Thursday 12 December 2019

All grace with frantic paddling below waterline

Candidates: Brody Sweeney and Frances Fitzgerald at the 2007 Fine Gael Ard Fheis. Photo: Tom Burke
Candidates: Brody Sweeney and Frances Fitzgerald at the 2007 Fine Gael Ard Fheis. Photo: Tom Burke
John Downing

John Downing

Frances Fitzgerald is often cited as the one who could come through the middle while other contenders cancel each other out.

Curiously, she is also tipped as a potential Fine Gael leader and Taoiseach in part because of age and gender, two factors often otherwise seen as impediments in a political career.

Approaching her 67th birthday, she is more than 20 years older than the three potential frontrunners - Leo Varadkar, Simon Coveney, and Paschal Donohoe. Choosing from this younger, otherwise all-male, line-up could be seen as a long-term commitment reviving unpleasant memories.

In the recent past the choice of 42-year-old Alan Dukes in 1987, and 43-year-old John Bruton in 1990, presaged a decade of internal strife which cost the party scarce political energy. The push to get each of them out was intensified by their political youth and unlikelihood of an early voluntary exit. An "interim caretaker," a woman who could build consensus, might in part guard against that.

There is an intrinsic unfairness attaching to that scenario for Fitzgerald. In fact, the Justice Minister has devoted 25 years to elected politics and many years before that as a campaigner and lobbyist for women's rights.

Remarkably, researching this profile, there was a universal view that she is an able, extremely hard-working, committed and sincere person engaged in public life for the right reasons. There was also a marked absence of dislike for her in all quarters.

"A decent, sensible woman - nice and friendly to people when she meets them," was a common summation. This is not a universal judgment of politicians attaining high office.

Nobody doubted her capacity for hard-work, putting in murderous hours working through the details of each issue she confronts. But there was doubt, considerable doubt at times, about her judgment, especially at times of crisis.

There is also an inability to cite specific examples of this "political windiness" but it was still a widespread judgment.

"She has been compared to a swan. All graceful and gliding above water - but a lot of frantic paddling beneath the waterline," one veteran party person says.

But she is not the only politician - male or female - about whom that could be said.

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