Sunday 26 May 2019

Tantrums from the wannabes are the last thing Kenny needs in a crisis

Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Photo: Conor McCabe
Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Photo: Conor McCabe

Liz O'Donnell

One thing is sure as we observe recent tumultuous events; a life in politics is a cruel trade, not for the faint-hearted. "I'm sure you're glad to be out of all that ... a thankless job" is a comment frequently expressed to me as a former politician.

I tend to disagree, in the light of my own perhaps charmed experience of serving at a time when the economy was thriving to the extent of full employment. Sadly, the boom led to bust in due course by which time my party had run its course; bearing a share of responsibility for the economic crisis. All politicians, from prime ministers to lowly councillors, prefer to recall achievements over mistakes.

Tony Blair's resolute defence of the Iraq war even after the damning Chilcot verdict is a case in point. Similarly, David Cameron's surprisingly upbeat departure as prime minister this week, defeated in a Brexit referendum he didn't need to call, is another instance of retrospective self-delusion.

Looking back, the most unpleasant part of being a politician in my view was not the tedium of legislative or party work but rather having to work against a background of public cynicism, including the targeting of individual public figures. Those who fall victim to that treatment know the power of it to erode confidence and destroy lives and families. Social media has made all this worse.

Many TDs have spoken openly about online abuse they experience on a daily basis related to their work. In the old days, it was the scrawled handwritten letter called hate mail, no less venomous or intimidating.

After a long march, women are rising to the top of global politics in greater numbers. Theresa May takes on the unenviable role of UK prime minister at a time of unprecedented change. She is the second woman to hold the post.

Like Margaret Thatcher, she wears the title of 'difficult woman' as a badge of honour, cleverly boasting she will need those qualities in spades as she navigates the UK government's exit negotiations with the EU. The most challenging policy aspect is the UK's conflicting ambitions of preserving free trade and access to the single market and restricting free movement of people post-Brexit. She also needs to heal the wounds of a divided party and country.

Although not an original Brexiteer, May has ironically become the person to implement the exit. She leaves behind her a trail of political bodies in the detritus of the last two weeks. Cameron, viewed by most people as a successful and polished politician, departed Downing Street a spent political force.

Michael Gove and George Osborne were dispatched to history while Boris Johnson, controversial hero of the official Leave campaign, is a shock appointment as Foreign Secretary along with other leading Brexiteers such as David Davis as Europe Minister.

Andrea Leadsom was a short-lived contender for the Tory leadership; her campaign collapsed after a media savaging. An ill-judged claim to have more of a stake in the country's future because she had children, unlike the childless Theresa May, was ruinous. It will be a long time before any female politician uses the "mum card" as a unique selling point. Her bloodied withdrawal did avoid a polarised campaign causing more uncertainty in markets and in EU capitals. We know at least that with May, there will be no rush to invoke Article 50 and formal exit talks, which is good for Ireland given the interdependency of the two economies.

Here at home, our frail administration does its best to weather the storm. Taoiseach Enda Kenny could do without disloyalty in his party ranks, agitating for him to get off the stage or state his intentions.

I am always surprised how seasoned politicians are so easily seduced by media to brief 'privately' against a leader. In the old days, Phil Hogan would put manners on such treachery. But the Taoiseach is surrounded by wannabe successors and disaffected backbenchers.

He is also operating from a position of weakness, bruised by a humiliating standoff with the Independent Alliance. He needs to assert his authority in the party and build contingency support with other like-minded TDs and parties in the event of more tantrums by Independents. He is by far the most experienced person to manage the Brexit-related diplomacy and coordinate the best official and diplomatic expertise needed.

TDs of all parties should put the national interest above all other preoccupations. To foment instability from within this already fragile administration at a time of grave economic and political challenge is an exercise in national self-harm. As the Taoiseach kicks off diplomatic discussions to safeguard Ireland's interests in the arrangements to be agreed post-Brexit, media civil society and all parties should be supportive. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, although friendly and sympathetic about our shared border and the peace process, has ruled out any special treatment for Ireland.

Fianna Fáil, in particular, has a uniquely important role to play in this regard. Riding high in the polls is all very well but there is no gain in dining out on the Taoiseach's internal woes.

As deputies scatter to their constituencies for the summer recess, few will be on holiday. All are feeling anxious about the fragility of the Government and are braced for unforeseen shocks in a fast-moving environment. Our growth figures have been shown to be a fiction, raising eyebrows about how robust or otherwise our real economy is.

The business community needs a sure-footed Government, focused solely on the national interest, not distracted by pathetic party rivalries.

Employers' group Ibec has correctly called for aggressive moves and an overhaul of business and personal tax to enhance our competitiveness.

The decision to establish a new division in the Taoiseach's Department and a Cabinet sub-committee on Brexit matters has been welcomed by Michael McGrath, and the Taoiseach should keep Fianna Fáil close at all stages in this regard.

Most will welcome Micheál Martin's call for a national dialogue on Brexit and breathe a sigh of relief that grown-up politics are at play.

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss