Wednesday 20 November 2019

Team Enda lacks subtle diplomacy

Reports of tension in Kenny's entourage give a glimpse of his administrative style, says John-Paul McCarthy

US ambassador Anne Anderson pictured with Taoiseach Enda Kenny in the US this week. Picture: Marty Katz
US ambassador Anne Anderson pictured with Taoiseach Enda Kenny in the US this week. Picture: Marty Katz

John-Paul McCarthy

Not much is known about the Taoiseach's administrative style, except for the fact that he has expressed no real interest in using our bankruptcy to bring about fundamental administrative reform.

In this regard, he compares badly with people like Michael Gove in the British cabinet who are looking very hard at the core assumptions of the Whitehall recruitment process.

There is no Kenny version of Dean Godson's portrait of Bertie Ahern in administrative mode, as offered in Godson's biography of David Trimble, Himself Alone.

Connoisseurs of the minutiae of the peace process might well remember Godson's reconstruction of the famous showdown in St Austell in Cornwall in 2000 between the British and Irish governments on the matter of decommissioning and the suspension of the power-sharing institutions.

Such was Bertie Ahern's personal and political regard for Tony Blair that he refused to attack British policy to Blair's face and instead left it to Paddy Teahon, the secretary-general of his department to school the British prime minister.

This had echoes of the occasion when Jack Lynch allowed Ken Whitaker to stay behind after a desultory meeting with General de Gaulle so he could plead the Irish case in French with the autocrat.

We did get a slight glimpse though into the Taoiseach's operation this week. And all may not be well in that court.

Several newspapers carried reports of a verbal altercation in the lobby of a New York hotel between the Irish ambassador to the USA, Anne Anderson, and the secretary-general to the Government, Martin Fraser.

Ms Anderson was apparently heard telling Mr Fraser: "I am not a liar. It was a misunderstanding. If I had known what the Taoiseach wanted, of course I would have done what he wanted."

It is not yet clear what they were arguing about, but it must have been something interesting because they elected to thrash it out after midnight in a hotel lobby in front of other guests.

Unkind observers might suggest that the Taoiseach travels rather too heavily when he goes to the United States.

The peace process era is now over, and the days when a visiting Irish Taoiseach could cross the sea expecting to be feted like a Menachem Begin are long gone.

But the fact that the Taoiseach brought the country's most powerful civil servant, Mr Fraser, with him on this trip might indicate a yearning for the days of the big delegations.

There seems to have been little substantial business transacted during the Taoiseach's trip, save for the usual Patrick's Day fare of visas, power breakfasts and emotional speeches. Uncle Sam cannot cure our banking system, and he even forgot to appoint an ambassador in Dublin.

The most interesting aspect of the whole trip was the Taoiseach's own genial indifference to the fact that he became the first Irish prime minister since independence to be outflanked on a moral issue by a drinks company.

Much as he did when Martin McGuinness tried for Aras an Uachtarain with Irish-American money in 2011, the Taoiseach found he needed to be somewhere else during the debate about New York's ban on gay parade marchers.

Why bring the cabinet secretary on a trip like this?

Little is known about Mr Fraser's influence save for the few snippets that were published by Pat Leahy in his book, The Price of Power.

Here, Mr Fraser emerged as a sort of administrative grim-reaper, the man who, for example, was supposed to prepare in detail for the disintegration of the euro and the resurrection of the old punt.

In many ways, the cabinet secretary's position is the most demanding of all the senior administrative slots.

He or she sits next to the Taoiseach in cabinet meetings, takes the minutes of the discussions and can intervene at will across the whole range of government business.

The job also has important security and diplomatic aspects.

One of the best examples of this was a surreal discussion that took place early in Lemass's premiership between the new Taoiseach and the cabinet secretary Maurice Moynihan.

There were rumours, Lemass explained, that the British government might be amenable not just to returning Roger Casement's lime-eaten corpse, but also his infamous diaries. What's to be done?

Moynihan told Lemass tartly that he had three options if the diaries were sent back: keep them, publish them, or incinerate them.

If he accepted them, Moynihan went on with a shudder, the Irish Government would find itself mired in the arguments about Casement's pederastic exploits in South America.

He counselled Lemass to let them rot in London.

Wise words from a man who rarely raised his voice above a whisper.

Sunday Independent

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