Wednesday 17 January 2018

Paddy Machiavelli and the politics of palazzo and parish

John Drennan attributes part of Bertie Ahern's success to his ability to 'stimulate the female pity gene'
John Drennan attributes part of Bertie Ahern's success to his ability to 'stimulate the female pity gene'

Dr Brian Murphy

Paddy Machiavelli: How to get ahead in Irish politics - by John Drennan. Gill and Macmillan €24.50.

John Drennan is one of the most astute observers of Irish politics. He also has a rapier wit and many years of experience as a parliamentary correspondent with this newspaper and draws on all of these qualities to produce a highly entertaining, yet remarkably insightful account into Irish political culture.

Essentially, this is an uproariously funny account of the compromises that an aspiring Irish politician has to make to get to the top of the greasy poll. Though humour is Drennan's chief weapon, he is not short of rigorous intellectual insight and gives a unique, and sometimes, very colourful analysis of the personalities and events that have shaped our recent history.

Drennan uses the writings of the sixteenth century political philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli as the template for his advice to aspiring Irish politicians and he suggests that the gap between Ireland's clientelist, parish-pump style of politics and the Renaissance palazzo is a narrow one indeed. This does not mean that Drennan damns all politicians. He takes the trouble to point out that though Machiavelli's reputation may forever have been tarnished by William Shakespeare's reference to him as "that crooked Machiavelli," the Italian was in fact a puritan idealist who believed in republican virtues.

It would be fair to say that John Drennan sees very little puritan idealism in Irish politics today. Jonathan Swift used savage indignation to denounce the political mediocrity of his time. Drennan can be equally sharp, however, his criticisms are often tongue-in-cheek and the sheer hilarity of some of his remarks mellows any sense of edge or menace.

Sean Lemass once observed that Fianna Fáil was Ireland's real Labour Party. Drennan may have some sympathy with this analysis because he suggests Paddy Machiavelli - the name he uses to label the fictitious aspiring Taoiseach - should join Fianna Fáil if he comes from a left-wing background. Reflecting on the fate of the now infamous "Gilmore for Taoiseach" posters, Drennan contends it will take "some freak of nature" for someone from Labour to ever reach the position of head of government in Ireland.

Drennan also argues that "there is more space for the self-made in Fianna Fail" than in other parties and he cites the careers of Jack Lynch, Charles Haughey, Albert Reynolds and Bertie Ahern as proof in this regard. However, he is clearly unimpressed with the party's current composition. Despite Micheál Martin's increasingly tired catch-cry of renewal, Drennan points out that the soldiers of destiny are still grounded "in a humble, apologetic mode."

Drennan is no more kind to Fine Gael. He writes witheringly of what he describes as "that species of TD known as the FG turnip." According to Drennan this phrase came into vogue around the time Richard Bruton challenged Enda Kenny for the leadership of Fine Gael. Drennan explains that the Fine Gael "turnips" are predominantly a group of conservative, rural, male TDs, who are completely loyal to Enda Kenny and are deeply suspicious of "anything carrying the taint of radicalism or originality."

Drennan uses humour to deal with the undoubted strain of anti-intellectualism in Irish politics. He claims that it would be a hindrance to the career progression of an aspiring Irish politician if he or she came from an academic working background.

He jocularly points out that when the former Minister for Finance Alan Dukes told an audience "I am pure logic" he subsequently discovered to his cost that the Irish electorate "do not really like logic at all." Drennan suggests that if an aspiring Irish politician does feel the need to obtain a third-level qualification, "Paddy Mac should recognise that a business degree takes too much effort" and that this could distract from "those important alcohol-consuming, network-building skills he should perfect in college."

Since television viewers overwhelming sided with Kennedy over Nixon in a landmark presidential debate, personal appearance is seen as crucial to leadership aspirations.

Bertie Ahern's electoral success is partly attributed to his ability "to stimulate the female pity gene." While this assessment may now be controversial, internal Fianna Fáil polling from the 2002 General Election, when Ahern was at the height of his electoral powers, show that he was overwhelmingly more popular with female voters than any other Irish politician.

Drennan mocks the jack-the-lad culture in Irish politics by establishing some outlandish drinking protocols. His advice to an aspiring party leader is to become "inebriated on about six occasions a year" in the Dáil bar to gain credibility with his or her colleagues.

He maintains, however, even in drunkenness that Paddy Machiavelli should maintain a "secret sobriety" because the Dáil bar can be a dangerous place for an ambitious politician to spill his or her soul.

Indeed, Drennan's advice to politicians with ambitions to reach the top is to disguise this as best they can. He notes the reluctance of Taoisigh to appoint ambitious colleagues. He also gives a humorous example involving Padraig Flynn to warn against any show of flamboyance in Irish politics.

In 1977, when Flynn was first elected to the Dáil, he turned up in a white suit and polka-dot shirt, which ensured he stood out from the crowd, but this did not enhance his promotion prospects with the then Taoiseach Jack Lynch, who apparently asked "Who in the name of God is that?"

In this book, Drennan displays a great ability for satire and an eagle eye for some of the absurdities in Irish political life.

He has produced an entertaining, exquisitely written book, which is also often insightful and hilariously funny. It is well worth a read.

Dr Brian Murphy is a former speech-writer for Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen, who also played a key advisory role in Fianna Fail's election victory of 1997.

Sunday Independent

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