Kevin Rafter is a journalist who has written biographies of Neil Blaney and Martin Mansergh, and histories of Sinn Fein and Clann na Poblachta. He has also written a thesis on the Democratic Left.
His latest book is a history of Fine Gael which focuses mainly on the period since Enda Kenny became party leader in 2002.
He claims that , prior to Enda Kenny’s leadership, debates within Fine Gael were about whether the party should be positioned nearer to the Labour party or to the Progressive Democrats but that under him the party has mirrored Fianna Fail. Kevin Rafter says that Enda Kenny understands that in modern politics ideology means nothing, and that the key success factors are perceptions of competency and of personality.
He argues that Enda Kenny has worked exceptionally hard to energise the grassroots of Fine Gael , build the competency of the party organisationally , and offer a listening ear to public concerns rather than lay down prescriptions based on preconceived ideas. He points to his success in recruiting talented people from other fields like George Lee, Mairead McGuinness and Brody Sweeney. This success has been accompanied by the necessary toughness in dealing with incumbents who may not have wanted extra competition or who were interested in doing a lap of honour.
As is well known, all this activity has paid off handsomely. In the recent local elections, Fine Gael got more seats and votes than Fianna Fail for the first time in Fine Gael’s history. Enda Kenny has also been able to keep the party united, a far from simple task.
While the book portrays Enda Kenny as a supreme pragmatist, it also draws attention to courageous stands he has taken on issues like getting rid of compulsory Irish in the Leaving Certificate, denying access to Shannon airport to belligerents in the Iraq war, and opposing in 2003 the benchmarking awards to public servants which have subsequently transpired to be so unaffordable.
Enda Kenny was interviewed for this book. Readers will find interesting the personal details that emerge of his close relationship with his wife, with his children, and with his late father Henry Kenny TD, whose premature death propelled him into politics in 1975. Representing Mayo in Dail Eireann is a physically demanding task for any TD because of the size of the constituency and its distance from the capital . But it is all the more taxing for someone who is a party leader and who has spent so much time travelling the entire country and building up a personal rapport with party activists in every part of Ireland. Enda Kenny has been doing this for seven years now. He has, as he himself puts it, served an exceptionally long apprenticeship for the job of Taoiseach.
Kevin Rafter give due credit to others for their contributions to Enda Kenny’s success. Richard Bruton is seen as substantially enhancing the party’s image of economic competency and Frank Flannery gets much praise for his work on the organisational and candidate selection side. There is one probably inadvertent omission. That is of the vital role of the party’s exceptionally energetic director of fundraising, Anne Strain.
This is a timely and clearly written book that gives a good insight into the characters that make up what is now the biggest party in the country. Beyond the issues already mentioned like benchmarking, the book does not, however, offer much analysis of party priorities based on its statements, nor does it speculate about likely choices Fine Gael might make in Government in times when very hard choices indeed will have to be made. That is the chapter of the book that the party itself will write.