Fianna Fail needs more conviction and less cuteness
Charles Moore's brilliant biography of Margaret Thatcher is also a manual of practical politics. It should be read by all aspiring candidates attending the Fianna Fail Ard Fheis. Here let me declare an interest. I have known and admired Moore since I first met him in 1996 when he was editing The Daily Telegraph.
Moore has a huge grasp of Irish history and politics. He hired brilliant journalists like Dean Godson (David Trimble's biographer) and Toby Harnden (author of the classic Bandit Country) to cover the Troubles. And he has a saving sense of humour about it all, as you will see from the anecdote against myself at the end of this column.
But it was not meeting Moore that turned me into a Daily Telegraph fan. Back in 1990, when I finally said goodbye to socialism, bits and pieces of its prejudices still adhered like fluff. One of them was revering the Guardian and disrespecting The Daily Telegraph.
The man who cured me of that was the late Donal O Morain, former boss of Gael Linn, former chairman of the RTE Authority, a light Blueshirt and iron enemy of the IRA. When I asked Donal one day why he was reading The Daily Telegraph, he simply said: "Seo an phapeir is fearr sa domhan (this is the best newspaper in the world)." And so it was in Moore's day.
Back to the Fianna Fail Ard Fheis. It's time that party took note of one of Moore's insights when promoting his Thatcher book. "Of course, if she had only been a conviction politician, without also being a wily politician, we'd never have heard of her, because she would just have been one of those backbenchers who jumps up and rabbits on."
Naturally, weaker Fianna Fail politicians will only hear the "wily" bit. But you only need the cuteness to make sure you get your way on convictions. And lack of conviction is the Achilles heel of Fianna Fail.
Fianna Fail should long ago have silenced Enda Kenny by hammering on three anvils. First, that Fine Gael and Labour were constantly crying out for more public spending during the period of the property bubble. Second, that Fine Gael's links with Lowry lead back to one of the greatest political scandals since the Arms Trial. Third, by looking after the productive private sector which now has no party.
High time too that Fianna Fail stopped sucking up to the public sector. Bertie Ahern got absolutely no thanks for benchmarking. And a simple tot shows that it makes no political sense for Fianna Fail to join the mob handing out lollipops to the spoiled child in the plush pram of the minority public sector while ignoring the majority of hungry infants packed into the much larger private sector pram.
The 1.783 million at work break down as follows. Private sector workers plus self-employed comes to 1.402 million. Public sector, plus semi-states, comes to 381,000. So why does Fianna Fail continue to favour a smallish sector which it must share with four other parties, while neglecting the greater numbers in the private sector?
The answer is that the party is dominated by an internal public sector lobby. Fianna Fail senators should have been nodding in agreement when Senator Colm Burke, of Fine Gael, sensibly reminded his Seanad colleagues: "Many workers in the private sector have suffered pay reductions of more than 40 per cent."
But the Pavlovian response of Senator Paschal Mooney of Fianna Fail was to protect the public sector and social welfare classes. "Are the doctors, nurses, teachers, those on maternity benefits, single-parent families and all those who are vulnerable in society, who are struggling under the yoke of increased taxation, the ones who will have to find the money?"
Notice, not a word about the majority of productive private sector workers. That is why Niall Collins's new tough line on Croke Park II makes such political sense. But Fianna Fail must also reach into its radical past if it wants to see off Sinn Fein.
Sean Lemass set the standards for frugality in public office. He could have become a millionaire in the Second World War by looking the other way. But he lived like a monk on his modest ministerial salary, refusing directorships as unseemly, and died worth only €350,000 in today's money – far less than the yearly earnings of some bankers.
Fianna Fail must learn to live like Lemass or it will lose the rising generation to Sinn Fein. Deeds and not words are what young people demand. Fianna Fail should call for cuts in politicians' pay and pensions as a prelude to doing the same for the rest
of the public sector. Such a call, plus not letting Lowry go off the radar, would soon soften Kenny's cough.
In conclusion: the Charles Moore anecdote. A few years ago, I was travelling to Galway by train and reading the Telegraph in the dining car. Someone stopped to read the Telegraph's front page facing them. I lowered the paper and found myself looking into the cold blue eyes of Kevin Mallon, the most iconic IRA activist of the Northern Troubles.
Mallon's career began back in 1957 when he was acquitted of the murder of Sgt Arthur Ovens who was killed in a booby trap bomb at a disused cottage near Coalisland in August. He was rearrested, charged with possession of dynamite and detonators and given 14 years. He was released in 1968 but resumed his IRA career in the Seventies.
In 1973, Mallon was dramatically lifted by helicopter from the yard at Mountjoy Jail. He was re-captured after a national manhunt but no prison could hold him. In 1974, he blew his way out of Portlaoise Jail. In short, not a Daily Telegraph reader. Luckily, he only wanted to discuss drama with me.
Mallon: I saw your play Souper Sullivan at the Abbey.
Me: Did you like it?
Mallon: Worst fucking play I ever saw in my life.
Later I told the story to Dean Godson who in turn told Moore how the Telegraph had brought Mallon down on my hapless head. Moore reflected on all the leftie and luvvie plays he loathed then playing in London and came to a decision: "Let's hire Kevin Mallon as the paper's theatre critic."
A tiny postscript on Wikipedia. While checking out the career of IRA chief of staff Seamus Twomey on Wikipedia, I found a link to 'Kevin Mallon'. Pressing this, I got the following:
"Kevin Mallon is a Northern Irish classical conductor who now lives in Toronto, Canada."
Pity the IRA Kevin Mallon didn't pursue a conducting career too. The country would have been a more peaceful place. And Charles Moore might have made him The Daily Telegraph music critic.