Wednesday 26 November 2014

'Parachuting' track record should've given FF food for thought

Published 10/12/2013 | 23:33

Colm Keaveney who joined the ranks of Fianna Fail recently
Colm Keaveney who joined the ranks of Fianna Fail recently

'Take your parachute and jump, you're gonna have to take flight . . . don't look out before you, you know it's a long way down. I'll make it safer for you, your parachute won't let you down." (Something Happens).

Great song, great lyrics and, generally speaking, a great motto for life -- except when it comes to politics. Reports that Fianna Fail, fresh from its wooing of Colm Keaveney, is sniffing around other potential high-profile figures, provide further proof that political parties don't learn from their own, or others', mistakes.

History, and pretty recent history at that, tells us emphatically that, in politics, 'parachutes' rarely work.

You would think, after Fine Gael's experience with George Lee, parties would be more wary. But not a bit of it.

On one level it's understandable. Profile is a huge factor in getting elected. If you're already a "name", you're half-way there. Or in Lee's case, already arrived. Despite having no experience in politics, the RTE journalist was greeted like the Messiah on the streets of Dublin South, getting elected on the first count with 27,768 first preferences.

No party stalwart, who has taken the traditional 'chicken and chips' route of steadily working his or her way up through the local organisation to become a general election candidate, could dream of getting such a vote.

And that's no doubt why Lee isn't the only example of parachute candidates in recent years. Labour recruited one-time Green Nessa Childers, the daughter of the former president Erskine Childers, to contest the European elections.

The party also enlisted Frank McBrearty Jnr in Donegal South West. Local journalist John Whelan and independent councillor John Kelly were head-hunted to be the party's standard bearers in Laois-Offaly and Roscommon respectively. Meanwhile, in nearby Longford-Westmeath, Labour even crossed the great ideological divide to enroll former Progressive Democrat TD Mae Sexton.

Fine Gael even went back to the well a second time in Dublin South, signing up former banker Peter Mathews, who developed a profile during the banking crisis thanks to TV3's 'Tonight with Vincent Browne'.

Seven examples (many more were approached) but, from a Government point of view, certainly not a magnificent seven. Lee, as everybody knows, lasted just eight months before resigning his seat in frustration.

Childers was elected but had a difficult relationship with the party leadership from the outset and has resigned from Labour. As has McBrearty, who didn't perform well in the General Election or the preceding by-election.

Mae Sexton, John Whelan and John Kelly also failed to win Dail seats. Whelan and Kelly are now senators, but both have proven to be thorns in the side of the Labour leadership.

Peter Mathews is also gone from Fine Gael after a less than harmonious couple of years in the parliamentary party.

You'd imagine this track record would give Fianna Fail food for thought. Yet reports at the weekend suggest that approaches have been made to Mathews and Stephen Donnelly, Independent TD for Wicklow.

The likes of Mathews, Donnelly and, indeed, Colm Keaveney do have the advantage of already being deputies. Unlike, George Lee, for example, they are already aware of the limitations of being a TD. You're unlikely to hear them talking about their children and grandchildren asking what they did when the country was on its knees, as Lee did on becoming an FG candidate. They know how politics works (or doesn't).

However, Mathews and Keaveney have both failed to last half a Dail term with the parties they were elected with.

Donnelly has shown himself to be bright and articulate, but, as Labour and Fine Gael TDs can now testify, it's easy to be a politician when you're on the side of angels on the opposition benches.

The reality is that politics, as Charlie Haughey once noted, is "not the boy scouts, it's a bit of a haul . . . and you've to sort of win your spurs and fight you way through". From a party point of view, the TD who has come up through the ranks, has been imbedded in the local organisation for years, is much more likely to stay the course and stick the heat than the more glamorous and better-known outsider.

For Fianna Fail, that inarguable logic probably doesn't extend, however, to former ministers who lost their seats last time around. Former Tanaiste Mary Coughlan is apparently considering contesting the next general election in Donegal, as is, of course, John O'Donoghue in Kerry.

Both certainly have buckets of experience, reliability and durability. They know politics. But fairly or unfairly, they were also reminders of the past and that's certainly not what Fianna Fail needs.

It does need new faces with fresh ideas. But to get them, the party should avoid the quick-fix allure of the 'parachute' and put their faith in their own people.

SHANE COLEMAN IS POLITICAL EDITOR OF NEWSTALK 106-108F

Irish Independent

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