Friday 26 December 2014

Albert would not have survived in a world where anti-business pervades politics

Published 28/08/2014 | 02:30

Members of the public file past the remains of former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds lying in repose in the Oak Room, Mansion House, Dublin yesterday
Members of the public file past the remains of former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds lying in repose in the Oak Room, Mansion House, Dublin yesterday

A week ago today Albert Reynolds sadly passed away. Appropriate tributes, appreciations and analysis were paid to his life achievements. But a broader question of political reflection now needs asking: Could an Albert be elected Taoiseach today? Methinks a character immersed in a business background couldn't succeed in our modern era of a political ascent to the summit of the greasy pole. Even worse, I fear the prospects of entrepreneurs getting to first base of Dail election are currently remote.

The availability of business people to stand for election is a rarity. In today's corporate world, founders of businesses tend not to endure beyond a glass ceiling. Independent enterprises lack deep pockets or access to equity capital to retain ownership for the fastest-growing profitable businesses; the best option being to flip, sell at top of the market. Most family businesses don't survive beyond the third generation. Therefore, contemporary high-profile business executives are mostly senior employees rather than founders/owners/managers. Prevailing salaries won't tempt the likes of Michael O'Leary into politics. It's incompatible to run a dual career.

Leaving aside international billionaires and property developers; potentially electable entrepreneurs and self-made indigenous successes like Padraig O'Ceide, Amanda Pratt, Liam Griffin, Darina Allen, Pat McDonagh, Bill Cullen, Gillian Bowler, Denis Desmond, Eddie O Connor or John Teeling wouldn't be persuaded to put their name on a ballot paper.

This random list only includes those who have public commentary profile availability. Some tried, such as Brody Sweeney and Sam McCauley, but were thwarted at local level.

Others, like Fergal Quinn and Mary Ann O'Brien found a niche Seanad platform - with only a cameo national political role. Incumbent TDs with business backgrounds include John Perry, Michael Lowry, Mick Wallace and new Junior Minister Dara Murphy.

Mainstream political parties, headquarter strategists and local delegates prefer identikit potential candidates - ideally, career politicians (councillors) based in the community, with profiles of working in voluntary/sporting organisations; loyal, door-knocking foot soldiers committed to full-time careers in politics or family members of previous politicos. New recruits shouldn't be self-made people.

Grubby labels of being independently wealthy, profit-motivated or so successful as to engender begrudgery is a total turn-off. Albert Reynolds's business achievements with dance halls, nowadays could attract the wrong type of attention.

A cash business can be perceived as having awkward taxation allegations. An unfortunate fire could be subject to malicious gossip. An overseas individual investor who gets an Irish passport could engender controversy.

In reality, surviving in business is really tough. A ruthless edge is required to ensure competitors don't steal your market share. Ducks don't swim in straight lines in the world of enterprise. Corners may be cut; opportunities have to be seized before others do; commercial confidentiality and high standards of transparency are inconsistent to the point of being mutually exclusive. The worlds of business and politics are like oil and water - not interchangeable.

Big business overcomes issues of policy persuasion and nuanced favourable decisions through hiring national trade associations or private lobbyists.

The fallout of this evolution means there are no Albert Reynoldses in Dail Eireann any longer. So what? If you are limited to a pool of TDs for ministerial appointments from public servants, teachers, professionals, farmers and local full-time careerist public representatives you end up with a perpetual civil service culture. Their credo is based on being risk-averse. Albert's risk-taking approach to a £750m public investment in national telecommunications revolutionised phone installations in the 1980s.

In the absence of bona fide business people, we're left with cheerleaders and hollow chants like "best small country in the world to do business". Using public office for personal gain was exposed in the Haughey era and rightly outlawed. But have we thrown out both baby and bathwater?

Today, businesses run by an Albert Reynolds or a Peter Barry would be the subject to super-media scrutiny and treated as political footballs.

An anti-business sentiment pervades politics. Populist politicos consider entrepreneurs to be mere chancers in suits. Yet, we learned from this recession that the ceiling of sustainable, affordable public sector employment is 300,000. We aspire to an earning labour force again of 2.1 million. So private sector employers, the majority of which are small businesses, must create six out of seven jobs. This necessitates a cohort of serial risk-takers, many of whom will fail like some of Albert's enterprises.

Last week we didn't just lose a statesman. Albert Reynolds's passing marked the end of a time in elected public life, where tales of speculative ventures and unconventional decision-making are only acceptable as political folklore. The best tribute we can pay to him is to ensure that his can-do pragmatism is restored in Irish politics. A tyranny of political correctness can't eradicate bold innovative charisma and can-do enterprise culture.

Irish Independent

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