After delaying his promised retirement for so long it looked like they might have to throw him out, Enda Kenny finally resigned as Fine Gael leader last week with a touch of class. He stays as taoiseach until the party chooses his successor on June 2, but it is the end of the Kenny era.
There were no theatrics, no self-serving, Haughey-style guff about the service he had done the state, just a simple statement to his colleagues in the parliamentary party at their private meeting. Like the line from Macbeth, nothing in his (political) life became him like the leaving of it.
It took just a few moments for him to read the resignation statement at the start of the party meeting, and by all accounts it was emotional. At the end of it, with a twinkle in his eye towards those who had been pushing for months for him to make the announcement, he asked, “Is it okay if I go now?” And then he left the room and left them to it.
It was typical of Kenny. He is modest, personable and inoffensive, what the Irish call "a decent man." But he was never leader material.
He had been in the Dail since 1975, spending almost all of his time as an anonymous backbencher and only serving briefly as a minor minister. He only got to be leader of Fine Gael in opposition in 2002 because the big names in the party all had a go at it first.
When he got to be taoiseach in 2011 it was because the electorate was punishing Fianna Fail for the crash, not because of any inspiration he offered. Which is why he was often called the accidental taoiseach.
However, Kenny had something that all politicians need -- luck on his side. Having gained seats for Fine Gael in the 2007 election, he had come close to gaining power at that point, reversing the previous steep decline of Fine Gael.
But if he had won then he would have been taoiseach when the boom turned to bust. A few years later Ireland was bankrupt and the troika had to come in with the bailout.
Despite his best efforts he was lucky enough to lose in 2007, and the compromised Bertie Ahern stumbled on for a while before handing over to Brian Cowen. When the crash happened over the following two years Fianna Fail took all the blame and were decimated by the voters in the 2011 election. Kenny, the lucky man, became the accidental taoiseach and Fine Gael became the biggest party in the Dail.
The narrative that Kenny subsequently led the country back to stability and turned the crash into an economic recovery has little basis in reality. The four-year path out of the crisis had been mapped out by the then Finance Minister Brian Lenihan while Fianna Fail was still in power. He had begun the severe cuts in spending that were necessary to balance the books again.
When Kenny and Fine Gael took over, they merely followed the plan. The discipline to hold the line was imposed by the IMF and the EU who virtually ran the country after the bailout. The truth is that the recovery had little to do with Kenny or his government.
Of course that did not stop Kenny and Fine Gael claiming they had saved the country. Keep the Recovery Going was the slogan they used when Kenny called an election at the start of last year, hoping to get a mandate to stay in power for another term.
But the relentless cutbacks had embittered voters who did not feel any recovery themselves and deeply resented the way the cost of repaying the bailout had been loaded on them rather than the banks who had caused the crisis. Instead of being rewarded by a grateful nation Fine Gael paid the price, losing a third of its seats.
From that moment on, even though he cobbled together the present minority Fine Gael led government with the support of an embarrassing gaggle of independents, Kenny's days were numbered. Although he had done what had always been impossible and got a Fine Gael government back into power for a second term, he was damaged goods. The young bloods in the party started to organize to get rid of him, and to appease them he announced that he would not lead Fine Gael into another election.
That was simply a recognition of the reality that if Fine Gael is to have any chance of retaining power in the future they need a young, dynamic leader. They have a choice of two, Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney, both of whom are now campaigning hard to take over from Kenny and become taoiseach. Although whichever of them wins will only be taoiseach until Fianna Fail decides to pull the plug and force an election.
Varadkar is the clear favorite, with most of the parliamentary party having declared they will back him. Because of the weighted party voting system, Coveney will need to win around 70 percent of the rest of the Fine Gael voters, the councilors and ordinary members around the country. That seems almost impossible, so he will also need to turn around some of the parliamentary party before the vote on June 2.
What this means is that at the time of writing, the election for leader is Varadkar’s to lose. It's not that he is a better potential taoiseach than Coveney who, in fact, is far more experienced and better qualified to deal with the complex problems that lie ahead like Brexit. But Coveney is seen as dull while Varadkar is supposed to have the X-factor with voters. And that's what it's all about for Fine Gael Dail deputies desperate to save their seats at the next election.
Varadkar’s popularity is being touted as evidence of the extraordinary change in Irish society in recent years, since he is gay and half Indian. But far more important is the reputation he has developed for plain speaking and telling the bald truth even when it does not agree with either his party or the establishment. However, it remains to be seen how much of this is done simply for effect.
The reality is that he is far from a revolutionary thinker on anything. He joined Fine Gael while he was still in private school and followed his Indian father, a Dublin general practitioner, into medicine. Despite being a doctor he performed so poorly as minister for health (his only cabinet role of any significance) that Kenny moved him after a couple of years.
Varadkar talks a great game, but a lot of it sounds like he is on the sidelines even when he is actually on the team. He was very good at talking about problems in health, for example, as though they had nothing to do with him even though he was the minister at the time.
The contrast with the detailed manner in which Coveney has been trying to explain the causes of the housing crisis and what he can do about it as housing minister is striking. Coveney is all numbers and angst as he grapples with the complex housing problem. Varadkar as minister for health and now as minister for welfare skates over the surface of problems and issues the occasional soundbite that makes him look good but means little.
What happened when the present minority government was being put together is instructive. Both Coveney and Varadkar were on the team that did the negotiating, but it was Coveney who took the lead role and sorted out the complications.
Instead of risking a mistake Varadkar stayed safely in the background, saying little and only emerging for the photos. Not much sign of leadership there.
It's almost enough to make you want Fianna Fail back. I said almost!