This week Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny met with President Barack Obama at the White House for the annual St. Patrick's Day event. Obama praised Kenny's "great leadership during the difficult times" and noted the "progress in the Irish economy," while the Taoiseach admitted there is "still a long way to go on the journey to national recovery... but confidence is returning."
Kenny certainly knows something about this road to recovery: In 2011, he took over an economy with nearly 15% unemployment, and public debt estimated at over 105% of GDP. Yet today, Kenny's governing party, Fine Gael, remains the most popular party in Ireland and the island has seen no major protests on the scale experienced elsewhere in Europe against massive cuts and new taxes.
Recovery efforts in other EU countries have not been so well received. From Portugal to Greece to Spain, angry citizens have lashed out against governing parties and their policies.
All this raises the question: what makes Ireland different? Is there something about Ireland's political leadership that has enabled the country to pursue difficult policies with relative calm and cohesion? There are at least five things Kenny and his government have done to build a remarkable "politics of patience":
- Clued his constituents in every step of the way. Kenny has communicated Ireland's situation to his people with candor. In March 2012, the Taoiseach said in a nationally televised speech that "These tough times require straight talk. So we will continue to be straight and honest with the people. To tell them what we have done to meet our pledges, and how much work remains to be done." After the previous government in Ireland kept an anxious country in the dark about the true scale of its economic woes, this dose of honesty and transparency provides critical comfort.
- Conveyed a sense of relentless hard work and urgency. Through words and action, the Taoiseach has conveyed the urgency of those being hammered by the recession – the unemployed, those fearing they will lose jobs, small businesses struggling for credit, families having trouble paying their bills, and parents who have seen their children move abroad. Kenny could not bring change as quickly as the public wanted, but he has exhibited a sense that he is working as hard as possible.
- Led from the front, including making cuts to politicians first. Irish voters wanted to see their leaders absorbing some pain before inflicting deep cuts on those they serve. Kenny met that desire by cutting pay and drivers for ministers, ending some entitlements for former high officials, and scheduling a national referendum to eliminate the country's upper chamber to reduce government costs. The public may want the government frills cut even more, but Kenny has shown he understands that in times of crisis, citizens expect politicians to lead from the front by taking pain first.
- Kept a laser focus on what matters most to voters. From his annual budgets to his campaign to pass the EU Stability Treaty, to the goals of his EU Presidency – Kenny's focus has been singular and unwavering: jobs. Fine Gael, ran their 2011 campaign on "getting Ireland back to work," and they have not drifted away from that emphasis. Even as he has worked with the IMF/EU troika to achieve a range of macro goals, he has managed to relate the country's entire economic program back to the thing that matters most to average people – their livelihoods.
- Gave voice to frustrations. As in his speech accepting the EU Presidency, Kenny frequently has talked about the shared sacrifice of the Irish people: "We all know too well here in Ireland the huge sacrifices the crisis has meant. The people of Europe and Ireland need to know and need to see there is progress being made." As public frustrations mount over hard conditions, the tendency is to conclude that the Government has lost touch with average people. One of the most important things Kenny has done to build patience is showing he is with the people – physically and emotionally. Even if he could not be their instant savior, he has been their constant advocate.
There could be other factors at work as well. Some suggest the Irish are just a more patient people by nature, or they emigrate instead of staying and protesting. Others suggest the Irish are self-aware of the excesses of the housing bubble and take personal responsibility for the economic collapse. But none of these adequately recognize Kenny’s ability to build a politics of patience, and the extent to which that ability has become a huge national asset as he works toward Ireland’s full recovery.