Looking back at speechwriting commissions received over the last few years (leaving aside requests for best man speeches) I see that most have had leadership as a central theme.
While the scripts have ranged from looking at the role of leadership in building communities through to the importance of leadership in delivering commercial change, they have each asked the same question: what makes a leader?
It is not an easy question to answer. As Leadership guru Warren Bennis puts it:
“To an extent, leadership is like beauty: It’s hard to define, but you know it when you see it.”
We appreciate leadership when we see it but, more importantly, we quickly recognise its absence.
This is certainly the case across the water. One week into the British general election campaign and the absence of leadership from either of the two main parties is already much in evidence.
While Boris Johnson is offering his best impression of leadership with, perhaps, a nod to Napoleon’s dictum that a leader is a dealer in hope, the Tory leader’s constant reliance on upbeat, though deceitful, rhetoric in place of demonstrable fact suggests that he has no notion of offering leadership by example.
Meanwhile the Labour Party offers a mirror image of the Johnson vacuum.
Whereas Johnson talks and acts like a charlatan, Corbyn appears sincere and genuine, almost to the point of insipid vagueness. But, while Corbyn may offer a vision of a kinder, gentler Britain, his record as party leader is one of ambivalence on the bullying and anti-Semitism of his supporters.
This absence of leadership in British politics is not something new. It was obvious at the Brexit referendum. As I remarked at the time:
“it is no coincidence that the most significant and impactful interventions… have come from those who are no longer active on the main political stage, such as John Major, Gordon Brown or Ken Clarke…. the current crop of Conservative, Labour and Lib Dem political leaders have failed to impress… The few bright points from the current political generation have come from the likes of Nicola Sturgeon.”
The departure of senior political figures, most notably Ken Clarke, points to a less than bright political future for the UK. How could anyone treat any polity seriously that mistakes Priti Patel for a senior political figure?
So, what about us? Do we have a better standard of political leadership on offer here than they have in the UK?
In a word: yes.
Though our current crop of political leaders have failings and flaws, they still compare favourably with their British… sorry, English… counterparts.
Not that this sets the bar especially high. We have no grounds for complacency. We can only maintain this position by ensuring that people with ability get involved in politics.
While Brexit has highlighted the paucity of political leadership in Britain, it has had the opposite affect here. An Taoiseach is viewed, fairly, as showing solid leadership on Brexit. He has been clear and tough in defending and championing Ireland’s interests, despite some early errors.
While there has been some Fine Gael spin suggesting that Varadkar has adopted a tougher line than his predecessor, all he has done is to continue the Enda Kenny approach with a slightly bolder glossary.
On other issues, the story is not so clear. While his promoters champion Varadkar as bolder and more defined than his predecessor, party rival Simon Coveney or even his challenger as Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, reality begs to differ.
While, as I have outlined here before, the Taoiseach has shown consummate, presentational skills we still await any signs of leadership from the Taoiseach or his ministers in tackling the ongoing housing or healthcare crises.
Meanwhile, as new problems emerge in public transport and education, government ministers don hi-viz jackets and hard hats and busy themselves organising more shovel ceremonies and announcements as polling day approaches for the four by-elections.
So, what of Varadkar’s challenger, Micheál Martin?
Over recent weeks we have seen the Taoiseach use the final section of his Leaders’ Question exchanges with Martin to goad and jibe the Fianna Fáil leader
Varadkar’s goal is obvious. Paint himself as young, sharp and decisive and Martin as old-school, self-righteous and dithering. It is a neat little caricature, but there are no signs that the public is ready to buy into it.
Yes, they see the two men offering competing styles of leadership, but they are still waiting to see and hear more. As I have argued here and on RTÉ, the outcome of the next election will be decided by how Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael share out the 60% of the popular vote they are likely to collectively receive.
It is why, with an election no more than six months away, Fine Gael is so eager to pin the label of indecisiveness on Martin. It is an accusation that has been levelled at the Cork man before, but any fair reading of his time as party leader proves the opposite.
In the years after the disaster of the 2011 election there were several siren voices within Fianna Fáil urging it to lurch to the populist right, even to become Eurosceptic party.
Martin showed both strength and leadership in facing these down, even at a time when his party was barely getting by on life support. We forget that Red C polls in September and October 2011 showed Fianna Fáil support, which hit 17.4% at the election, continuing to plummet, dropping down to 15% and even 14%.
Holding the party together in these circumstances was no mean feat. But Martin did more than just hold it together, he led it back to the centre of politics.
All of which he did from the front, courting unpopularity with some as he backed Marriage Equality and Repeal the Eighth. Not that the Confidence and Supply deal with Fine Gael was an easy sell either.
While Martin has also shown leadership on the North and is to be applauded for pursuing partnership with the SDLP and moving Fianna Fáil closer to its goal of being an all-island party, I fear that he – and/or the people around him – have failed to grasp the real potential of that partnership or understand just how public opinion on Unity – across the island – is moving.
[At this point I should declare a personal interest in this matter as I was heavily involved, behind-the-scenes, in promoting partnership with the SDLP.]
The constitutional miasma unleashed by Brexit has put all relationships in and between these two islands up for discussion, a discussion that will receive even greater impetus when Scotland moves closer to becoming an independent country (and Irish ally in the EU).
It is not that Irish re-unification is some absolute inevitability and that we should start printing the posters for a Unity poll now, but rather that socio and economic issues can no longer be seen just as exclusively 26 or a 6-county matters, but rather as an all-island.
This makes wins by the SDLP’s Colum Eastwood in Foyle and Claire Hanna in South Belfast every bit as strategically vital and important to Fianna Fáil’s development as the election of two, three or four of its by-election candidates. It is not a matter of doing one or the other as some in the party seem to think, it is vital to do both.
While next year’s general election here will be rightly focused on housing, health, and public infrastructure, it must also be about leadership.
It will be a long and dogged campaign, if the claim and counter claim of the past few weeks is anything to go by. So far, we have heard some snippets of the micro-policies that will be on offer, but we have still to hear anything more substantial or anything even approaching a vision, never mind one that can be translated by leadership into a reality.
Let’s hope it comes and – when it does – it amounts to something more than just a slogan, otherwise we will end up having the leadership vacuum that is the UK election inflicted on us here.
Derek Mooney is a communications and public affairs consultant. He previously served as a Ministerial Adviser to the Fianna Fáil-led government 2004 – 2010. His column appears here every Monday.Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney