Saturday 20 December 2014

After your rise may come your fall, Frances

Having risen rapidly in the FG power game, Fitzgerald still faces major challenges

Published 03/08/2014 | 02:30

FRANCES IN OFFICE: New broom or a case of the emperor’s new suit? The Justice Minister could yet evolve into Fine Gael’s Hillary Clinton, but, to secure that status she must deal with the legacy of a turbulent priest called Alan Shatter
FRANCES IN OFFICE: New broom or a case of the emperor’s new suit? The Justice Minister could yet evolve into Fine Gael’s Hillary Clinton, but, to secure that status she must deal with the legacy of a turbulent priest called Alan Shatter

They say that Frances was a nice girl once. That is not to say that she isn't a nice girl now. But she certainly is a more knowing political creature than the Frances who initially came into Leinster House.

Back then, niceness was the defining characteristic of Fine Gael's frontbench spokesperson for the voicing of appropriate sentiments and occasional bouts of hand-wringing.

Frances was Fine Gael's message to the south Dublin bourgeoisie that the grand old party had not been fully taken over by uncouth Cute Old Phil Hogan types.

The problem with Frances and the nice girl theory is that, as she found out in spades at the ill-fated John Bruton heave, generally in politics, as in most other areas of life, nice girls finish last.

Suddenly, though, almost without trace, Frances has risen to a pivotal position within the Coalition, without being surrounded with the blood and guts normally associated with such events.

The rise is all the more intriguing for, like Dear Leader Enda's elevation, up to the moment where she became a serious player little was still known of Frances.

Fine Gael's Dear Lady might have been in the cabinet, but, whilst being the minister for children is technically important, she would have rapidly discovered the reality that, in high-level politics, children in Ireland are valued in theory and press releases rather than practice.

A ministry though is a ministry and once you are in there you are in the great game. Of course, this happy position was sparked by the 2010 FG battle of the Alamo, where Frances serendipitously chose the right side.

After the war was over, FG's Dear Lady continued to be the sort of good girl that even Enda Kenny would not find in any way threatening.

However, after making the cleverly calibrated and utterly unexpected decision to say no to Richard, a certain revolution occurred in her political persona.

Suddenly, Frances started mixing with and, more importantly still, learning from the hardened political lads such as Cute Old Phil and the rest of Enda's former Country and Western gang who like hanging around the back of the political bicycle shed.

Defeats, of which Frances certainly suffered plenty, can destroy or embitter a politician or they can make them.

In the case of Frances, just as watching Bertie taught Joan a fair few tricks, all of FG's internal wars toughened the Justice Minister up.

In a remarkably similar manner to the experience of Enda Kenny, mere survival has also been a key factor in driving her increasingly powerful role within Fine Gael.

The departure for reasons miscellaneous of Alan Shatter and Cute Old Phil, and the sharp demotion of James Reilly to the peripheral brief Frances used to hold, means the centre of gravity of the FG wing of the cabinet has changed.

Leo and Simon are now the designated future leaders, who are starting to look increasingly distracted and fidgety when the ageing, declining Enda makes his political calls.

This means that suddenly, out of nowhere, Frances and Charlie Flanagan are the twin pillars who will be expected to sustain the ageing Dear Leader.

Though, like Enda, FG's Dear Lady has risen almost without trace, her sudden importance in the court of Enda Kenny means an increasing number of nervous FG TDs are hopefully noting that "there must be something about Frances".

Intriguingly, when it comes to Frances,no-one quite knows what that 'something' might be or if it even exists.

Despite this less than minor lacuna, FG TDs are already beginning to speak of how, should something terribly bad (or good in the sense of a fine big fat EU job) happen to Enda, then Frances might make the sort of 'safe' interim leader FG TDs like.

It has been noted that since Frances has taken over, the flames that were permanently licking the timbers of the Justice Department have eased.

Cautious Frances, for this is a trait she shares with Enda too, knows sacking Mr Purcell could well have evolved into the political equivalent of asking a question you don't know the answer to.

Of course, the notion that the current Dear Leader might be replaced by Frances would only come into play were something bad to happen to Enda.

Once that would have seemed impossible, but when it comes to the murk in Justice, the only thing now clear is that the political bacon slicer is nudging Enda's still fragrant posterior.

Or rather, the bacon slicer has morphed into a loose political chainsaw.

Everyone might still escape unscathed, but since no-one is in control we can't be sure.

And after Alan Shatter's imitation of a turbulent priest, the chances of further bad things happening have increased.

It would be ironic if, having been the political victim of death by a thousand cuts, Mr Shatter began a similar process with Dear Leader Enda.

The Taoiseach will, if his increasingly wonky political antennae are working, know Alan is the worst of backbenchers.

He is an intelligent man with a just cause who, being utterly free from the shackles of hope and ambition, has the time on his hands and the political tools should justified grievance reside in his heart, to dig a political swamp for Enda.

That itself would be bad enough but when it comes to a crisis that increasingly resembles the wound that will not heal, the Fennelly report is looming like a political sword of Damocles.

Mind you, when it comes to this political swamp, Dear Lady Frances has not jumped free for she is still snared in the tendrils left by her unlamented predecessor.

The new Justice Minister has, like all those sentiments voiced by Enda about the 'democratic revolution' before the election, talked the talk about reform.

But whilst the Justice bush-fire has been tamped down, the promises have merely bought FG's doe-eyed Hillary Clinton a stay of execution. From now on, only her acts and deeds will tell us if there actually is something about Frances.

Sunday Independent

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