Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

Kenny didn't turn heads, but he spoke to our hearts

Late in the count, on Saturday night, Richard Crowley interviewed Enda Kenny. He did so at some length and in some detail, not the kind of detail gone into on such occasions, since it went over many policy matters that could not be answered. Crowley was as polite as he has ever been to the Fine Gael leader, which is not saying much.

I had occasion, earlier in the campaign, to take him to task over an unacceptable level of rudeness towards Kenny and for his abrasive harassment of a senior politician.

On Saturday night Crowley had woken up to the fact that he was talking to the head of the next Government, who had triumphed in an unparalleled political achievement and he tried to deal with the change appropriately.

For his part, Enda Kenny was calm, controlled, polite and exact. He smiled and was at ease throughout. He was not word-perfect, no politician ever is, and there were many questions he chose not to answer, frequently because the answers have yet to be found, but equally because they were matters he was still pondering in his heart.

I use the phrase, 'pondering in his heart', because Kenny does have heart and he does have discretion as to how much he will reveal of what he is thinking and planning. There were two or three occasions during the long interview when I experienced a stabbing memory from the past, occasions when Jack Lynch was dealing with the pressures that accrue in a long and difficult political career.

They were far different from the crises Kenny has faced in the campaign and will now face as he prepares to take over power.

But there seemed to be similarities in the remembered demeanour of a truly great Irish politician of the past compared with the control and authority which Enda Kenny measured out politely and generously in his late night responses as the scale of his achievement became reality late on Saturday night.

In his campaign Enda Kenny followed through many of the leads given by Jack Lynch in 1977. He has learnt, through a long and difficult career, that he has human appeal and that he is better with people than those he sought to defeat because he is truthful, emotionally engaged and able to relate to others.

Lynch made people feel he knew them and wanted to know more about them. His was a tactile, witty and warming journey through the towns and villages of Ireland. Kenny's was the same.

While the wretched media waited through the whole of the three-week election for Kenny to make mistakes, Kenny himself kept up a running, hands-on conversation with the inner heart of Ireland.

He cannot have known whether or not it would work. Jack Lynch, more than 30 years earlier, was in the same position.

He had to find out by doing it. Kenny was the same and he grew and expanded and became more confident and assured as the weeks went on.

He made a judgment, early on, that the media and interviews and debates were of secondary importance. It was a judgment bound up with the belief that the country, if humanly possible, should know him and his personality at first hand, and he set out to deliver that.

It was a once-in-a-lifetime challenge. Last year, he faced a major party challenge to his leadership that he confronted and which he won. Since becoming a deputy his political life has not been that distinguished.

He entered politics overshadowed, not just by his father's career as a junior minister -- a time when I knew Henry Kenny and liked him for his innate good nature and humour -- but also overshadowed by the recent death of his father from cancer.

Henry Kenny, when he knew he was dying, asked his son to take his place and fight the by-election for the people of Mayo. It came in November 1975, two months after Henry Kenny's death. He entered the Dail then, and has since become Father of the House well before this election.

Enda Kenny has a far harder task facing him than Jack Lynch had.

After the landslide victory in 1977, Lynch was able to stand over a prodigally generous economic set of gifts, such as the abolition of rates.

Kenny has to put back such things and many other burdens and taxations, job-cuts, the removal of benefits and the tightening up of the whole fiscal structure of the country. He has major challenges in Europe of the most intractable kind and he has to weld a political force, lead it and control it, giving us the ingredients in a mandate that even now is hard to understand and read.

We know, emphatically, what it is we do not want. We do not want the kind of politics represented by Fianna Fail and the tidal wave of mistaken decisions that built, one on top of the other, into a crushing burden for the people.

But what we do want and how it will be delivered was as elusive as so many of Enda Kenny's polite responses to the pushy interrogation of Richard Crowley last Saturday night.

'Cometh the hour, cometh the man.' I wish him well with all my heart.