The ballad of Colonel Kenny (Two of us riding nowhere spending someone’s hard earned pay)

February 18th, 2011

It was just after my 11th birthday when I first became acquainted with the banalities of political campaigning. “Vote Enda Kennaaayyyy, that’s Enda Kennaaayyyy number one,” slurred some man through a megaphone out of the back of a van. Or maybe it was a tractor. Or a car. I can’t really remember. The important thing was that our short family holiday to the beautiful Achill island, off the west coast of Ireland, was constantly being interupted by this chump trying to get locals to give their vote to a man called Enda Kenny. It was the long bank holiday weekend just before the 1997 general election and it occured to me that Enda is a funny name. I still think it’s a funny name, and that’s coming from a Hugo. Enda also likes his ice cream.

A dozen years later I was on my way to Accra, Ghana for an internship with the Ghanaian Times. The Dublin to Accra flight route has, strangely enough, never been too popular or commericially viable, so I had to make a stop in Tripoli, Libya. The first thing that you see on landing is this:

Well isn’t that nice? The Guide of the First of September Great Revolution of the Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, Muammar al-Gaddafi (I’ll stick to this spelling solely for consistency purposes rather than Qaddadi, Gadhafi, Qadhafi, Kadafi, etc.), welcomes visitors with a smile and a message. If the gold-bedecked 7.5% owner of Juventus Football Club, 100% owner of an all-female bodyguard unit, pitcher of tents in Manhattan and general doer of wacky things wants to say ‘hi’, what’s the harm? But then you go inside the airport building. Revolutionary slogans adorn the walls and The Guide is now leading with a stick rather than a carrot with images that seem to suggest ‘Don’t mess with me’. This photograph is from the arrivals terminal:

I’ll give him one thing; he’s a lot cooler looking than Enda with an ice cream. Tripoli airport, however, is the most awful airport I’ve ever been in. There are two check-in desks for the entire departures area and the bathroom was a tiled floor covered in human excrement. Actually, I can’t be sure it was all human; there may have been bat or bird in there as well.

A couple of weeks later in Ghana I was attending a press conference in Accra as a Ghanaian Times reporter. The press briefing was supposed to announce details of an imminent visit from Gaddafi. A group of West African Chiefs had invited him down for a conference, and the story goes that at the last minute he cancelled because his request to be crowned “King of Kings” would not transpire. A more likely story is that the Ghanaian government begged the Chiefs not to have Gaddafi in town two weeks after a visit from Barack Obama; Investor confidence and all that. Hence, I never actually saw Gaffafi either in Libya or Ghana, just a lot of images of him and words about him.

And this brings us neatly back to Enda. This time next week Enda will be Taoiseach or Prime Minister of Ireland, but his party, having tried to get rid of him last summer, are now merely trying to keep him as inconspicious as possible. Enda did their work for them by refusing to attend the first leaders’ debate last week and saying that the empty chair would symbolise the emigration of Irish youth. Really? That surely has to be one of the dodgiest ad-libs I’ve ever seen. It can’t possibly be the case that he sat down and plotted out that line with his fellow Fine Gaelers. It’s like 1997 all over again, but instead of having a man shouting out of the back of an automobile on his behalf Kenny is doing all the weird stuff for himself. When I was 11 I asked myself, ‘surely this sort if thing doesn’t really make people vote for him.’ and now, after the empty chair-emigration thing, I’m asking myself that all over again.

One thing I noticed in Tripoli airport was how bored all the airport staff looked, how many of them there were, and how little they seemed to be doing. Most of them were born after Gaddafi came to power in a 1969 coup, so for many of them it must seem like Libya and Gaddafi are synonyms. This was 2009 however, when Gaddafi was the meat in a Ben Ali-Mubarak sandwich between Tunisia and Egypt. Now that it Libya an island of repression in a sea of revolution (please rate my metaphors on a scale of 1 to meta-metaphorist), those same workers are becoming more active.

Gaddafi is a leader whose political career began in 1969 and whose leadership, for want of a better term, is starting to crack. Kenny has been in the Dáil, the Irish Parliament, since 1975 and will now become leader of his state for the first time. One of them has been trying for decades to stay in power, the other to get into power. Both are now on the brink of changes in career direction that are largely out of their hands. Do you know what we need? More images of Gaddafi eating ice cream and more giant paintings of Enda wearing sunglasses in Dublin airport.