Enda Kenny - the promises vs the reality

Enda became Taoiseach on the back of his party's five-year plan - but how much did they actually achieve?

Enda Kenny - the promises vs the reality

Photo: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

"None of this will be easy. It could take a decade to fix many of Ireland’s problems. But it must be done" - Enda Kenny, 2011

Ahead of the 2011 general election, Fine Gael released a manifest that heavily emphasised the party's 'five-point plan' it would implement if elected.

The 2011 election, it's important to remember, came several years after the financial crisis. In the context of crippling austerity, bailouts and other emergency measures imposed by the Fianna Fáil government, all parties were going up against an understandably angry, frustrated electorate.

It was clear that whoever won the election was inheriting a poisoned chalice: a suite of unpopular measures that would have to continue, alongside the possibility of further austerity. All this had to be maintained while attempting to implement a more forward-looking set of proposals. As Enda Kenny - who had led Fine Gael since 2002 - said in his manifesto: "The next Government must pick up the pieces."

The results were clear. Fine Gael's pledges won over the public - aided in no small part by the inevitable collapse in support for Fianna Fáil - and they won the most seats in the party's history. After forming a Coalition with an equally emboldened Labour party, Enda Kenny was confirmed as Taoiseach.

Six years and one general election later, Enda Kenny has stepped down as Fine Gael leader, not long after becoming the party's longest serving Taoiseach in history. In some ways, it's impressive that he got this far - only an unusual arrangement with political rivals Fianna Fáil after the 2016 election allowed for the formation of a Kenny-led minority government and the dawn of 'new politics'.

Enda, for his part, is stepping down more or less on his own terms - albeit a decision accelerated by his handling of the Garda whistleblowing crisis, and internal & external political pressure to make his intentions clear.

The Taoiseach leaves office with mixed approval ratings. A March poll for the Irish Times, for example, showed him with a 31% satisfaction rating (compared to 37% for Michéal Martin), while polls have consistently shown notable gains for political rivals Fianna Fáil. The latest poll showed Fine Gael with a mere one point lead.

But if we look back at that 2011 election manifesto, how exactly has Enda Kenny fared? What has he managed to achieve, and what has he failed to do? How did that much-heralded five-year plan play out in reality?

Enda Kenny. Image: RollingNews.ie

The pledge: "Fine Gael’s number one priority in Government will be jobs"

The reality: There's a lengthy debate to be had about how much Fine Gael's policies directly influenced job creation, but statistically speaking Enda Kenny will no doubt be pleased with the numbers.

CSO figures from April 2011 showed an unemployment rate of 14.3% - or 308,400 people. In April 2017, that had decreased to 135,800 (6.2%). Fine Gael boasted in their 2016 manifesto: "Since 2012, businesses have delivered an extra 135,000 jobs – more than the 100,000 we promised".

Plenty of concerns can be raised about the often unequal nature of the economic recovery (an inequality perhaps best represented by continuing severity of the housing and homelessness crisis) and the various 'job activation' initiatives used to massage unemployment figures (more on one of them in a moment). But even though skepticism should be retained over the government's direct influence, the unemployment figures have unquestionably been drastically reduced.

One of the 2011 manifesto promises included the creation of new "internship opportunities". That ultimately took the form of JobBridge, one of the more controversial programmes introduced by Enda Kenny's government. The scheme allowed participants to take internships while retaining their social welfare benefits (plus a bonus €50 payment). 

JobBridge certainly helped some jobseekers - an audit of the scheme showed that thousands of participants got jobs with the host organisation, or found work elsewhere. However, the programme also faced vocal opposition - with critics claiming it exploited interns and was overly generous to companies. News outlets and opposition politicians also frequently highlighted the more menial or traditionally paid positions advertised through the scheme. 

The JobBridge programme ended in 2016, with concrete plans yet to revealed for the proposed replacement scheme.

Image: Eamonn Farrell / RollingNews.ie

The pledge: "Keep taxes low while fixing the deficit"

The reality: It has taken a while, but a considerable amount of work has certainly been achieved in reducing Ireland's budget deficit. In 2010, the deficit reached 32.1% of gross domestic product (GDP). The deficit has since fallen below 1% of GDP (0.6% in 2016), and is continuing to fall - with Michael Noonan having pledged to balance the budget in 2018.

The 2011 manifesto boasted: "We will not increase income taxes, the 12.5% rate of corporation tax or taxes on jobs". The corporate tax rate indeed remains low, although not without causing a few high-profile controversies and drawing international criticism - last summer's Apple tax ruling has very much shone a spotlight on the dangers of Ireland's generous tax regime. It was, however, a promise kept.

Income tax, meanwhile, has also not been raised under Fine Gael. In fact, the higher band - now 40% - dropped by 1% in 2015, compared to the 41% Enda Kenny's party inherited after the election. This, of course, does not necessarily tell the full story.

Various other taxes and charges - such as the Universal Social Charge (USC), water charges and the property tax - have fluctuated significantly over the last decade, impacting people's take-home pay. Progress, has, however, been made on Enda Kenny's more recent promise to begin eliminating the USC.

The pledge: "Government must become smaller" and "the most ambitious programme for political reform since the 1930s"

The reality: A proposal to abolish Seanad Éireann was, without question, one of the most high-profile failures of Enda Kenny's term as Taoiseach. Abolition of the upper house had been the headline pledge in Fine Gael's plan to introduce a 'new politics'.

A Seanad referendum within 12 months of election day was promised, but the vote did not take place until October 2013 - where the proposal was narrowly rejected by 51.7% to 48.3%. "Sometimes in politics you get a wallop in the electoral process," Enda said after the embarrassing defeat. A report on Seanad reform was subsequently completed, but there has not been much political appetite to introduce the proposed changes.

Fine Gael has had more success elsewhere. The number of TDs has been successfully reduced - where 166 TDs were elected in 2011, that was reduced to 158 for the 2016 vote (aided by some significant boundary changes across the country). The number of public sector employees (excluding semi-state bodies) decreased from 354,300 in the first quarter of 2011, to 333,800 in the same period of 2016.

Despite pledges to protect frontline services, however, it has been far from smooth sailing for the Fine Gael government. Nurses, teachers and Gardaí are among those who have undertaken significant industrial action in the last six years. Despite the Lansdowne Road pay agreement, there is continuing discontent within the public sector - with ministers under Mr Kenny's successor likely to shoulder much of the responsibility for the soon-to-commence new round of public sector pay talks.

Another key manifesto pledge - to give Oireachtas committees full powers of investigation, effectively overturning the 2002 Abbeylara Supreme Court decision - also went to referendum, in October 2011. It proved to be an early defeat for the still-young Fine Gael and Labour coalition, with 53.3% of voters rejecting the proposal. 

Another 2011 promise as yet unfulfilled: the pledge to "reduce the voting age to 17 and give eligible citizens the right to vote at Irish embassies in the Presidential election." A referendum is planned on the latter point, at least, and Irish people abroad could be voting in the 2025 presidential election. Despite a constitutional convention recommending lowering the voting age to 16 back in 2013, plans for a vote on the matter were abandoned.

Elsewhere, new rules about lobbying were indeed introduced as promised, but an ambitious target to abolish 145 state bodies and companies - which the party dubbed 'quangos' in their manifesto - did not come to fruition

The pledge: "The most ambitious plan for health reform since the establishment of the state"

The reality: Few would argue that the health system in 2017 is noticeably more efficient than it was in 2011. Waiting list figures, in particular, continue to startle - figures from the National Treatment Purchase Fund (NTPF) show tens of thousands of patients waiting for a year or more. The daily 'trolley watch' figures from the INMO, meanwhile, rarely drop below the 300 mark - often creeping closer to the 500 mark.

Cuts to the HSE budget began under the Fianna Fáil government, but in recent years funding has started climbing upwards - ministers at the Department of Health boasted of the "highest ever health budget" after Budget 2017 was announced late last year.

For all the pledges to create a leaner, more efficient health system, however, it is still experiencing high-profile problems - some of which, like the overcrowding crisis, appear to have only intensified. Fine Gael criticised "huge increases in [HSE] budgets but relatively little improvement in their services" - but Enda Kenny's ministers for health have continued to struggle with an (admittedly challenging) portfolio.

"FairCare will gradually dismantle the HSE and replace it with a system of Universal Health Insurance (UHI) starting in 2016," the party boldly announced in their 2011 manifesto. There has been limited tangible progress towards that goal - although Health Minister Simon Harris earlier this year recommended dismantling the executive.

There has been some success in the health system, however. The five-point plan promised to "look at a number of ways to widen access to free GP care as finances permit". While universal GP access for all is still far from a reality, children under the age of six are now entitled to free visits to GPs. The roll-out of the scheme was not without its objections and opposition from GPs, but it nonetheless has proven one of the most notable social healthcare developments in recent years.

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While not directly referenced in the five-point plan, it would be remiss to not point out one of the biggest headaches of Enda Kenny's time as Taoiseach: water charges, which Fianna Fáil had already pledged to introduce. In 2011 Fine Gael said they would introduce a state-owned commercial water company to manage Ireland's water services, which would be called Irish Water.

While Irish Water very much exists, the roll out was effectively a several year long frustration for the Government. Major public protests, low payment rates, and a costly bill to establish the company in the first place were some of the stories to dominate media coverage of Irish Water's early years. While it is Enda Kenny's successor who will oversee the final decisions, it seems certain that - after years of political and public opposition - water charges will be abolished

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Few leaders emerge from office with a completely clean sheet - and that was very much the case for Enda Kenny. His years as Taoiseach saw no shortage of scandals, controversies, broken promises, and failed legislative efforts. There were successes, too, of course, many of which are listed above. There's plenty of evidence to suggest he was well regarded by international politicians, from two US presidents to his various European Council colleagues.

Enda Kenny also enjoyed some collateral benefits of a coalition government - while it was Labour that originally promised a referendum on same-sex marriage, history will record Enda as the man in charge when the historic referendum was held.

The veteran Mayo TD put forward a five-year plan in 2011. He ultimately got six years to follow through on his promises. There were successes, there were failures, and he managed to survive one of the most unusual election results in Irish history to secure a (brief) second term.

Before becoming Taoiseach, he spoke of the need for "fundamental changes in the structures and systems of the State itself to improve the quality of governance experienced by the country". Few would argue the changes we've seen have been 'fundamental', but in other areas Enda Kenny will surely be satisfied with some of his accomplishments as he steps down - he did make the cover of Time magazine, after all.