Thursday 29 September 2016

Is serious Simon just the man to end FG's 'spin'?

These are serious times, requiring serious people, says Brendan O'Connor, so where does that leave the Simon versus Leo question?

Published 24/07/2016 | 02:30

NEW POLITICS: Cabinet members (from left) Simon Coveney, Michael Noonan, Taoiseach Enda Kenny, President Michael D Higgins, Tanaiste Frances Fitzgerald, Richard Bruton and Leo Varadkar. Photo: Kyran O’Brien
NEW POLITICS: Cabinet members (from left) Simon Coveney, Michael Noonan, Taoiseach Enda Kenny, President Michael D Higgins, Tanaiste Frances Fitzgerald, Richard Bruton and Leo Varadkar. Photo: Kyran O’Brien

Do you not think we've had our fun now? Do you not think it's time to get a little bit serious? Do you not think these are serious times with serious challenges? Do you not think we need serious people to deal with it?

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Politics, like everything else in this era of marketing, spin, social media and showbiz, has become about everything but politics. It's a bit like how for the big football clubs, football is rapidly becoming a non-core product. Football is a necessary attachment, but really it's about the ancillary sponsorships and merchandising and so on. Everything is gone that way a bit. Nothing is actually about itself anymore, it is about the circus around it. Facts increasingly don't matter. In politics, facts have always been a malleable commodity, but the Brexit campaign brought it to new heights, when the people of the UK made a momentous, earth-shattering decision based mainly on a feeling. Facts are boring after all. Whereas feelings move us, make us feel alive.

Politics in Ireland has always been a soap opera. We have always been a people who are hugely engaged with politics, perhaps inevitable in a country where, up to recently, people killed each other over politics. Politics here has always been as much about the people as the policies. Haughey, Bertie, Albert, even Bruton and Garrett, were all men who divided the nation, and they were men who people took very personally.

But in recent times, we have taken the biscuit. Politics became a farce this year. Fine Gael's disastrous election campaign, the farcical process of putting a government together, and the farcical government that was put together, have all been highly entertaining. The speculation about the leadership of Fine Gael has all been a great distraction too as we approach the political silly season. The mad clamour among the media for Kenny to go two weeks ago, when it was clear to most of his colleagues that Kenny was going nowhere, was diverting and seemed to suggest something was happening around politics. But in reality, it's all just nonsense.

Meanwhile, the Government is doing practically nothing as it tries to get to grips with new politics. We are blundering our way through seismic shifts like Brexit, still convincing ourselves that Brexit isn't really going to happen. So let's get back to discussing whether Leo should take over from Enda.

From Westminster to Nice to Turkey to Washington, these are serious times requiring serious men. The age of the politician as PR man, that started in earnest with Blair and reached a literal peak with Cameron, an actual PR man, has come to a shuddering halt in the UK. Theresa May seems shrewd enough but she certainly isn't playing to the crowd with her every move. One doesn't imagine that every utterance is polled and the next utterance tailored accordingly.

America isn't necessarily electing a serious president for these serious times, but the yanks certainly aren't electing by acclaim the trendy option of a woman and a Clinton. Indeed, the fact that a lunatic like Trump could conceivably become president says something interesting. For all his salesmanship and his celebrity, Trump is in many ways the opposite of a PR politician. Every utterance certainly isn't checked to see how it will play with various demographics before he says it.

Trump, in reality, is a PR man's nightmare. And it could be this impression, that he shoots from the hip and says what is on his mind, that is making many people think he is the more serious choice for these serious times. Trump seems to lie indiscriminately, but somehow Hillary seems like more of a bullshitter. It's a subtle difference but you see what I mean. Trump tells lies, but he does not lie about what he is in essence. He wears his ideas on his sleeve. Trump, in some ways, is probably the perfect antidote to Obama, who was, when it came down to it, part of the era of PR politicians. Check out his wife singing a Beyonce number on James Corden's Carpool Karoake slot last week. The Obamas are showbiz through and through.

We never went full PR politics in this country. As much as a cadre of young West Wing wannabes has grown around Irish politics in recent years, we haven't really gone full tilt for the PR politician yet.

Fianna Fail Taoisigh have always tended to have a whiff of colour about them. Charlie and Bertie both had a sense of celebrity about them, though Brian Cowen famously complained that he was misunderstood because he was about substance and not style.

Enda Kenny, now 65, became an unlikely celebrity by travelling the country, high-fiving and posing for selfies, but he remains a poor TV performer and there is something unconvincing about his attempts at showbiz. Perhaps because he is, at heart, a thoughtful and rather sensitive man, who sometimes seems to have to force extroversion. In a funny way, Gerry Adams has probably been the closest we have had to a larger-than-life iconic politician in recent years. His supporters portray him in the same light as Nelson Mandela, and he has courted a wacky public image through Twitter. But his PR image has not been enough when he performs disastrously when it comes to the nuts and bolts of politics.

The real question now bubbling around Irish politics is where we go next. Is it time for serious politicians for serious times?

Micheal Martin, who will possibly be Taoiseach in the next few years, has successfully cultivated a sober, sensible image. His recent manoeuvres have made him seem like a rock of solidity as FG and the Independent Alliance have floundered around publicly and the rest of the opposition seemed flaky and irresponsible.

In the meantime though, it seems like we will get Leo or Simon.

Everyone likes Leo and he is adept at making the right thoughtful noises. He is also someone who seems to have become more comfortable with playing the political game, having previously presented himself as an oddity and an outsider. Leo was the man who didn't go to funerals, who told it like it was. But actions speak louder than words. And no one can forget Leo's tenure in the Department of Health, when he was viewed as someone who didn't take responsibility for issues and who seemed disengaged from what were life and death problems.

Contrast that with Simon Coveney, who hasn't once moaned about being lumbered with what is seen as the biggest problem facing the country right now. Not only that, but Coveney managed to come up with a housing plan that, for all its flaws, was largely welcomed in most quarters. There have been complaints that he didn't deal with the rental issue properly, but when he says that that will happen over the next few months, people seem to actually believe him. Coveney, who is closing the gap with Leo in polls all the time, is rapidly being seen as the one man in Government actually doing something. It seems now as if fixing the housing problem is going to be the big national project of the next year or two, and Coveney, so far, incredibly, is not seen to be making a balls of it.

The conventional wisdom among Fine Gael TDs is said to be that Leo is the man to get them re-elected, a good brand, great recognition, media-friendly, a good performer in debates. Leo would be a huge asset in an election campaign is the thinking. And that could be true. But it could also be true that Ireland could decide that right now, we need a serious man for serious times, and that boring old Simon Coveney, who was fixing the housing crisis while everyone else was heading off to summer schools, could be that man.

Sunday Independent

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