Monday 18 February 2019

Reborn Rabbitte enjoys new coming as Joan's watchdog

The John Drennan Profile

Pat Rabbitte
Pat Rabbitte

John Drennan

It may be an old story, but it is still, just about, a funny one.

During an All-Ireland hurling match, the commentator Micheal O Muircheartaigh famously noted of an encounter between Galway's Joe Rabbitte and Tipperary's Pat Fox that it was the first time he had ever seen a Rabbitte chasing a Fox.

Last week's intervention by Pat Rabbitte on Aer Lingus led many to wonder if a political fox called Joan Burton was being chased by a very different Rabbitte.

It would not be surprising if this was the case, for in terms of the great but undeclared Irish political feuds, Rabbitte versus Joan is one of the classics.

Of course, 'that lady' and Pat never confronted each other openly. Like lions, Cabinet ministers never go to war on the basis of the potential damage each can do to the other.

However, when you become the leader, rather like becoming boss of the lion pride, one of the perks of the job is that you can kill whoever you do not like.

Thus it was that when Joan became the leader of the Labour Party, the sacking of Pat by 'that lady' was conducted with a level of dispatch that brought Albert Reynolds' famous Saint Valentine's Day Cabinet massacre to mind.

Of course, Joan would have fared little better had Rabbitte's Trojan mouse - apologies, horse - Alex White triumphed in the leadership race. However, the tide was fatally out for the Grumpy Old Men of the Labour Party during and after the 2014 election campaign.

In retrospect, one of the more puzzling features of the short ministerial career of Pat Rabbitte was how swiftly he joined the ranks of the Grumpy Old Men.

Prior to securing office, Rabbitte was seen as being a 'funny fellow'.

That is not as simple a designator of status as you might think, for there are many types of funny fellows in Irish politics.

Being a funny fellow means you are just a bit of a comedian. Or you can be a funny fellow as in 'funny peculiar'. And that is an entirely different creature.

Sadly, in today's iron age of conformity, 'funny peculiar' is not good, and in the case of Rabbitte, this was definitely true.

Rather like the equally clever Alan Shatter, the former minister found the excitable, thoughtless nature of modern politics difficult.

He was too smart and too impatient and, often, simply too blunt with fools for Labour's good or his own.

Nothing epitomised this failing more than the furore over Pat's famous comment about election promises.

Rabbitte never said that you make promises in an election with the intent of breaking them.

He was, instead, noting that in the heat of battle you make the promises first, and sort the thing out afterwards.

Modern political discourse, though, does not have the time or the patience for such complexities, and in the end it ran out of time and patience with Pat.

Mind you, it was a close-run thing, for an increasingly grumpy Pat was running out of patience so swiftly with us that he was beginning to evolve into the political equivalent of that internet celebrity, Grumpy Cat.

Since his departure from Cabinet, the former minister tried to be good by keeping a low profile.

Rabbitte is simply not designed, however, to be good in the long run - or the short one, for that matter.

Pat is simply too mercurial a creature to take easily to his new political status as a Rabbitte at rest.

This certainly is no longer the case after his declaration of support for the sale of shares in Aer Lingus.

As Rabbitte put the capitalist cat in among the trade-union pigeons with his suggestion that selling the airline to IAG would be a positive move, the whispering quickly started.

Mr Rabbitte may have believed that 'a small bit of leadership' could see the deal garnering trade union and political support.

However 'leadership' is nowhere to be found in the Coalition's toolbox on this issue.

The political reality instead is that, within the ranks of a Coalition that do not intend to bother a fly in the next year, no-one is going to die in a political ditch for €350m.

Even if it may be the right long-term decision, putting dozens of Government seats in jeopardy for the equivalent of paying the mortgage for a week was not going to work.

Few will, therefore, be grateful to Pat for taking the longer view that "in five, seven, 10 years, we are likely to regret not taking this opportunity when we realise that Aer Lingus was too small and isolated in a vastly-changed market".

Pat, of course has been around Leinster House for too long to expect any thanks for his bout of independent-mindedness.

Mind you, the whispers that Rabbitte was 'doing this to get at Joan' were, to put it mildly, foolish, for Pat would be quite aware that nothing is certain to make Joan more popular, particularly within the ranks of Labour, than the spectacle of the National Grandmother taking on a bad-tempered Rabbitte.

So what was Rabbitte's real motive for last week's unwonted display of independence?

It is actually quite possible that far from being about Joan, this is actually about Pat.

Rabbitte, to put it mildly, is a man who is easily bored.

Indeed, many would argue he was as bored as a minister, let alone as a TD.

This characteristic means that for Pat the prospect of a life spent wandering as lonely and as harmlessly as a thundercloud through Leinster House for the duration of his political career must have been pretty unbearable.

There are few greater maestros of reinvention than Pat Rabbitte.

He is a politician who enjoyed a dalliance with every left-wing group, bar the double-A Alliance; then became the Labour leader, before finding himself being pigeon-holed as being more of a Fine Gael minister than the Fine Gael ministers themselves.

It is not impossible that Rabbitte has decided to reinvent himself as the plain-speaking, honest conscience of the Coalition, as part of a final spin on the political merry-go-round.

Intriguingly, such a decision may not have been taken in a political vacuum.

After he was 'sacked' in the Sunday Independent, according to Pat, initially the talk was that Rabbitte would retire from active politics when the next election is called.

Increasingly, though, the view is that the last denouement Rabbitte wants to his political career are the cheers that would follow the abandonment of the seat he fought for and has hung on to for two decades to the Sinn Fein Socialist wolves.

If he is to retain the seat, - and it is possible he will - a sophisticated operator like Pat knows he cannot spend 2015 in permanent 'dog in the manger' mode.

Pat has to make a bit of a stir and, in the current wasteland of 'careful, now', standing out from the Coalition herd is the only way of doing this.

After all, what harm can plain speaking from a former Minister do, in a year where the Coalition is determined to do absolutely nothing that might be controversial or courageous?

Of course, there is a danger that such plain speaking could make life quite difficult for 'that lady' Joan Burton.

One suspects, though, that Pat might not lose too much sleep over such a denouement.

Factfile

NAME: Pat Rabbitte

AGE: 65

POSITION: Labour TD

IN THE NEWS BECAUSE: His intervention in Aer Lingus after a long post-ministerial sulk suggests a bored Pat is preparing to take a front-line position in national politics again. Joan, we suspect will not be delighted. SF and the Socialist Party might be less so.

Sunday Independent

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