Sunday 21 December 2014

Batt man comes to aid beleaguered Brian Cowen

Published 17/08/2008 | 00:00

Finally, at the end of his fraught first 100 days, I have two bits of good news for Brian Cowen.

First, Niamh Horan's hilarious Sunday Independent story about dunking digestive biscuits with the Taoiseach in a caravan in Connemara did him no harm at all with the women of Ireland -- and gave the rest of us a glimpse of the human face behind the tired public mask.

Second, in Batt O'Keeffe the Government has finally found a gritty minister who is willing to think outside the box, and get blood on his shirt. His willingness to say hard things should be copied by other ministers. Like Brian Lenihan. Last week, Lenihan took cheap shots at private sector profits rather than raise reform of the real fat cats -- the permanent, pensionable and unproductive public sector.

Let me look at these two bits of good news in turn. First, I have no doubt there are dull spin doctors in the Taoiseach's circles who dismiss Niamh's story as a colour piece of no political consequence. In fact, it was classic piece of field reporting. In a few hundred words it revealed more positive things about the Taoiseach than the thousands of pompous words poured over his hapless head by political correspondents.

This was brought home to me by bumping into Una Claffey, a former political adviser to Bertie Ahern. Una has an unerring sense for the public pulse. She believes that Niamh Horan's piece caught the Brian Cowen she knew and provided a sympathetic portrait of the Taoiseach as a modest man who takes his holidays in a caravan in Connemara rather than cavorting in a villa in Corfu.

Second, Batt O'Keeffe's brave call for a debate on third-level funding and performance also energised political discourse. It was brave because when Noel Dempsey tried to do the same some time back, he was shouted down by a populist coalition of the PDs, the teachers unions and a baying mob led by Joe Duffy. No change there.

But Batt bore up and the blood on his shirt showed character. The public craves character. Hence, it's high time that Brian Cowen and Brian Lenihan got some blood on their shirts, too. True, they barely had time to draw breath when the recession descended on them. But in politics, as in poker, what matters is not the cards you are dealt, but how you play them.

Here the Taoiseach and the Minister for Finance should ask themselves whether they are getting good advice from those around them. Many of the spin doctors in situ are simply PR types who think their task is to publish snippets of good news. Actually, a good spin doctor should be constantly creating situations which come close to "bad news".

This means seeking situations where the minister confronts fat cats and gets blood on his shirt or her blouse. And if the Taoiseach wants to test the truth of that proposition, he can reflect on how a constant drip of sugary "good news" stories from Peter Power's spin doctors did nothing to give the junior minister gravitas -- whereas Power's dangerous call for Irish troops in Georgia gave him a gritty profile.

The public prefers politicians with the character, grit and gravitas that only come from getting blood on your shirt. That, in turn, means doing two things than cannot be faked: (a) tackling a sacred cow and (b) saying things that shock some of the people on your own side.

For Brian Cowen, this means challenging the perception that he is a prisoner of the public sector. For Brian Lenihan, this means being less likeable and more lethal. Like many of the Lenihans (not Conor) he is far too fond of paying lip service to populist positions.

Last week, Lenihan attacked private sector profits. Far from going down well with the public, it merely made him look weak. The public knows full well that while the private sector pockets big profits, it also creates jobs, whereas the public sector pockets big salaries and pensions and creates nothing.

Let me make a hard prediction.

Unless Brian Cowen and Brian Lenihan stop sucking up to social democracy and take on the most bloated

sacred cow in Irish politics -- the public sector -- they will never achieve that aura of authority which marks out a great Government.

Time was the national question was the only game in town. Today, reform of the public sector is the only game in town. So far, the Government have funked it in favour of socialist posturing. The Taoiseach should take stock of the fact that the public shows no gratitude for free lunches. Niamh Breathnach, of the Labour Party, who abolished third-level fees in a fit of political correctness, lost her seat and Labour got no thanks at the general election. And it deserved no thanks.

Labour's PC policy also ended the system of progressive local authority scholarships. As Kieran Denny pointed out in a letter to the Irish Times last Thursday: "Far from providing a level playing field as Niamh Breathach claimed, it took away the one advantage the less well off had in what has to be one of the most socially regressive policies in recent history."

As I have said before, Labour has lost the plot. All the more reason for Fianna Fail to stop making socialist noises and flush out the fat cats in the public sector. As a start, all senior civil servants should be liable for third-level tuition fees.

Let me now turn to a report from my west Cork correspondent, Colette Ware, who has kindly kept me up to date during a summer in Dublin close to a Centre of Excellence. This meant I missed the West Cork Literary Festival and, more tragically, the doggy part of the Myross Show where I had trained my middle-aged Posy to do a Mama Mia and take a gold.

Colette's concise report reveals that Posy had no chance. "The supreme champion was a perky little terrier with attitude unforgettably called Jacky Healy-Rea. Keep well and shout for Waterford on Sunday."

And since, like Colette, I have dual citizenship in Cork and Waterford, that is exactly what I shall be doing today.

Lastly, let me mark the memory of Nollaig O Gadhra who died last week. We first met in UCC and argued about nationalism for nigh on 50 years without ever coming to any agreement

Although in his tribute the Taoiseach called Nollaig a republican, I think it more accurate to call him a nationalist. While Nollaig welcomed Irish Protestants who professed republicanism (like the late Risteard O Glaisne), nothing in his prolific writings showed he accepted they could rationally prefer unionism. Hence the arguments.

Although physically frail, Nollaig never lacked physical courage and bore his bad health with great grit. And if he sometimes annoyed people by coming across as the Keeper of the National Conscience, it is a fault from which I myself am not free. Ar dheis De go raibh a anam croga.

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