Friday 30 September 2016

Doing the right thing and taking a stance is still the wrong thing to do in politics

Published 29/12/2015 | 02:30

'Kenny’s style of leadership brings to mind the old Disraeli quote: 'I must follow the people. Am I not their leader?''
'Kenny’s style of leadership brings to mind the old Disraeli quote: 'I must follow the people. Am I not their leader?''

Two Fine Gael TDs in the news; two very different stories; two perfect examples of how we don't value genuine political leadership.

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Enda Kenny was outsourcing a particularly thorny issue by promising within six months to set up a so-called 'citizens' assembly' to examine the issue of abortion.

Kenny is on course to become the first Fine Gael Taoiseach to be re-elected to the office.

Meanwhile, one of his TDs, Frank Feighan, was opening up about the abuse he has endured over the past four years for going against the tide and bravely voting in favour of downgrading the emergency services in his local hospital. He is leaving politics, forced out by that abuse.

Feighan is the unsung hero of the 31st Dáil. He was given the ultimate hospital pass by his party. Fine Gael foolishly committed, in the heat of an election campaign, to protecting services at Roscommon Hospital. Within months, it was forced to do an about-turn after expert advice raised "serious concerns" over "patient safety issues", regarding the range and type of services being provided.

The move was bitterly opposed locally and remains so to this day. But one of the consultant physicians has since said that, because of the difficulty recruiting staff to such a small hospital, it was the only decision that could have been made, as the existing arrangements were "completely unsafe".

Feighan could have opposed the downgrading, lost the whip for a time and would probably have been guaranteed to hold his seat. But he didn't. In an interview, he said he is convinced the decision has saved the lives of "dozens and dozens of people".

However, he has been called a liar and a coward, received threats and even had people refuse to shake his hands at funerals.

And at 53, he has accepted that he has too much baggage to contest the election, opting to leave politics.

That's his "reward" for taking the difficult and the correct decision. Contrast what has happened to Feighan with the local politicians who strongly resisted the downgrading of services at Portlaoise Hospital in the past. Given what we now know, does anybody believe that was the right decision or stance now? But will any of them pay a political price for that?

Not a chance. Because the reality is that there is more political mileage in Irish politics in going to the barricades to protect a bad or an unsafe local service than backing its closure and fighting for proper resources for an alternative.

Politicians aren't stupid. They see that reality and act accordingly. The ones, like Feighan, who don't are cast aside by the electorate.

Kenny, as smart a political operator as there is, sees that too. Kenny's style of leadership brings to mind the old Disraeli quote: "I must follow the people. Am I not their leader?"

Kenny's decision to set up that 'citizens' forum' to examine the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution is a perfect example.

It has been described as a political masterstroke, parking a difficult issue until after the election. But it's actually a total cop-out.

We already have a citizens' forum. It's called Dáil Éireann and that's where this issue should be dealt with - not by some unelected and unaccountable body about which we have no way of knowing how representative it is of the public.

What is Kenny's view of the Eighth Amendment? Where does he stand on its repeal? How far does he think such a repeal should go?

We haven't a clue. Regardless of whether one is pro-life, pro-choice or - probably like the majority - somewhere in between, abortion is surely one of those issues that demands leadership.

But not, it seems, in this era of decisions and policy by focus group (which when you think of it is pretty much what the proposed 'citizens' forum' will be). You can't even particularly blame the Taoiseach for sitting on the fence on this issue. Electorally, it's the smart move.

And it's not just on issues as profound as abortion where leadership doesn't really pay. Come election day in March, we'll see politicians who took the easy path - opposing water charges, defending local services however flawed, denouncing the closure of a rural garda station that was open for a couple of hours a day - being returned in their droves.

And woe betide anybody on the opposite side of the argument, regardless of its merits. Just ask Frank Feighan.

That of course is democracy. The people are sovereign - right, even when they're wrong. But where does that leave leadership?

Up you-know-where creek without a paddle, unfortunately.

Consider this: Fianna Fáil spent money and cut taxes recklessly during the Celtic Tiger.

But from 2008 on - backed by the Greens - it belatedly took the necessary horrendous decisions to save the country.

Yet in the last election, the party was damaged far more by what it did when the crisis hit when it actually showed leadership - albeit flawed leadership - than pre-2008 when the real damage was done. The Greens, which had no role in creating the crisis, were similarly hammered.

Until that changes, courageous stances like that taken by Frank Feighan will unfortunately remain the exception rather than the norm.

Shane Coleman presents the Sunday Show on newstalk.com at 10am.

Irish Independent

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