What Fine Gael needs to do is find its bottom
Published 07/01/2007 | 00:11
'HE WHO wields the knife never wears the crown." Let us hope the old adage applies to the ambitions of John Deasy and Damien English.
Announcing their ambition to replace Enda Kenny on the eve of battle, no matter how they may dress it up, is simply waving a white flag in the face of Fianna Fail and surrendering before a shot has been fired.
Naturally there is nothing wrong with young men being ambitious - provided they have what it takes to be leader. And these two do not.
Deasy is a political dilettante who shows diligence in doing his expenses. English has an easy teddy-bear popularity. Nothing in their career or character shows they have the stomach for the savage battle which Fine Gael faces after the coming General Election.
In the first place, they lack the leaden stoicism which marks any great leader. What the Duke of Wellington called bottom. Sitting on his horse at Waterloo, as the French pounded his positions, Wellington said calmly to his staff, "Hard pounding, gentlemen. Let us see who can pound the longest."
Bottom is not a male monopoly. Mary Harney, Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese have bottom - you can fill in the shifty female names who do not have bottom for yourself. But although John Deasy and Damien English are male, they lack the bottom needed for the battles ahead - not merely for the General Election.
Even before Fianna Fail has opened fire - and it will be a ferocious fusillade when it comes - Deasy and English have set out to save their own skins. Talking about a leadership contest before the battle begins comes across as the the old cowardly cry of sauve qui peut (save yourselves) which marked the prelude to a general rout.
Announcing their ambition to be leader of Fine Gael is like two of Wellington's junior staffers announcing they would like to replace him just as the Old Guard begins its terrifying advance at Waterloo. It spreads alarm in the already frightened ranks of Fine Gael, a party whose backbenchers are only marginally less liable to panic than those of Fianna Fail.
In a war, panic-mongers like Deasy and English would be shot. But Fine Gael would be foolish to bother doing anything to discipline them. This can safely be left to their local electorates. Irish people put a premium on courage and will not look kindly on anyone who stabs a brave leader like Kenny in the back.
Even if they do not publicly say so, even his political enemies give Kenny credit for courage. Although he must have known he had not a hope in hell of becoming Taoiseach, he still took on the thankless task of leading Fine Gael. And no matter how history deals with him, it cannot be denied that he has made a first-class job of putting heart into the party.
But for all his bravery, Kenny leads what Wellington would have called a Forlorn Hope, that band of brave men who volunteered to form the first storming party against a bastion, and whose bodies would be the bridge across which their comrades would later advance.
That said, I do not, of course, believe that Kenny can continue as party leader after the coming General Election. But he can take some grim consolation from the certainty that exactly the same thing will happen to his successor - unless Fine Gael faces the two unpleasant facts which I brought to its attention many years ago, and which the voters will soon bring to its attention again.
First, the soft form of social democracy Fine Gael got from Garret the Good has done them deep structural damage with what I christened 'the coping class' in a speech for John Bruton (Michael McDowell's strapped speech-writers recently tried to pass the phrase off as their own). This is the class which brought both Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern to power - for all Ahern's nonsense aboutsocialism.
Second, Fine Gael's long fling with political correctness - the belief that whatever they say must go down well with the comparatively tiny readership of the Irish Times - has further alienated that coping class. Among other things, it is tired of being told that it is racist or roughon Travellers or callous to criminals.
Far from consistently standing for the coping class, Fine Gael hides behind a confusing clutter of policies. The confusion and the clutter come from Fine Gael's failure to make up its mind on whether it wants to be loved by people who think Travellers should settle down - or be settled down - or by people who want to wring their hands and write letters to the Irish Times.
But Fine Gael has run out of road. After the coming election, it will have three choices. Continue its bipolar swinging between political correctness and intermittent blueshirtism. Go all out for Garret FitzGerald and soft social democracy and form a social democratic federation with Labour as a prelude to setting up a new social-democratic party. Or make an act of faith in the aspiring Irish middle class.
The latter is the way to go. Under a new, tough young leader - Brian Hayes fits the bill when he wins his seat back - Fine Gael can cut into Fianna Fail's centre with two clean policies aimed at the coping class: reform of the swollen public sector and a comprehensive plan to clean up the cancer of crime.
These two policies should cause the civil servants and civil liberties lobbies to scream to high heaven. The more they scream, the more Fine Gael will know they have found the fundamentals. Fundamentals are another name for bottom.
And Fine Gael needs bottom. Because right now it's a party which does not know its arse from its elbow.