can say about Enda. However, what you can’t say about him is that he actually has a plan as to where he wants to take the country. If he does, he’s hiding his light so deep under a bushel that he should ask Arthur Scargill to represent him.
Is there anyone who believes Enda has a vision for where he wants to lead this country? When I say vision, I don’t mean guff, and there is a difference, which all of us in this post-truth age can recognise. A vision made of guff is full of phrases about a “world class health service” and “dignity” and a “nation to grow old with respect in”. You know. Guff.
Vision is what comes from a Taoiseach bursting with new ideas, itching to start implementing them. The words “Enda” and “bursting with new ideas” are not what you would call fellow travellers.
This country has both problems and opportunities, and it needs a leader who doesn’t regard reaching Merrion Square as being the end of the race. Consider Brexit. What’s our country’s position on the access of the City of London to the European single market in financial services? Do we have a position? If we are to poach actual firms from London, do we have a plan to deliver on the extra housing that will be needed in the Dublin region to prevent an influx of wealthy bankers, as has happened in London, driving the natives out of previously affordable areas?
Is there anyone who believes that the current Taoiseach could sustain an hour long interview on that subject without it degenerating into a swamp of the most vague twaddle?
We need a Taoiseach who can tell us the concrete facts and figures of where he or she wants to go. Who is capable of being boring by going into the detail, line by line. Who isn’t afraid to appear smarter than the rest of us, because that’s his job. Above all a Taoiseach who knows that being willing to make long-term decisions that he will never benefit politically from is the difference between being a national leader and a hack.
It also means having a Taoiseach willing to go to the country and confront it about its obsession with avoiding short-term discomfort for long-term gain. From water, to pensions to senior care to planning to health insurance provision, government after government have avoided these issues because they were, quite simply, unpopular. It’s time we have a Taoiseach who is willing to be unpopular for the right reasons and who actually tries to lead the country.
It’s also time for a Taoiseach that recognises the power of imagination and new ideas. Both the Criminal Assets Bureau and the National Treatment Purchase Fund were departures from the dreaded Way We Do Things Around Here and both delivered results. Appointing an outsider as head of the Garda Inspectorate was another one, as was appointing a Governor of the Central Bank and a Financial Regulator not from the usual deserving lads but from outside the prevailing culture. Where’s our minister for Brexit, standing alongside Pat Cox, Lucinda Creighton, Catherine Day, Ruairi Quinn, John Bruton and yes, Bertie Ahern, putting party labels aside at the Taoiseach’s request to be our tried and tested Team Ireland ready to go in for us in the most important negotiations since the War of Independence? That would be leadership.
Noel Browne was minister for health for less than four years, and never held ministerial office again. Yet we still recognise his name, because in that short time in office he made decisions on the treatment of tuberculosis that were literally life saving for thousands of people for years after he left office. It wasn’t a question of him remaining in office for as long as possible, but using that time wisely. We often forget that Noel Browne left office in 1951 generally unpopular, with his courage only really coming to be appreciated years later.
Courage matters. We need a new Taoiseach who has both courage and a plan. But even more so, we need a new Taoiseach who recognises the words of President Jed Bartlet from “The West Wing”: