Thursday 27 October 2016

Eilis O'Hanlon: The one they call AK-47 now shoots himself in the foot

Eilis O'Hanlon

Published 07/02/2016 | 02:30

Alan Kelly. Photo: Gareth Chaney
Alan Kelly. Photo: Gareth Chaney

The Environment Minister only has himself to blame for his woes, writes Eilis O'Hanlon.

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Lemony Snicket called his popular children's book sequence A Series Of Unfortunate Events, and the first volume was A Bad Beginning. As things stand, it looks as if Snicket may have unknowingly been writing the story of Alan Kelly's election campaign.

Of all the candidates, the Minister for Environment, Community and Local Government has had by far the worst start. It began with a car crash interview in last week's Sunday Independent, in which Kelly made the classic mistake of letting his hair down by confiding that power is a "drug" and that it "suits" him.

Ouch Number One.

To then follow that up by arguing the toss over whether Labour leader Joan Burton could technically be called his "boss" was inviting unnecessary trouble. Here's a quick rule of thumb: if they can sack you, they're your boss. The Tanaiste quickly asserted that she was indeed the guv'nor, after which, following what one can only assume were some awkward private exchanges, Kelly "clarified" his position - or "backed down", as it's more commonly known.

Burton, in turn, paid tribute to her esteemed Cabinet colleague with the words: "To be honest, I must say, he's an incredibly obedient employee." Ouch Number Two.

By the time the Taoiseach finally stopped teasing the country and named a date for the poll, Kelly must have been the most relieved member in the house. Unfortunately, things only got worse.

He must have realised he was losing the battle for hearts and minds when Independent TD Mattie McGrath accused him, during a live Newstalk debate, of having hidden in a van in Cashel to avoid angry water charges protesters in Tipperary North. The story wasn't true, Kelly insisted, telling his constituency rival to "stop telling lies", and McGrath later had to admit that it wasn't true.

But that misses the point. The minister's spokesman may subsequently have issued a brilliant putdown to the former FF man by saying "that only happened in the ice cream van that plays the music in his head"; but it didn't matter. What mattered was that observers didn't care if it was true or not, they still wanted to believe it anyway.

The saga of the van symbolises the transformation that Kelly has undergone from bullish shoo-in as next Labour leader, so combatively ambitious that he's earned the nickname "AK-47", to laughing stock. Kelly is losing respect with his self-inflicted pratfalls.

There is something about Alan Kelly which encourages such controversy. Newstalk's political editor Shane Coleman was even gently mocking the environment minister last week for making such a fuss of his role as the one who gets to sign off on the election date.

Coleman couldn't recall any of Kelly's predecessors being so pleased with themselves over this ceremonial formality. Indeed, it was even being put about that he signed the polling day order with a pen made from a yew tree in his native county. After signing it, he posted a picture of himself to Facebook, sitting at a desk, doing the honours next to a portrait of James Connolly, and then had further pictures taken at Labour HQ, holding up the order for the cameras.

It all looked rather self-regarding, conceited even, and in the week that a new screen version of sitcom Dad's Army comes to the big screen, it's tempting to think of Kelly as Ireland's answer to Captain Mainwaring, a character memorably described on the sitcom's Wikipedia page as a "pompous, blustering figure with an overdeveloped sense of his importance."

That impression was further cemented by news that, shortly before the infamous "Vangate" exchange with McGrath, Kelly had been involved in a confrontation with Newstalk's Chris Donoghue after being reportedly displeased that controversial TD Michael Lowry was interviewed first whilst on a walkabout in the constituency.

FF candidate Michael Smith Jr, who witnessed the exchanges, said "the language that was used was not appropriate as public representatives"; Mattie McGrath was blunter, calling it a "stand up row". Once again, Kelly was forced to deny that the exchange was anywhere near so bad, saying he was "astonished" at claims that he verbally abused the broadcaster, but the damage was done.

When you're explaining, you're losing - and again, there was that underlying question. If it didn't seem plausible, would the story have gained so much traction?

Within hours of the election launch, Kelly was looking like a man under pressure, which is absurd in one way, because, of all Labour TDs seeking re-election, he is among the most fortunate. His seat in Tipperary North is as safe as any Labour seat can be this time round, and there's no doubt that he's both clever and capable enough to stay on his feet despite the blows being rained down on him. He's not called AK-47 for nothing.

One senses, however, that Kelly's seat isn't his primary concern, and never has been. The Labour leadership is what's firmly in his sights, and it may even have been that it was daydreaming over that which made him lose focus in last Sunday's interview. The real problem in politics is that, once one thing goes wrong, it can all start to go wrong. You have to stop the rot fast

He's kicking himself, it's evident in his face, but he won't get past this obstacle until he also gets over it. No doubt he felt humiliated and disrespected by the fallout from his interview with Niamh Horan, and hates being laughed at, not least because it was all his own fault, which is always the hardest thing to accept; but if he doesn't find a way to stop brooding on it soon, he will simply end up gifting his opponents in Tipperary North and his enemies in the party even more opportunities to highlight his flaws.

He's not the only politician with defects. Nor is he the worst. Ambition is forgiveable. Getting trapped in his own easily avoidable series of unfortunate political events isn't.

Alan Kelly should take warning from Lemony Snicket. Further instalments in his sequence of grisly books chart the potential dangers ahead: The Slippery Slope... The Penultimate Peril... The End.

Sunday Independent

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