News Analysis

Saturday 23 August 2014

It's all too easy to simply blame the last guy in the job

After Brian Lenihan's attack on his old boss, Brendan O'Connor feels we're tipping the wrong brother for the top job

Published 15/06/2008 | 00:00

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So the Government is massively out of touch with the people -- and all its might, and all the might of Cowen, couldn't get a simple 'Yes'.

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As much as the 'No' vote is a bit of a shocker, the fact that this Government is out of touch with the people is no real surprise. This is the culmination of a rot that has been festering for quite some time. And, like everything that's going on in Fianna Fail and this Government right now, Bertie Ahern is key to it all. Here's a story that illuminates it all very well.

Probably like most of you, I found myself going along with the general consensus that Brian Lenihan Jnr would be Taoiseach some day. Lenihan seemed tough, upright, intelligent, well spoken, human, all the kind of things that would make him suitable for the job.

And it would have completed a circle and given a happy ending to the Lenihan family saga. While most of us harbour a slight resentment towards political dynasties and inherited seats, there has always been a slight guilt about the Lenihans, who were never seen as a silver-spoon kind of a dynasty.

As time goes on we're tending to feel that Brian Lenihan's father wasn't a bad old skin and that it all ended badly for him, and that Mary O'Rourke, his sister, feels a bit cheated about how her career in public life is winding up. Brian Lenihan Snr's sons seem like decent sorts, was the thinking, and it would be nice to see one of them make their father proud.

But in the last week I've started to wonder if we've been tipping the right Lenihan for the top job. Like lots of you, I was surprised to see Brian Lenihan Jnr attack Bertie Ahern on RTE's The Week in Politics last week. If nothing else, it seemed a bit gratuitous. Lenihan wasn't particularly pressured into making a comment on Ahern's troubles. In fact it seemed that he might have been quite prepared to make such a comment to put down a marker, to distance himself from Ahern, to draw a line in the sand.

It felt, too, as if Lenihan was really kicking a man when he was down, which is not the kind of thing we expect from the decent Lenihan family. And I started to think properly about Brian Lenihan Jnr for the first time, and I wondered if we might all be wrong about him.

So why did Lenihan decide to launch what looked to me to be a premeditated attack on a great taoiseach -- a man who, until recently, had done so much for this country, for Lenihan's party, and for Lenihan himself?

The first, most obvious reason that strikes you is that Lenihan was trying to curry favour with the anti-Ahern media crowd, from Frank Connolly and the Daily Mail to the Irish Times to elements within the broadcast media.

The anti-Ahern media mob are sensitive at the moment. They continually called the Ahern thing wrong through Bertiegates I and II, and through a general election. They finally thought they had triumphed when Ahern left office recently and they got their man Cowen in. But it's starting to look as if they might have called that one wrong as well.

There is only so long they can laugh off Cowen's thuggery as colour. There is only so long they can pretend that what looks to all the world like an ignorant oaf on the back of a lorry is a statesman to match Bertie Ahern, who could mix it with the best of them internationally while always bringing the ordinary people along with him.

There is only so long they can portray Cowen's rough edges and controlling tendencies as "character". And now they are faced with the fact that a referendum on which Cowen staked his reputation, a referendum that he effectively wrapped himself around and turned into a referendum on himself personally, has been a humiliating failure for Cowen and the people who put him there.

And all the time the elephant in the room is that there was nothing wrong with Bertie Ahern as a leader. In fact, for all Ahern's limitations, the aspects of his character and his manner that were fashionable to sneer at, with each day that goes by, Ahern starts to look more like a giant of polish, diplomacy and effectiveness next to Brian Cowen.

While the D4 crowd were occasionally mortified by Bertie's canary suits and malapropisms, they knew underneath it all that where it counted you could stick him up there with anyone and trust him to be the smoothest operator in the room. On paper, Bertie should have been an embarrassment, but in reality he wasn't. Cowen, though no one is admitting it yet, is the opposite.

The other elephant in the room is that Bertie Ahern would have delivered Lisbon. We all know it.

So with the media and the people suffering what is called in marketing terms "post-purchase dissonance" about the decision to trade in their reliable old model for a new one, there is a huge need for constant frantic reassurance that we did the right thing.

In fact, the more it becomes clear that we screwed up, the more we need to keep telling ourselves that we didn't.

So Lenihan was perhaps giving his media buddies in the Times and the Mail a dig out, a bit of reassurance that they did the right thing, despite how it might appear right now. If that was his reasoning, then you have to feel sorry for the guy. If he honestly thinks that selling out his old boss to get in with the Mail and the Times and RTE will win him friends, then he's sadly misguided. Because those guys will turn on him as and when it suits them. So at the very least, Lenihan's judgment is bad.

But I think there's more to it than that. I think that Lenihan's attack on Ahern last week was part of a more concerted effort to rewrite history. It hasn't really started in earnest yet, but there are little signs of it popping up here and there. This Government is under pressure, and the easiest thing for them to do under pressure is to blame the last guy in the job, the guy who isn't there anymore.

Already there are mutterings that Ahern is responsible for the Lisbon fiasco. Already there are suggestions that Ahern is responsible for the state of the economy. Make no mistake, to save their own skins the current leadership of Fianna Fail will think nothing of shitting all over Bertie Ahern and his legacy. Because if they don't blame Bertie for Lisbon and the economy, who do they blame?

Well, Brian Cowen obviously. He's the one who's been in charge of the economy for the last five years. He's the one who didn't reform stamp duty in a timely and effective manner, despite the fact that Ahern apparently wanted to do so. Cowen is the one who made Lisbon a vote of confidence in himself, and ignored economic Armageddon in recent weeks to traipse around shopping centres trying to sell Lisbon. But neither Fianna Fail nor the media, who have all invested so much in Cowen, can admit that appalling vista: that this all may be Cowen's fault.

So that's the slightly bigger picture. But let's pull back a bit more and see the really big picture. Ahern versus Mahon is an archetypal, symbolic battle. It is a battle between an ordinary working-class guy with messy records, a messy life, who bet on horses and whose domestic life was not black and white, and posh public school boys who make their money by inserting themselves into the messy cracks in people's lives.

Leonard Cohen sang his song Anthem in Kilmainham over the weekend: "There is a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in." In Ireland it would be more properly said: that's how the lawyer gets in.

And if we look at Lenihan's unnecessary intervention in the Ahern thing against the background of this archetypal battle between lawyers, the country's tightest boy's club, and an ordinary guy, then we realise something else crucial. Brian Lenihan Jnr? Lawyer. So obviously he's going to side with his own when the chips are down. Because lawyers, even stand-up guys like Lenihan, all gang up together against the rest of us. They actually look down on the rest of us. Sweeping statement, I'm aware, but you know it's true.

So when you think about it, it's no surprise that Lenihan would side with Mahon. It's no surprise either that a lawyer would hold a top job -- as Lenihan does. For a profession that was always supposed to be on the sideline, mediating between the people who actually did things, lawyers have a fairly firm grip on power in this country. If it wasn't for the extraordinarily high proportion of teachers in Cabinet and occupying junior ministries, we would largely be ruled by lawyers.

Barry Andrews has a foot in both camps -- managing, extraordinarily, to be both a teacher and a barrister. Brian Cowen is a lawyer too -- as is, interestingly, Peter Power. Peter Power, you will recall, was one of the two TDs fomenting the phantom backbench revolt against Bertie. That amount of lawyers stalking the corridors of real power is worrying. I'd nearly rather it was all teachers. Or even that we had a few more air traffic controllers/publicans/ undertakers like John Moloney. I'd certainly take a few more area sales managers, like the hugely underestimated Martin Cullen.

While there are good guys who disprove the rule -- Like Willie O'Dea and Dermot Ahern, both lawyers but both firmly down with the ordinary people -- an unholy alliance of the Irish Times and lawyers who are sucking up to the Irish Times would have to make one very nervous. Because both institutions look down on us on their own, but together they will have no regard for us whatsoever.

So I think, on -- as they say -- mature reflection, that everyone is wrong about Brian Lenihan. The fact that Fianna Fail seem to have lost ordinary Dubs would suggest that too. I now realise that it is Conor Lenihan that Brian Cowen should have elevated in Dublin.

Ordinary people have no real regard for Law Library smoothies all looking after each other. Most of us are on the side of the ordinary guy, and most of us realise that life is messy. Most of us, too, prefer a more lived-in, rough and ready, street-smart kind of politician. And that's what Conor Lenihan is.

He's been a journalist, he's worked in business. And he's the kind of street-fighting Dub who could possibly have delivered the ordinary vote in Dublin last Thursday, where Cowen and his Law Library buddy Brian didn't.

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