From top: Maria Bailey TD, Kate O’Connell TD and Minister for Housing, Simon Coveney as Mr Coveney launched his policy priorities at an event in Dean Hotel in Dublin yesterday; Derek Mooney
The article you’re about to read is not the article that I was originally planning to write. I usually write these pieces late Monday morning, but because I am travelling this week I decided to get the bulk of it written early last Friday.
However, the events of the last few days, particularly the surge to make Leo Varadkar… the leader Fine Gael caused me to reconsider some aspects of that original draft and so what appears below is the original piece with some added reflections.
So, as Eric Morecambe would say of Ernie’s hairpiece, see if you can spot the join.
My original starting point was a casual and basically harmless comment made by Fine Gael Senator, Michelle Mulherin on the Vincent Browne show on TV3 last Tuesday night.
Responding to a barrage of criticism for the inaction of Fine Gael on several issues and specifically the outgoing Taoiseach’s slowness to act, Michelle proffered the excuse that Enda and other ministers were reluctant to act as politicians like to be liked and so naturally avoid tough decisions and unpalatable policies.
To be fair to Senator Mulherin she was merely recycling a well worn trite excuse. It is not as if she had coined the phrase on the spot. Many people use it, including commentators and political observers.
It is offered as a valid and human explanation as to why so-and-so did not do such-and-such, but when you think about the phrase, it is really a back handed insult. The phrase is unfair on politicians and should not be deployed by them, even when under pressure from Mr Browne.
Most politicians I have known and worked with over the years would much prefer to be respected than liked. The politicians who succeed are the ones who we most respect, even when we disagree with them.
They are the ones who express their views and say where they stand, rather than telling you what you want to hear or, worse still, attempt to use weasel words to both run with the hares and hunt with the hounds.
OK, many politicians do the “hail fellow, well met” act and go about back slapping, but that does not stop them from being serious and assiduous in serving the best interests of their constituents and, hopefully, having an input on national policies.
Anyone who gets into politics thinking that they’re going to be universally liked and loved will soon find their illusions shattered. It is not that there is a lot of abuse or nastiness, there may be some from time to time, but it is fleeting, indeed most people who vote for a partcular TD or Cllr rarely ever contact them directly.
There are exceptions, of course. As Frank Cluskey famously observed, there are three types of people who go to a TD’s clinic: one third want you do something illegal, one third want you to do something immoral and the final third are just effin’ lonely.
It works the other way around too. Some years ago a craftsman friend of mine was doing some specialist décor work in Leinster House over the Summer recess.
It was so slow and painstaking that he was still working on it after the Dáil and Seanad had returned. One morning, as he and I went for a coffee, he told me of the a fool-proof system he had developed to correctly distinguish between the politicians and the many officials and civil servants walking along the corridors.
“Just say hello to them” he said, explaining: “If they are a TD or a Senator they will respond immediately and effusively and greet you as a long lost friend”. “They do this”, he added, “as they daren’t take the risk of offending a possible voter by letting them think they did not recognise them, even when they don’t know them from Adam”.
“And what about the others” I enquired. His answer: “if they don’t recognise you, they’ll simply ignore you… especially the pol-corrs.”
If, as the former Deputy and current Senator Mulherin thinks, policians just want to be liked, then how does she explain the ease and speed at which Minister Varadkar has coasted ahead to be within a whisker of already securing the leadership of Fine Gael?
Minister Varadkar has cultivated the image of being a man of many fine skills and qualities, but likability ain’t one of them.
Not that he has gone the full Machiavelli route and decided that it is better to be feared than loved either, but he has (wisely and properly in my view) opted to be respected and regarded for being his own man and possessing a set of firm political views, an intellect and considerable debating skills.
In some ways, particularly when it comes to presentation, Minister Varadkar is the opposite of the Enda Kenny I described in a previous Broadsheet column. While Kenny was at his best when in a crowd of people, his personality and demeanour was dulled by a studio camera, Varadkar’s is sharpened by it. He is better in the formal setting of a TV studio or a debating chamber than in one-to-ones.
This is in contrast with his rival Simon Coveney, who is not usually too comfortable in the formal setting, though Simon’s rally speech to his supporters in Cork last Saturday night was possibly the finest and most impassioned address I have seen him give. The pity is that his campaign team did not think beforehand to arrange to stream it live so that more Fine Gael members could see it.
Both candidates for the Fine Gael leadership are, to their credit, attempting to run on platforms that go beyond the usual: “I’m great, look at my record” approach – though with a record like Varadkar’s that may be the wisest move.
But, leaving my cynicism aside, both men have placed a big emphasis on policy and are looking to political developments elsewhere for inspiration and analysis. They both attempt to set out their vision, though they are somewhat competing ones, with Leo focussing on the “open and closed” visions of the world.
It is very laudable, the problem is that all their work is now clearly wasted.
The Fine Gael Oireachtas members have decided not to consider the competing visions of where the two candidates want to lead their party and decided, instead, to jump on board the bandwagon that they, or the Fine Gael party managers, have determined will suit their personal ambitions best.
In their rush to unify and coronate, the TDs and Senators have forgotten to first stop and think. Perhaps the Councillors and party members will act as a corrective.
Simon’s only last Quixotic hope is that they do and that they manage to persuade some Fine Gael TDs and Senators to quietly change their minds in the secrecy of the ballot box.
Derek Mooney is a communications and public affairs consultant. He previously served as a Ministerial Adviser to the Fianna Fáil-led government 2004 – 2010. Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney
Earlier: Going, You Know, Like, Forward
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William Campbell (right) interviews Derek about Brexit and other STUFF in the latest edition of his Here’s How current affairs podcast.