John Drennan

Wednesday 30 July 2014

John Drennan: Why Enda must turn around the loser effect

Politicians need modest victories if they are to defeat grander enemies, writes John Drennan

Published 24/06/2012|05:00

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Though it was entirely predictable that Charlie Flanagan's invitation to the 'shrink' Ian Robertson to give a lecture on the neurological factors behind success and failure in politics would be greeted by smirking titters, it was still depressing to realise that when it comes to psychology, the habitues of the Dail are less advanced than the average club GAA team.

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Of course, none of the invited members of our busy Cabinet had time to attend the brief lecture though Enda at least sent his apologies.

The absenteeism, though unfortunate, was not surprising for the current tyranny of economics means we have forgotten that success in politics, and, for that matter, that success in fostering that unimportant thing called a society, is as facilitated by psychology as by accountancy.

Ironically, had the missing ministers turned up to hear Robertson's lecture on The Winner Effect. The Neuroscience of Success and Failure, they might have learnt more than a few useful things.

The essence of Professor Robertson's theory on the psychology of politics is that the key attraction of power is that, like sex, cocaine or gambling, power is an anti-depressant.

This side-effect, critically, means that the successful politician tends to be comfortable with risk, up-beat, bold and inspiring, for power gives you optimism as "a biological protection against stresses". It is a quality that, according to Robertson, has a far wider societal impact as "emotions are contagious and optimism is highly contagious".

Our psychologist also noted that a constant stream of victories, no matter how small, is equally important in sustaining a winning psychology, for just as the capacity of boxers to defeat strong opponents is enhanced by a series of victories over weaker ones, in politics, winning begets winning to the extent that it becomes "a fuel injection of testosterone".

There is, unfortunately, a flip side to all of this for studies also show that in politics, sustained periods of "powerlessness" has an equally large number of negative side-effects.

Outside of making you "less smart", powerlessness also reduces your willingness to listen to other people's point of view (remember Golden Island, Enda?), stimulates deference to elites (yes, we are thinking of the Troika and Angela too) and creates a desire to frighten underlings like revolutionary senators.

It was a lecture that in a brief 25-minute span provided us with a startlingly accurate synopsis of the pilgrim's progress of our still half-new government of the Grumpy Old Men (and some token women too) which after having initially attracted such a high level of public goodwill is beginning to slide gently into a place known as Biffo's abyss.

Robertson's lecture confirms our views that one of

the key factors behind the initial popularity of the Grumpy Old Men was their realisation of the importance of creating an optimistic "it's morning time in Ireland" mood.

Sadly, little things such as Enda getting out of the bed at 6am each day or Michael Noonan talking about how he had returned to power "refreshed" by the rigours of the campaign has been replaced by a gathering sense of distress which has left our Grumpy Old Men resembling a group of fishermen who have pulled in a laboriously constructed net only to discover a hole at the bottom of it. As they stand watching their catch float away, Leinster House is cloaked in silence, but the blame game and the squabbling are lurking in the anxious background.

In fairness, the sense of depression is understandable, for the chaotic panic of the dying days of Biffo disguised the awful extent of the wreckage imposed upon the country by the loss of sovereignty.

However, like any surrendered wife, Ireland, having lost its independence, is now, in slow agonising increments, experiencing the inexorable excision of its dignity as the Coalition finds it is still short on money, shorter on options and shorter even still on trustworthy allies when it comes to the real government of domestic mandarins and foreign troika rulers.

As they deal with a scorched earth of public, private, mortgage, corporate and banking debt, and are expected to resolve this whilst our European 'partners' impose a scheme of reparations on the State as a punitive act that is as morally unjustifiable as it is fiscally insane, the hangdog air is entirely understandable.

All of the pre-election dreams and ambitions have come crashing down around their feet. Instead at every turn, where hope has peeked out nervously, a new wolf has come loping out of the undergrowth to slam the door on it.

The consequent deterioration of morale has seen bad old habits creep back in as the original iconoclastic impulses are replaced by a land where Anglo bankers party in Poznan, Michael Lowry pronounces on ethics in the media, and the Ombudsman Emily O'Reilly issues anxious reports about the need to reform what Enda, in Opposition, called the Nama "secret society".

In foreign affairs, Angela Merkel publicly placed Eamon Gilmore's Labour's way or Frankfurt's way in the dustbin of irrelevance whilst the desire of Enda to follow the precedent set by Michael Collins in restoring Ireland's economic sovereignty is being eroded by the harsh realities of a now apparently unavoidable second bailout.

And now even that over which Enda does have control does not appear to be working for, though, in the initial weeks of the Grumpy Old Men, our mandarin elite scurried around like a collective of earwigs dislodged from a comfortable nest beneath a stone, once the big pay-offs started, they swiftly realised we were back to business as usual.

Enda may have initially electrified the country in that Cloyne speech but by the time we got around to the first and then the second 'state of the nation' speech, whilst they did no harm, they did little good either.

The ESRI, in so far as we can trust their methodologies, have poured cold water on the New Era dream that is looking increasingly like the fiscal equivalent of Tir na nOg whilst the precious child of Croke Park is being eroded by friendly fire from FG and a distinctly chillier approach by the IMF and the rest of the Troika to the Irish 'success story' that now sees advantages in pay cuts rather than the current attritional policy of reducing debt by a thousand redundancies.

The meeting and the greeting is not working quite so well any more either for, increasingly, simply travelling the country, winking, nodding and grinning at people leaves Enda Kenny open to the charge of being a busy fool.

Though it may not think it, we are not listing the disappointments which this Government has experienced to simply engage in another exercise in condemnation.

Instead we are citing them within the context of the Robertson theory about how politicians, like boxers, need small victories if they are to defeat grander enemies.

The current lassitude sweeping across and enervating the Government is entirely understandable for, in their innocence, Enda and the Cabinet thought being in government would provide them with a modicum of power.

However, whilst the reality they met means their distressed state is logical, the current retreat back to that safe politics of acting as undertakers to the Troika's dead economic school of 'austerity without reform' is a road map to a one-term government.

It is, in fairness, difficult to see how our Grumpy Old Men can engage in the critical task of rebuilding their own and the country's morale.

The great virtue of confidence certainly can't be secured by exhortation, as Biffo found when he tried out a couple of "come on, the lads" dressing room-style orations and they didn't go too well.

Instead, the spirit of the nation and the poor Grumpy Old Men can only be rebuilt by hard acts of good authority that will begin the task of cleansing the dishonourable State they inherited.

A good start would consist of an Insolvency Bill that might liberate the hundreds of thousands of our citizens who are condemned to live in a Pharaoh's tomb of negative equity.

Should a Government, which is becoming dangerously susceptible to the flaw of failing to remember that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, win a modest victory on that front, we and they might realise that governments can do more than simply engage in acts of fear and appeasement.

And that's a result that might cheer the Grumpy Old Men up far more than any amount of sex, gambling or cocaine.

Sunday Independent

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