If Ireland loves an underdog story, it has all it could wish for in Taoiseach Enda Kenny. In less than a year, he has gone from leader of an opposition party whom nine members of his front bench did not support to heading a government party with an approval rating of 41%.
Resilience, tenacity and no small amount of luck have been the hallmarks of his success.
Though his entry into the Dáil at age 24 may have been facilitated by the vacancy of his late father’s seat, his rise in that chamber came gradually and faced its fair share of setbacks.
He spent nearly 10 years on the opposition benches and failed to be promoted when Garret Fitzgerald became Taoiseach in 1981 and 1982. In 2001 when John Bruton resigned leadership of the party following a vote of no confidence, Kenny contested the leadership unsuccessfully. The following year, when Fine Gael suffered its worst ever electoral performance, he was reported to have prepared a concession speech in anticipation of losing his seat, though he did in fact manage to take the third of five seats in his constituency.
Enda Kenny’s strength lies considerably less in his rhetoric than in its tone. He can inject equal measures of passion into expressing indignation at Fianna Fáil’s “crippling government” and pride at Ireland’s “performance” on the world stage during the recent state visits.
And of course he’s had serendipity on his side too. Not only did he replace the least popular government in Ireland’s history but he has also hosted impeccably staged visits from the two most important heads of state, from Ireland’s perspective.
Kenny himself describes his leadership as teacherish. In fact the four years he spent working as a primary school teacher (before he was elected to Dáil Eireann at only 24) would have entitled him to draw a pension of €100,000 in April of this year, having in his own words “simply being paying into it” since his excedingly premature retirement.
Though it has been thirty-six years since Enda Kenny taught the times tables, his performance in office thus far indicates that his politico-teaching strategy may well be amounting to quite a success.
He told Ryan Tubridy on the Late Late Show that he intended handing over report cards to his minsiters and made a point of expressing pride in his people’s performance during the state visits. He even went as far as explictly pointing out that not one person had “shamed him” – as if he were a trainee teacher and Ireland his trophy class performing for an inspector. In this way, Kenny espoused the essential quailities of a conscientous teacher: a tendency toward supervision, evauluation and praise when merited. At the same time he let slip the less popular characteristics of didacticism and condescension.
It will take immense ambition and steadiness to reawaken the disillusioned pupil that Ireland has become. But as somebody who has suffered his own setbacks and flings with public opinion, a teacher that genuinely cares could just be what Ireland needs at this time. After a long hiatus, Enda Kenny’s teaching career has now begun in earnest.