Tuesday 27 September 2016

The British can teach us a thing or two about how to dump weak leaders

Published 16/07/2016 | 02:30

David Cameron, pictured with his wife, Samantha Photo: Reuters
David Cameron, pictured with his wife, Samantha Photo: Reuters
Enda Kenny continues to stumble along as Taoiseach

Britain has a tradition of acting with ruthless efficiency towards its prime ministers who fail. Henry VIII's chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, was sent to the block after pursuing an unsuccessful royal marriage policy. His final appeal by letter - "Most gracious Prince, I cry for mercy, mercy, mercy!" - fell on deaf ears and Cromwell's head ended up on a spike on London Bridge.

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Fast forward almost 500 years from that day of reckoning on Tower Hill, on July 28, 1540, and we witnessed this week how the British continue to move rapidly to remove political leaders who tumble from grace. Their ends may be less brutal but are no less inevitable. And sentence is just as swiftly executed.

This observation is not intended as criticism. On the contrary, it is impossible to watch the British political machine in operation without admiring its disciplined efficiency - which must be conducive to stability. One prime minister is traded in for another and a new cabinet is appointed, all in the space of a day or two.

Heads rolled as mercilessly as in Tudor times but the handover of power was conducted with speed and precision, while David Cameron's grace lent polish to the manoeuvre. Result? Britain positions itself as a country led by a highly motivated government ready to fight its corner vigorously in the Brexit negotiations.

That's called a teachable moment, a lesson we would do well to absorb here, where a correspondingly focused and energetic government committed to advancing Ireland's interests is exactly what is needed.

Is such a government in place? Evidence points to the contrary. Not least because the current administration holds office by permission of Micheál Martin, who can wield the axe whenever he likes. Next week, later this year, sometime in 2017 - whenever he chooses. Such an arrangement is in Fianna Fáil's interests but not the State's - least of all during these current momentous times.

Perhaps that sense of being neutered explains the blanket of torpor enshrouding the Government just when vitality is needed. The present challenges demand dynamism at the top. Instead, a vacuum is opening up.

A watershed epoch has been triggered by Brexit and a burst of energy is apparent in Britain. No parallel sense of drive is visible here.

Enda suggests an all-Ireland forum but is slapped down by Arlene Foster because he didn't consult with her first. Rookie mistake.

Enda flies to Europe to seek concessions from Angela Merkel and returns with his ears burning about German car sales into Britain. As though trade in any way compares with our concerns about peace and stability, threatened by a hard border.

It is Britain with which Ireland shares both a land border and long-standing cultural links and Britain is the partner with which we will have to strike a deal.

Our challenge is to persuade the EU to rubberstamp it. But special arrangements are not unknown and Ireland cannot be fobbed off with finger-wagging about BMW sales.

It is possible to be outside the EU but maintain a porous border with a neighbouring EU country.

In March, I crossed the border between Switzerland and France in a mini-van on four occasions. Not once was the vehicle stopped or its passengers invited to show passports.

Some lorries were pulled over and stopped on the French side, but the border control was not much different from a toll station.

This is the model we should seek to follow. And the reality is that it will be Irish and British authorities who monitor it.

Clearly, Ireland needs a unified government with the commitment and capability to act promptly in safeguarding our position.

It is difficult to see how a patchwork administration which exists by Michéal Martin's say-so possesses the necessary authority.

The Taoiseach is tired, which explains his mis-steps - any leader's energy naturally flags in a general election year. But we are living through a tumultuous period where a deft touch is essential and we can afford few stumbles.

If the British model had been applied, Enda would have been dispatched to Mayo to start work on his autobiography immediately after the election result. And new energy would have been injected into the Taoiseach's office.

Out with the old and in with the new may be pitiless, but it brings with it a fresh dynamic: other perspectives, alternative approaches, previously unheard voices - or at least the possibility of them.

Today, Britain looks assertive and in control of its destiny, not wrong-footed or reactive, despite the scramble to devise that missing Plan B following the referendum result.

Strong, visionary politics is required now as never before in Ireland; instead, we have a Government living on borrowed time. With the chief Opposition party as timekeeper. In many ways, a general election in the autumn might be the cleanest option.

Failing that, Fine Gael, as the main party of government, needs to put its house in order.

A series of botched mutterings too ineffectual to be called a leadership challenge has dwindled away, but presumably they will resurface.

Either the Taoiseach must assert his authority or his successor ought to be appointed.

Enda is Taoiseach by permission of the Opposition, which saps his standing. But - a health warning here - any Fine Gael successor would occupy similar ground.

"There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen," Lenin said memorably, a propos the Russian Revolution (with thanks to the National Treasury Management Agency's Conor O'Kelly, who used the quote this week.)

Change is bearing down the track for Ireland and the State is crying out for leadership that is nimble, confident, able and can steer us through.

Perhaps political change is necessary in the process, as happened in Britain. One day, Mr Cameron has plans for August holidays in Balmoral with Queen Elizabeth, the next day removal vans are leaving Downing Street with his family's belongings stowed inside. And his bedroom in the British royal family's Scottish retreat is reassigned to Theresa May.

But at least everyone knows where they stand, while in Ireland there is a sense that we occupy shifting sands.

This cannot continue.

Irish Independent

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