When Enda Kenny became Prime Minister of Ireland in February 2011 he inherited a mess. The country was staggering under an enormous debt load and facing rising unemployment. Kenny took over from Fianna Fail, the party that had been in power for 14 years and was most closely associated with overseeing economic policies that produced what became known as the Celtic Tiger — a period that saw remarkable economic growth in the previously struggling island country on the westernmost edge of Europe. That growth bubble, which was fueled by increased access to cheap money and an unsustainable property boom, began to burst shortly before the global economic crisis of 2008. The country’s rapid dive toward bankruptcy caused Ireland to seek a bailout from the E.U. and the International Monetary Fund in November 2010.
Currently the longest-serving member of Dail Eireann (the House of Representatives), Kenny has pressed on with the sort of cuts in government services that have brought protesters onto the streets of Greece and Spain, countries that are faced with similar debt burdens. Kenny, however, has not had to deal with as many public protests over austerity measures, and that has given him more political room than his Greek and Spanish counterparts. Many voters and commentators have long considered Kenny to be a lightweight figure in the Irish political scene, but with Ireland’s GDP beginning to sneak upward once again Kenny may prove himself anything but the “fool” that his predecessor called him in 2010.
TIME’s Europe editor Catherine Mayer met Kenny that year for the first time. She had encountered him twice more before she spent time with him in Dublin in September while reporting for her magazine story (available to subscribers) on Ireland’s economic fight back. TIME spoke with Mayer to get the story behind the story.
Why were you interested in interviewing Enda Kenny in the first place?
Enda Kenny is somebody who has a gulf between the way he’s perceived in his home country and the way he is perceived abroad. Also because Ireland, as the second country to ask for a bailout, is quite far along in the process of dealing with the ramifications of what went wrong. I was looking for a way to look at some of the wider European issues, and Ireland’s story seemed to me a good starting place.
And why do you think a gulf exists between the Irish and international perceptions of Kenny?
Politicians are often more popular abroad than they are in their own countries. That’s partly because familiarity breeds contempt. You could say it’s because the Irish know him better. But it’s also because the Irish focus on the smaller picture, and sometimes you really can see things better from a distance. It’s exactly the same if you think about what goes on in Washington or Westminster.
Kenny has a reputation for being very likable in person. Is that reputation deserved?
He’s extremely likable, that did not surprise me at all because that is very much part of his image. What I was really trying to see was what was behind that likability. In small groups he is much more fluent and compelling than he would appear to be were you to judge him from his big media set pieces. When cameras train on him he seems to freeze up, which is an interesting problem for somebody in that position. But when he’s relaxed he’s interesting and has a lot to say.
His predecessor Brian Cowen called him a fool. Did he have any foolish moments when you interviewed him?
He didn’t do anything that one would think of as particularly foolish. He’s certainly endearing and has a slightly childlike quality to his enthusiasm. There was a moment, when he was showing me around his office and showing me absolutely everything, including all his photos, where you found yourself thinking that he was sweet. But that is combined with a real sense of shrewdness, and that is the thing that doesn’t come across when you see him at a distance.
How genuinely sensitive do you think he is to the financial woes of Irish people?
I think all politicians are far too insulated from reality but in Ireland they are actually less so than in other countries. I mention in the piece that Enda Kenny walks to and from work, and he does actually have regular direct contact with people who tell him exactly what they think. You may wonder how much that actually means to him because he has a job and is being paid for his work. I suspect that in Ireland more politicians know people who are themselves directly in trouble than is the case in many of the more featherbed capitals of the world. So he’s not himself directly suffering but I’m pretty sure he does know what’s going on.
What is your experience of reporting from Ireland?
I’ve been covering Ireland for years but mostly covering Northern Ireland because that was such a big story for so long. I first visited Dublin in the early 1980s and was absolutely fascinated and slightly shocked to find myself traveling backward in time. It was like a time warp in comparison with London — a place where everywhere shuts down at night, and young women with small babies sat begging on the pavements. I didn’t really understand at that stage what was holding back Irish development. I then got to know the Republic of Ireland really well, but as I say I spent a huge amount of time north of the border right through the 1990s covering the conflict.
Do you think Kenny can stem the emigration of educated young people to countries like Australia?
While I was in Dublin I spoke to the ESRI [Economic and Social Research Institute], and one view they gave on the current outflow of young people is that it’s not necessarily a bad thing for Ireland. These people go abroad and gain experience but the moment the economy begins to recover they’ll come back again like homing pigeons bringing new skills with them. They also bring links from abroad, and given that Ireland’s such an open economy and relies so much on its trading routes, that’s not a bad thing. What worries me about Ireland, and what would circumscribe anything that Enda Kenny or any other politician could do, is that the euro-zone crisis is horribly interconnected. How well things turn out for Ireland will affect all of us and not just the Irish people. We will just have to wait and see what happens unfortunately.