Sunday 15 December 2019

Anne Harris: If you want to be a leader, Enda, you can't play the victim

The country remains rudderless because nobody knows what the Taoiseach stands for

Anne Harris

Last Sunday on The Week in Politics, Enda Kenny adopted an expression which is becoming very familiar to us. Pained. Enda was hurt because the anti-abortion people had called him a Herod. Nasty, undoubtedly, but something any leader worthy of the name should be up to.

To paraphrase Bette Davis, leadership, like old age, is not for sissies. Or whingers.

One of the most depressing things about this Government is that whingeing has become a habit – like putting on an old, worn raincoat to go to the shops. It's just so bad for morale.

They whinge about the media, they whinge about the opposition and now they whinge about the public.

On The Week in Politics, Kenny's well polished self-pity was evenly blended with surprise. But why? He made an election promise, which led the anti-abortion lobby to think he was on their side and wouldn't legislate. By the same token the pro-abortion lobby thought he wouldn't legislate either. Both were equally surprised because neither side (and by extension the entire country) knew what he stood for.

Because we don't know what Kenny stands for, the whole country seems rudderless. Sometimes a politician has no choice but to renege on an election promise. He could have just buttoned the tremulous lip about his hurt and done what Pat Rabbitte did on another Week in Politics with his "isn't that (promises) what elections are about" statement. So everybody jumped up and down as if it was a shocking revelation altogether.

But it's a self-evident truth that in a coalition government all election promises cannot be kept, because coalition involves compromise and the promises can be contradictory. To admit that, you need leaders who are prepared to be hard on themselves, not forgiving or self-pitying.

Especially now: we have half a million people unemployed and there is a crisis of confidence.

So the anti-abortion lobby got nasty. But if you want to be a leader you cannot be a victim. In short, a bit of stoicism is required. It would probably be considered

flippant to recommend to our country's leaders the simple Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, the great Stoic emperor and philosopher whose emphasis on duty and philosophy caused the Roman Empire to flourish. Though I have to say a dose of the Meditations might temper the tendency of Kenny and his cabinet colleagues to what the Stoics described as "cholerics".

But I have no hesitation in referring them to another more contemporary Stoic: Birgitte Nyborg, the fictitious prime minister in the Danish series Borgen.

It is currently the most polarising programme on television. The heroine (anti-heroine) excites extreme views.

Before her election she was an attractive, if slightly floppy, woman on the verge of HRT. Happily married, with kids, a messy kitchen and a handbag full of lipsticks and leftie politics. Elected by a fluke of coalition politics (like our own) she is now soignee and ambitious.

Within a matter of months she had sacrificed her husband's business because of her government's exacting ethical standards, sabotaged the career of her most loyal lieutenant (the man who got her elected) in the interests of a deal with coalition partners, and is totally ruthless when members of her own sex play the womanly wiles.

Men loathe her. They see her as calculating. But one man's "calculating" is another man's commitment. When she is accused of accelerating Denmark's war in Afghanistan, she dons fatigues, visits the troops and commits more of them to the war.

She has now lost her husband to a flat-earth-mother paediatrician, who knows better than she how to raise her children, is so lonely she sleeps with, and is pressurised by, her driver. But does she whinge? She gets up every morning, puts on her starched shirt and goes to work.

She is a leader. So she hides her heartbreak.

Okay. She's a fiction (like Macchiavelli's Prince). But, like the Prince, she's an instructive one.

Leadership doesn't have to be complicated. Despite a lot of evidence contrary to the efficacy of this need, human beings need leaders to organise their collective lives.

Freud believed that they should seek out "humane, relatively un-self-interested people who have done something to conquer their own narcissism and their will to power".

Kenny's tendency to take things personally may indicate a narcissism, but is nowhere near as threatening to the health of our Republic as his failure to quell his will to power proved.

By inflicting a government of almost totalitarian majority on us, Kenny wallowed in his will to power and justified it all on the grounds of Fine Gael's great agenda of reform.

Which all might have been fine except they didn't reform anything.

The world knows that the cure for the kind of malaise of morale Ireland currently suffers is action. Instead, we have a regime which is characterised by procrastination. Procrastination about mortgage debt which is crippling the middle classes, procrastination about media legislation, which is threatening freedom of speech, procrastination about a real enquiry into the banking bubble which crippled, and is still crippling, the economy.

Kenny's particular brand of procrastination was evident in his tardiness (over a year-and-a-half ) about accepting the Moriarty tribunal report. It's a blend of parliamentary stubbornness about dignifying the opposition with an answer and waiting until there's no risk in taking any action – as in the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland's pronouncement that Denis O'Brien "does not control INM".

A very wise politician, a bit of a Marcus Aurelius himself, remarked to me last week: "The public venting of personal frustration signals a weakening of the will for authority and leadership. Not a message a leader should send out."

And here's one from the real Marcus Aurelius: "Men have come into the world for the sake of one another. . . Either instruct them then, or bear with them."

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