Thursday 14 November 2019

Eilis O'Hanlon: Sadly, Massive-Majority Syndrome has led to Kenny ruling, not leading

Instead of being bold or imaginative, the Taoiseach has simply used his majority to make life easier for himself.

Eilis O'Hanlon

No tyranny is ever as complete as the tyranny of the majority. When Ireland was a reactionary Catholic hegemony, liberals were isolated and put in their place. Now that it's a liberal secular hegemony, it's conservatives who are expected to mind their Ps and Qs and sit quietly at the back of the bus. This latter state of affairs is supposed to be superior to the first, but it isn't really. It's just different. More insidious too, because it isn't even recognised as tyranny half the time. It just comes to seem normal.

Political majorities are equally corrupting. It's fascinating to wonder, for example, what sort of leader Enda Kenny might have become had he not been gifted with the largest majority in an Irish parliament since Sinn Fein commanded the shortlived first Dail.

In some alternate universe, there may be an Enda Kenny who's thinking on his feet to keep together a coalition of Fine Gael and like-minded independents to build the leaner, fitter country he claims to want. Unfortunately that's not the universe in which we're trapped. In this one, he is lord of all he surveys. He is Captain Picard on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. He only has to give the order: "Make it so." And made so it is.

Sometimes huge majorities can be a force for good. In times of emergency, say, or if you use that majority to bring about radical change that would otherwise never happen. But Enda isn't a natural radical. Hell, he isn't any sort of radical whatsoever. He hasn't used his majority to be bold or imaginative. He has simply used it to make life easier for himself, whilst implementing the sort of policies which were always going to be implemented anyway. What has he done with one of the largest majorities ever in a democratic parliament? What will be his legacy? Postcodes. A ban on alcohol sponsorship of sport. An attempt to bring down the Seanad. That's all you've got? Seriously? The profound political reform which could have been accomplished at a stroke, given the size of his majority, has been left undone for another generation to tackle; the promises to clean up corruption in politics forgotten.

Becoming Taoiseach could have been the making of Enda, the moment when he finally stepped out of the shadow of mediocrity which had always hung over him since he first strolled into politics as a young man. Instead, because of that majority cushioning his behind from challenge or dissent, he has behaved like a man who inherits millions and suddenly realises he never has to work for a damn thing anymore, it's all going to come so easy. That's Enda's story: a man who always took the path of least resistance finds himself, at the pinnacle of his career, in a job where there will be no resistance.

Every vote he wants to win, he will win. Every bill he demands should pass, will pass. The blooding which other leaders get in government – think of the difficulties faced by Cameron, Merkel, Obama and Hollande in getting important legislation passed – is a mystery to him. Instead the Taoiseach suffers only from acase of Massive Majority Syndrome (MMS). He's not a leader. He's a ruler.

Ruling suits his personality because he's not good at arguing his point of view, and there's no evidence that he has a knack for negotiation either, and if he has any underlying political philosophy then he's kept it well hidden for 40 years. Ruling rather than leading means he can be as easy on himself as it is his inclination to be – and it turns out that his inclination not to challenge himself was greater than we could ever have imagined.

His handling of the whole debate over the abortion bill – or the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill, as it's euphemistically known – is an object lesson in How Not To Handle A Massive Majority. When it's a core political principle, then dig the trenches and fight. Where there's more room for nuance, or what is under consideration is clearly a matter of conscience, then a craftier, more subtle approach is needed. Not every misdemeanour should be a sackable offence, or else you soon lose the loyalty of the workforce. But Enda can't see that because Massive Majority Syndrome is clouding his judgement.

With a wafer-thin majority, he'd have had to be more imaginative in his handling of opposition to legislating for abortion. His majority is so huge, however, that he doesn't need to think on his feet, so why should he? Issue the order. Make it so. He doesn't even have to worry that there may be consequences from laying down the law, because the bill is in the bag. There has been slightly more discontent from within the ranks than he might have anticipated, possibly 10 Fine Gael deputies will vote against it, but it's not even remotely likely that, at the final vote on Wednesday, the Government will suffer anything more than the political equivalent of a paper cut rather than the serious haemorrhage it would need for this bill to fall. Toughness without consequences isn't admirable. It's just a superficially macho version of cowardice.

Not only have the four TDs who voted against this legislation so far been expelled from the parliamentary party, the Taoiseach even declared last week: "I don't expect they can be candidates for the Fine Gael party in the next general election." The same threat presumably now hangs over junior minister Lucinda Creighton, who looks increasingly likely to vote against it too.

Politics should be about what works. What is there in this for Fine Gael, or the country for that matter, to force the loss of a talented young deputy such as Creighton – whose performance in Europe the Taoiseach specifically praised last week, and who has made it absolutely clear that her primary political focus is on economic recovery – over something which she plainly states she cannot support because she regards it as a "human rights issue"? As she herself says, what else should she be consulting on a matter such as abortion if not her conscience? That's what it's for.

Instead of allowing the free expression of consciences other than his own, Enda is clearly puffed up with indignation at this challenge to his authority, and, because of that massive majority, he doesn't have to suck it up like normal leaders, he can stamp it out like some pint-sized Napoleon. This is the root sin of all autocratic rulers: they have contempt for those who think differently. Dialectic, not servility, is what forges real leaders, but rulers don't respect or value opposition, because deep down they don't have sufficient confidence in their point of view to put it to any real test.

One thing's for sure. Throwing Lucinda Creighton behind political bars because, rightly or wrongly, she dares to stand outside the consensus is the act of a man who, had he been an equally unassailable Taoiseach at the time, would have done the same to anyone who challenged the ultimately catastrophic complacencies of the Celtic Tiger consensus.

Enda only says boo to geese who can't peck him.

Irish Independent

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