I’M afraid I was not too impressed by Enda Kenny on The Late Late Show last Friday night. This was an excellent opportunity for the Fine Gael leader to show that he has what it takes to lead the country. And he blew it.
The Late Late Show is consistently the most watched light entertainment programme on television in this country and Ryan Tubridy gives his guests a very easy ride. But Enda Kenny was unable to give a straight answer – or even a crooked one – to a simple question: why would he not go into government with Sinn Féin after the next general election?
He waffled and he mumbled something about Sinn Féin participation in Republican activities in the North. He left us as vague at the end as we were at the beginning. Now if he said he would not go into government with Sinn Féin because of that party’s refusal to condemn the murder of Jerry McCabe, I might understand him. Or if he said that Fine Gael could never agree in government with such a radical socialist party as Sinn Féin, I might also understand that. I might even understand him if he cited Gerry Adams’ failure to understand politics in the Republic as a reason for not forming a coalition with Sinn Féin.
But he gave no clear answer to this fairly fundamental question. In other words, Enda was, as usual, making it up as he went along and making a damn bad job of that. He showed no clear leadership one way or the other.
Brian Cowen has been severely criticised in the media and from the Opposition benches over the last 18 months for his alleged lack of leadership. He has been accused of not knowing which way to turn on any issue. Because he is afraid that he will do the wrong thing, he does nothing at all. He has been accused of failing to show leadership on the economy or to show leadership on handling the weather crisis.
However, it has to be said in Cowen’s favour that since the war, no other Taoiseach has had to confront so many problems as Cowen has had in the last 18 months. It is quite easy for those of us who are sitting on the fence to criticise him. But things have been so bad on the economic and weather fronts that there was no yardstick for him to judge what he might do. It was as easy to do the wrong thing as to do the right thing. So I presume he and his advisers thought it was better to study all the options before taking any action. That might show a lack of leadership to some but it might display careful leadership to others. Take your pick.
However, one thing is sure and that is that Brian Cowen has failed utterly in the public relations’ department. The perception is that he lacks the qualities of leadership. And perceptions are far more important than reality in pantomimes and in politics.
You might wonder why I appear to be more concerned about Enda Kenny’s lack of leadership qualities than I am about Brian Cowen. That is not true. I believe Brian Cowen does have leadership qualities but has failed to display them too often.
It is far easier for an opposition leader to pretend he has leadership qualities than it is for the head of government. An opposition leader does not have to actually do anything. All he has to do is attack the government for everything they do and maybe produce a few policies that might sound great but would never, in reality, work.
The beauty of government is that it has the power to do things. Or perhaps not do them. All the opposition can do is dream about doing things.
And while it might not be very important whether or not an opposition leader has leadership qualities, in Enda Kenny’s case, it is extremely important because if looks fairly certain that he is going to be the next Taoiseach.
And if he cannot inspire as an opposition leader where all he has to do is dream, there is less reason to hope that he can inspire when he is leader of government when he will actually have to do things.
I would have far more confidence in Richard Bruton, or even in Michael Noonan but a comeback there is unlikely. Enda Kenny might make a good manager of the Mayo football team but as manager of Ireland, I’m afraid he does not have what it takes.
Likeable Enda was given every opportunity on The Late Late Show to finally inspire confidence but he failed. He threw out that rubbish about Sinn Féin because he felt it would go down well with his own supporters. But he should have given us clear reasons why he couldn’t go into government with them.
That’s if he was really serious. Of course, the question may never arise. Sinn Féin could be wiped out or become completely irrelevant down here after the next election.
Former leader of Fine Gael, John Bruton pledged after the 1992 General Election that he wouldn’t touch Democratic Left with a barge pole. But less than two years later, he was delighted to share power with them. The reason for the change of heart: by 1994, Fine Gael, Labour and Democratic Left had enough seats in the Dáil between them to form a Government. In 1992, they hadn’t.
And I am damn sure that if another inter-party government needed the support of Sinn Féin after the next election, Enda Kenny would have absolutely no problem in bringing one or two Shinners into cabinet with him.