Saturday 18 November 2017

Pat Rabbitte: a man who couldn't fill his own shoes

The former minister will be remembered for what he became, not what he once was

PUTTING the BOOT IN: Pat Rabbitte’s sniping at Greece’s Syriza government this week would surely have saddened his younger, more radical self Photo: Julien Behal
PUTTING the BOOT IN: Pat Rabbitte’s sniping at Greece’s Syriza government this week would surely have saddened his younger, more radical self Photo: Julien Behal

Eilis O'Hanlon

Pat Rabbitte made two pronouncements last week, both of them connected, though not in a way that reflected well on him.

One was his announcement that, after 26 years as a TD, he will not be seeking re-election in Dublin South West at the next election. The other came on Today FM's Last Word, where he sniped at recent Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis for "shystering (sic) around on a motorbike with a blond on his back".

Varoufakis and Prime Minister Alexis Tspiras deserve all the criticism they get, after manoeuvring Greece into a position where it now looks as if it will have to accept a bailout deal on substantially worse terms than was previously on offer. Recovery may be even harder to achieve than when they took office promising to end austerity.

Syriza had the lives and livelihoods of eleven million Greeks in its hands and recklessly squandered their hopes. They are political dilettantes who turned out, as Rabbitte said (borrowing a line from Columbia University history professor Mark Mazower) to believe in "magical thinking".

But Matt Cooper asked the pertinent question when enquiring of Rabbitte what his younger self would have made of it all: "Wouldn't you have been heading out to Athens offering them support?"

Rabbitte insisted that he wouldn't, saying: "I was never a Trotskyist". That term can be interpreted in this context as someone more interested in perpetual protest and agitation, using working class people as human shields, rather than serious politics.

Rabbitte said he no ideologue; instead he was "always constructive" in his approach to finding "solutions to build a better society". Which is a reasonable enough argument. Others might see the transition of a one-time socialists into European-style "social democrats" as a form of class disloyalty, but it needn't be so.

It still doesn't answer Matt Cooper's question, though. The young Pat Rabbitte may not have agreed with the specific tactics of Syriza - that's hardly surprising, the left being riven as it is with farcical factionalism - but he would surely have had more of an instinctive sympathy with the situation, and more affinity with the Greek left's analysis of the underlying dynamic.

He might also have had a matching contempt for a man who, stepping down with a €2m pension pot after 40 years in politics, was so dismissive of resistance.

Attacking Syriza is understandable in all those young fogeys in Fine Gael who look as if they've never let their hair down; but if a labour movement isn't for standing up to the rich and powerful, then it stands for nothing.

Syriza was wrong in its approach to squaring up to Europe, but Rabbitte would once have understood in his bones that they were right about it being an entity to which squaring up is the correct response. His 66-year-old self just doesn't get that.

More importantly, he doesn't get why that is held against him, or why most of the messages coming in from Today FM listeners were "vitriolic". Pat put it down to the nature of modern social media, adding that "the atmosphere has coarsened". It has. But again he's not asking the right question: why him?

It can only be because of the enormity of the gulf between his past identity and how he is now perceived; between what he was and what he became.

Rabbitte these days is one of those "well fed" men that Julius Caesar said he didn't fear; the "pale and hungry looking" man who went before is long gone.

It wasn't even so much the transition from one persona to another which was alarming; after all, the recession knocked the stuffing out of many of us and caused some to give up the good fight altogether.

It was the speed of Pat Rabbitte's transition which was so shocking, because it seemed almost instantaneous. He went from opposition to government, anger to complacency, with no apparent stops in between.

It's not that Rabbitte is without virtues. Far from it. Olivia O'Leary listed some of them on Drivetime. There was his love of words. The fact that he is a "master of the dramatic moment"; his command of the Dáil, his feel for the theatre of the place. He was an outstanding parliamentarian. She mentioned too his "fearlessness" in being ready for a debate with anyone. He always had the measure of Sinn Féin.

But it's interesting that the qualities which O'Leary singled out were exactly the qualities which one would expect the chattering classes to find admirable. They're easily impressed by intelligence and articulacy, because they see in it a reflection of themselves, but they're not necessarily the most important traits for a politician.

These were certainly qualities which Democratic Left brought into the Labour Party and which sustained it for years. Now that fuel has nearly run out, and what is there to show for it? It's hard to pinpoint anything specific which Rabbitte achieved in government. The Broadcasting Charge, should that ever now see the light of day? It's hardly what you'd want carved on your political tombstone.

His final act has been to sponsor a bill to put manners on social media, which may be well-meaning, but is wrong on many levels in a free society.

It was Rabbitte's strengths which eventually led to the downfall of his reputation.

His combative debating style turned eventually into incredulity when his rhetoric was challenged. His evisceration of Fianna Fáil's Pat Carey on television before the last election ("you ought to be ashamed") was turned back on him by protesters who took to chanting the same words at the Labour man.

His mastery of the Dáil morphed into an extraordinary swagger and egotism as he sat on the government benches on the night the IBRC was wound down, sneering and mocking every criticism.

He could talk tough to the people who challenged him on pylons or licensing exploitation of Ireland's oil and gas reserves too cheaply, but when it came to a fight with the RTE Authority over the Frontline Presidential debacle, he talked tough but did nothing.

His sense of his own importance also meant that he reacted particularly badly to being dropped by new leader Joan Burton. This stance cemented - just as his career was coming to an end - a reputation for arrogance. His sense of entitlement was too strong.

The one-time Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources finally found himself unable to communicate effectively; losing the energy to fight for his self-styled socialist values; and realising that the natural resources which he manifestly had as a politician and a speaker were insufficient to turn things around when his political stock nose-dived.

It's often said of a politician that he or she is "the best Taoiseach/Finance Minister/President we never had", but Rabbitte was never in that league. The best that could be asked of him is: Was he the best Pat Rabbitte we ever had?

Or to put it another way: was he as good at being Pat Rabbitte as he might have been? Because there was definitely a need for Pat Rabbitte at times in Irish politics. It just seems that, when it mattered , he wasn't really the best candidate to play the role.

So much of what made Pat Rabbitte a central figure in Irish politics was chipped away over the years that he ended up as a much reduced figure, not quite filling his own shoes. He secured his place in the footnotes of history. He held some ministerial offices.

Ultimately, though, his legacy may have been summed up unintentionally - or perhaps not - by the Six One News, which ran the announcement of Pat Rabbitte's retirement over a clip of him sitting at the Labour conference in 2007 under the optimistic party slogan "Ireland can do better".

You can say that again.

Sunday Independent

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