Donnelly should join Labour - Burton adviser
Labour Party would be the ideal fit for a true social democrat who wants to make difference
Published 11/09/2016 | 02:30
Stephen Donnelly explained that his decision to part company with the Social Democrats last week was all down to the fact that the relationship just wasn't working. As he put it, some partnerships just don't work no matter how hard all of the parties to that partnership try to make it succeed. In other words, there was no 'fit' between him, Roisin Shortall and Catherine Murphy.
In hindsight, that isn't really surprising. Stephen Donnelly is in politics to deliver on his agenda by being in government. His erstwhile colleagues clearly abhor the compromises of power - preferring instead the comfort of opposition.
My business of executive search - or head-hunting, as it is commonly known - basically boils down to this intangible notion of 'fit'. When placing very senior people into big jobs with huge responsibility we tend not to get that fussed about what degree they got or where they went to school.
Of course we look at their career trajectory, their achievements and what people tell us about them. What really matters, though, is that their aspirations, values and outlook match those of the prospective employer, in other words that there is the right fit. Head-hunters are paid to spot it and when they do it can produce remarkable results.
If Donnelly called me in the morning and asked my advice on what would be the best fit for him right now, I would give it to him straight - only the Labour Party can provide the right match. Equally, if the Labour Party asked me in the morning to go out and head-hunt the ideal candidate to be a catalyst for its recovery, Stephen Donnelly would be at the top of my shortlist. Fianna Fail, on the other hand, would be the worst possible fit. It would set his career back by many years, or even bring it to a premature end.
There is a compelling story I would tell Donnelly about why joining the Labour Party now would be the making of him as a serious and enduring politician in this country.
Donnelly identifies himself as a social democrat, someone who believes in managing the free market in the public interest to deliver better opportunities, services and living standards for working people. However, unlike some on the left, he doesn't see business as the enemy.
Long before there was a party calling itself the Social Democrats, there was a social democratic party in this country. Labour are Ireland's true social democrats. On the other hand, Fianna Fail's recent positioning as being "a bit on the left", as Micheal Martin puts it, is purely opportunistic. They will soon revert to type. Labour's values will endure - surely compelling to a self-styled principled politician like Donnelly.
Let's look at aspirations. Donnelly is refreshingly frank when he says that he "aspires to office". Office has always been Labour's aspiration too, not for its own sake, but on the principle that social democrats need to prize power over protest to deliver our agenda. Unlike Donnelly's former colleagues, Labour has also been prepared for the compromises and sometime opprobrium that government involves. Fianna Fail, on the other hand, has always pursued office as its sole raison d'etre.
When it comes to outlook, Donnelly says he is a social liberal who believes in a strong economy underpinned by fiscal responsibility as the bedrock of a decent society. The most successful social democrats, those in the icy lands of the north, have always been fiscally responsible, on the basis that the people they are there to support and protect always suffer the most when governments lose control of the public finances.
In Brendan Howlin and Joan Burton, Donnelly would find fellow believers in fiscal responsibility - again not for its own sake, but because they fundamentally understand that it is only through credible management of the public finances that any country can be in the position to invest wisely and deliver the public services that are necessary for a decent society.
Fianna Fail by contrast should be strictly off-limits for anyone who believes in fiscal responsibility. They might talk a good game now, but does anyone really believe that the days of "When I have it, I spend it and when I don't, I don't" will have been decisively consigned to the past when they are next in government?
For a social liberal like Donnelly, who wants to see the Eighth Amendment repealed and an end to religious discrimination in education, Labour is also the only credible option.
While some may quibble about the importance of liberal issues when it comes to elections, historic social changes like divorce, decriminalisation of homosexuality and, most recently, marriage equality have only been achieved when Labour has been in power to hold the big conservative parties to account. Perhaps it's so obvious that it bears stating: could any liberal really feel comfortable in Fianna Fail? Donnelly might want to ask Averil Power for her advice on that one.
In Labour, Donnelly would be joining a party that is bruised but proud of its central role bringing our country back from the brink to a place of greater safety. It has paid a terrible price for doing the right thing by the country. It must now rebuild and re-imagine its role in our increasingly fractured politics.
Its bench is shallow and it needs to replenish its ranks with real talent. What greater challenge could there be for someone who aspires to play a central role in building a better Ireland for all?
Donnelly must, to paraphrase Shakespeare, take the current now that it serves - or else risk losing his venture.
Ed Brophy is practice leader at Accreate Executive Search. He was previously chief of staff to former Tanaiste Joan Burton