Tuesday 18 December 2018

With democracy in chaos, Leo's aim is no cock-ups

Leo, Paschal and Eoghan have been talking calmly and pursuing a 'no-drama' style of government - but will it be enough

KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Olivier Matthys/AP
KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Olivier Matthys/AP
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

In the current TV adaptation of Stephen King's Mr Mercedes, a father calls to the door of retired detective Bill Hodges, played by Brendan Gleeson. The man's son Jerome has been helping Gleeson with some IT issues around a case he is working on.

Jerome's father has just one question for Hodges. Jerome is getting good grades in school and has the potential, against the odds, to do well in life. His father has a mantra and a philosophy around supporting his son, which is not to allow him to "f**k up".

Simple as that. No "f**k ups". Steady as she goes. The father is ever vigilant on his son's behalf and what he wants to know of Hodges is that he is not going to be the guy to f**k things up for Jerome.

It was somewhat of a metaphor for politics these days. To survive, the best anyone can hope for is to avoid, let's call them cock-ups. It was Albert Reynolds who said a long time ago that it was the little things that trip you up in politics. And Albert hadn't even lived to see how a rash decision by David Cameron, based on internal party politics, would turn the UK to chaos. One false move, and the UK has gone from being one of the most stable democracies in the world to a country that is perpetually teetering on the edge, its international reputation in tatters, a standing joke around the world, its head of state an object of pity among its own people and the rest of the world.

In the US, a compliant media, a poor candidate, the internet, a liberal echo chamber and a failure to take a lunatic and a disenfranchised population seriously, conspired to bring America's century to a juddering halt, destroying its reputation in the world and creating divisive chaos.

No wonder the Chinese, in the week of the communist party congress, have been gleefully mocking liberal democracy. The official news agency Xinhua echoed President Xi last week talking about the "crises and chaos swamp(ing) Western liberal democracy".

According to Xi Jinping himself, in a three-hour speech to the congress. China has entered a "new era" where it should "take centre stage in the world". The country's rapid progress under "socialism with Chinese characteristics" shows, he says, that there is "a new choice for other countries".

This talk in China shows an ideological confidence that is the very opposite of what we are experiencing in the west right now. And you have to admit, what the Chinese would call the "harmony" of "socialism with Chinese characteristics", almost looks attractive next to the mess that is Europe, the UK, and America.

In Ireland we like to assume that we are a stable country. Voters are going back to the centre and we have weathered an awful 10 years without the roof blowing off the place. So we think, reasonably enough, that it couldn't happen here. But then you look at how quickly chaos came to the US and the UK, and you have to think we need to be careful.

And the answer to that? No cock-ups. Dull competence is the order of the day now. Keep her ticking over. Manage everything. Keep talking in a calm, reassuring voice. And plot a steady course.

As we learn more about Leo's style of leadership, it is becoming apparent that he's not looking to revolutionise the country. He championed gay marriage and got much of the credit for the feelgood factor around that, and he has been pretty much forced into a position where he is ushering in repeal of the Eighth Amendment. But mainly, you'd have to say that Leo's philosophy is an Obama-esque 'No Drama'.

The Budget was a case in point. Keep everyone happy, no major changes, and pick on a sector that enjoys little public sympathy - commercial property developers - to top up the kitty. And what you hope for is not that you will be heralded for changing everything, but that there is no cock-up, that it passes without major incident.

Housing too seems to be involve sending Eoghan Murphy out to keep talking calmly about all the things they are doing and are going to do. His beard and his deep, sonorous tone lend him some authority, and he does a serious face that expresses the correct balance of concern and determination. No drama. We're dealing with it.

Indeed, the fact that the key troika of this Government so far: Leo, Paschal and Murphy, all speak in these calm, measured tones, always talking in an apparently comprehensive, straight and reassuring tone, is probably no coincidence. It would seem like a kind of a corporate strategy. Let the others indulge in hysterics around them. They are unflappable.

Paschal's voice is slightly more theatrical than Murphy's, while Leo's is more of a South Dublin monotone. But they all convey the same thing. Relax. Nothing to worry about. We got this.

Because the last thing we want is for anyone to get excited. Because we all know what happens when passions run high. You get chaos, that can ultimately swamp you. It is almost as if Leo, who is, we are told, a fan of the eastern art of mindfulness, is taking tips from the Chinese. It's all about harmony.

You need to bare your teeth now and then too. But in a controlled fashion. So have careful pops off Sinn Fein and anyone else who threatens the no-drama rule. This kind of thing shows authority and also satisfies the backbenchers.

And have the odd go off easy bad guys - like the banks. Not that Leo ranted against the banks. It was more a flick of the tail. He didn't lose his patience, but said quite calmly that he was in danger of doing so. They will be called in for a chat. There is a quiet, implicit power in this. No one is losing the rag. The banks will just have a few things explained to them about the tracker mortgage situation.

The problem with all this is that you can't keep coasting along. Things get complicated and messy sometimes, and you have to get your hands dirty.

While Leo and Paschal and the Central Bank might think that applying a bit of moral pressure on the banks might work, we all know that just because all right thinking people agree that something needs to be done doesn't mean it needs to get done.

Indeed, the banks don't seem to be giving up without a fight, and have already apparently threatened legal action against the regulator. Indeed it seems that the wording in mortgage contracts is not always cut and dried. It is also looking as if at least some of the victims of this scandal will have to go and take the banks to court, with a test case planned in the new year.

Stuff gets messy you see. And what we all agree on is a scandal is actually a complex legal situation. Morals are one thing. The law is another. You can't ignore the details.

The abortion debate has also been reasonably calm so far. Leo has got away with glossing over it, with vague talk about how people want a change, and an assurance he will let us know what he thinks when the time is right. But it's becoming increasingly clear that it will be difficult to keep this as a no-drama situation.

Even the Government committee on it couldn't agree that its conversation about it was fair. It's getting increasingly personal and messy, and whatever opinion Leo ultimately expresses could turn a lot of people against him fairly viscerally.

It has been a fairly charmed existence so far. But Leo doesn't get to decide when chaos might come. And all his political enemies, and the banks, and abortion, and Brexit and a whole load of other things he doesn't even know about yet will all be conspiring to visit chaos on his zen harmony.

Like Jerome's dad, you never know where the f**k up is going to come from. You must be eternally vigilant. And even that isn't enough.

Sunday Independent

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