Thursday 14 November 2019

John Drennan: Emperor Enda should still beware

Fine Gael's DNA has never been suited to the Haughey-style leadership displayed by the Taoiseach.

John Drennan

He is a rare bird of passage these days, but, last week as Dessie O'Malley ambled through Leinster House, one could be forgiven for remembering differing times when O'Malley had stood up to Haughey and stood by the Republic.

Sadly, the dominance of the "conscience doth make cowards of us all" ethic displayed last week suggested the times may actually not be as different as we would like to believe.

The persistence of that arrogance that was such a feature of the Haughey era was evident last week as Lucinda Creighton made it clear she was prepared to lose a junior ministry if that was the price for opposing a bill whose foundations she believed to be made of sand.

In one of those rare weeks in Irish politics where conscience and character clashed with politics, the nominal issue when it came to the departure of Ms Creighton, Billy Timmins and the rest of the Fine Gael gang of five might have been abortion legislation.

But, the real war was between those who believe in a politics of conscience above the Enda Kenny/Phil Hogan political school of pragmatic expedience.

Of course, in our Troika protectorate, politics won, pulling up to such an extent that if Shakespeare was right then Phil, Enda and the rest of the FG 'Dukes of Hazard' must be lions disguised as jackals.

As the good ole FG boys went cajoling, whispering and threatening around Leinster House, and despite all the furore and the loss of troops, it might on one level appear to have not been such a bad old week for our Taoiseach.

Anxious supplicants for favour, both within the party and the media, have been given the green light to portray Kenny as a tough leader, a sort of milk-and-water variant of Haughey; though obviously minus the yachts, islands and jewel-encrusted daggers.

After the conniptions Kenny has experienced over the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill, abortion, whether Labour likes it or not, will not darken this Government's door again.

But, also, critically, in terms of inter-Coalition relations, Fine Gael and Labour have, in terms of the blood sacrifice of TDs and ministers, reached a position of relative parity.

The good news for Enda, of course, is that some sacrifices are more painful than others.

God's banker, Peter Mathews, was, once single-party government had disappeared, an independent-thinking nuisance as was Billy Timmins, while the departure of "that bloody woman", Lucinda, and by her own hand too, will of course be the catalyst for an outburst of grinning from the good ole boys.

For Enda it offers two bonuses, for the prime objective, when it came to placing Lucinda in the junior ranks of the Cabinet, was to confound and weaken the forces of dissent.

Now, even as the Taoiseach shows his party the cleanliness of his hands, he is treated to the bonus of being rid of this turbulent priestess from both ministry and party with a new face being plucked from the ranks of the 2010 rebels as proof of the 'Dear Leader's' benevolence.

The world, however, may not be quite so sweet for Enda as he and his dwindling band of "good old boys" might believe.

The hope of course is, given that Lucinda appears intent on not founding a new party, her departure will cast turbulent waters for about a fortnight before our ministers head off to the MacGill Summer School to be appropriately adored.

However, in tandem with Michelle Mulherin's compelling intervention, the spectacle of conscience being treated like dirt on a shoe may generate forces that cannot be easily controlled.

The Haughey-style resonance of recent weeks – and months, for that matter – is raising the political Cain of FG being again outflanked on its right; insofar as FG has a right wing.

The prospect of a new Progressive Democrats will be spooking those few remaining thoughtful members of FG who will realise that in 1997 and 2007 the nuisance factor alone of the PDs stymied FG's chances of securing power.

They will also be acutely aware that such a new party might outflank Fine Gael on a different front for, as was the case with Dessie and Charlie, the current knife-fight in FG is more about the eternal issue of conscience and character than economics.

The departure, last week, of the FG wild geese is a reaction to an ethos that, like a London fog, has risen out of an amoral marsh by stealth and coated the Government with a brutal pragmatism where might is right, all promises are disposable, and where, as with all courts run by satraps, the atmosphere is one of poisonous intrigue and bullying.

The smart talk now is of the inherent difficulties in setting up a new party, but the hardline position taken by the court of Enda and Phil means those who have been expelled now possess the thorny freedom that was "enjoyed" by the Spartans at Thermopylae.

Hope in politics, particularly of future preferment, has always been the rack that breaks the back of courage and dissent in our Dail.

But Enda's excommunicants are not hogtied by this and Kenny and his willing assistants may yet resemble poor Dr Frankenstein, who created a monster.

The possibility of such a change is enhanced by the anger and distaste a young electorate feel for a cabal of politicians who appear obsessed with political games.

For now the teeming masses of our young, whose only real option is to flee our failed State, have no place to go, for our instinctively conservative electorate trust neither the alternative of Sinn Fein nor a Fianna Fail party that is still on political probation.

After last week the Government's cack-handedness has increased the possibility of a new party rising like the phoenix from the dust and feathers of Enda's "democratic revolution".

The growing artlessness of Kenny's political management skills will come as a surprise to many, for while there are many things we might not expect him to do, this heir of Cosgrave was expected to keep the show on the road in a circumspect fashion.

Ironically, the Coalition appears to be the victim of its accidental success, for it leaves our political leaders prone to letting their defects run riot if these egotists believe they are especially beloved.

In the case of Kenny, numerical supremacy appears to have unleashed a pettish, petit bourgeois authoritarian streak.

The problem for our current 'Dear Leader' is that unlike FF who love their 'chiefs' and 'bosses', the DNA of Fine Gael is not suited to the Haughey-style impulse.

FG TDs perceive themselves to be free thinkers and intellectuals (you there at the back of the class, stop sniggering) who do not take kindly to the 'four legs good, two legs bad' school of politics.

For now, many have adopted Hamlet's view that cowardice does allow us "rather bear the ills we have, than fly to others that we know not of".

But, the mood within the party is becoming dangerously equivocal over the escalating "autocratic" political style of Enda.

Last week provided us with a rare but intriguing lesson in the often under-estimated importance of character in politics.

Enda's own career, where he spent two decades having his nose rubbed in the political carpet by Pee Flynn, has provided the Taoiseach with his strongest character trait of resilience.

Unfortunately, like Stockholm syndrome, where the victim acquires the traits of the captor, Kenny appears to have picked up quite a few fleas from the FF dog.

If he is to learn one lesson from last week, the Taoiseach would be wise to curb the Mr Hyde side of his persona lest he discover that the best laid plans of mice and men, or Taoisigh for that matter, should they become too arrogant, do oft go awry.

Irish Independent

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