News Comment

Thursday 28 August 2014

Paddy would like Enda to know that less is no longer more

Mandy Johnston

Published 13/06/2014 | 02:30

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Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Photo: Collins
Taoiseach Enda Kenny

Enda Kenny has had a testing couple of weeks. Fine Gael may not have suffered at the ballot boxes to the extent of the Labour Party, but Enda has now experienced what it is like to be in the white heat of an election campaign from Government buildings. Our international, high-fiving hero has survived a bruising encounter with the voters and a series of epic misadventures by his own Government.

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Now he must move on to the next phase of this administration by delivering a robust reshuffle.

When he came into office, his friendly, bright and inoffensive demeanour was a welcome antidote to the style of predecessor Brian Cowen. He had a plan from the troika and we trusted Enda as an honest broker, to implement its plan. Enda stuck to the script.

A large part of the masterplan was for him to remain in the background, like a chairman who oversees the implementation of company policy via his ministers.

Until recently, the Taoiseach's heroic handlers in Government Buildings have adopted that well- known and simplistic communications tactic of 'less is more'. They limit his public appearances and interviews as much as they can, confining him to photo opportunities and public scripted appearances. It is rare to see, hear or read a free-flowing, one-to-one interview with our Taoiseach.

Recently due to the litany of Government problems and in the course of recent election campaigns, Enda has been slightly more exposed. Things have not exactly been going to plan. His public persona has changed and his image is not what it was in 2011.

The frustration and tiredness of office is beginning to show. For example, during the recent elections results in a rare one-to-one interview with Newstalk, he protested that the interviewer could not pose a legitimate question about Eamon Gilmore's political future.

This prompted a Twitter backlash with charges of censorship, a charge which is becoming more and more of an issue. In the rough and tumble of debate he can become testy hence his preference for set pieces and the scripted safety of Dail Eireann.

This week the Taoiseach again chose the Dail chamber to announce a statutory commission of investigation into mother and baby homes. The announcement was welcome and the Taoiseach struck the right note in the Dail, if lacking in alacrity.

However, strategists allowed an entire week of angry debate to fester without a senior voice of strength from the head of our Government, to articulate our feelings of shame and regret. Meanwhile over in Silicon Valley the Taoiseach waxed lyrical about our nation's 'can do' attitude while back in Ireland grim revelations shifted the debate from what happened in the 1920s to what we would do about it now.

As we waited for someone to articulate our feeling of present-day shame, the Taoiseach's voice was conspicuous by its absence. When he did speak it wasn't quite the emotive, stirring and passionate speech he gave after the publication of the Cloyne Report when he excoriated the Catholic Church.

No one could question the Taoiseach's sincerity and his contribution was heartfelt but it felt jaded. His folksy approach to communication has become irritating and his globetrotting high-fiving now tiresome.

Whilst his hometown boy approach is undeniably a part of his charm, there is a fine line between character and caricature. Phrases like "the best small country in the world to do business" and "Paddy likes to know" have become irksome and annoying. We have a very low tolerance for the 'Quiet Man' stereotype and we are weary of Enda's underpants over the trousers routine.

In a political utopia, every spin-doctor would of course endeavour to confine appearances of their political masters to nice photo-opportunities in order to avoid potential banana skins. However, it is simply not possible in modern politics to craft a public persona or explain policy by smiling, pointing, back-slapping, and high-fiving. Confining appearances to set pieces and the Dail will work for a time but eventually will run out of road.

Limiting the Taoiseach's exposure is not without its consequences. It means that when he does actually venture out into the public domain his comments take on more significance. It is unwise for any political figure to expect to outrun the media; their omnipresence makes that tactic impossible. The symbiotic relationship with politics and the media cannot be ignored, and neither can it be utilised just for election campaigns. Muscle memory for media engagement is a real factor of modern politics and storing up enemies is not a good long-term or effective strategy.

In Government there is an obligation to explain one's agenda, and the policies being pursued.

At times, when Enda is asked hard questions about legitimate government issues, his tone has been puerile and somewhat dismissive. In contrast his pledge to be on the other end of the phone if anyone had a problem from America caused more than a few raised eyebrows back home.

There is a middle ground to be found. He should remember the main failings of the previous administration which refused to communicate the rationale around policies and left the country in the dark. And we don't like to be kept in the dark, do we?

No, Paddy likes to know.

Irish Independent

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