Tuesday 16 July 2019

Gerard O'Regan: 'A tale of two Marias - and what Mary Lou might learn from Thatcher'

Fine Gael TD Maria Bailey. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Fine Gael TD Maria Bailey. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Gerard O'Regan

It's a tale of two women; they both happened to be called Maria. As the election-fest gathered pace, their fortunes diverged in ways they could hardly imagine. While her compatriots were fighting it out at the polls, Maria Bailey was trying to extricate herself from her bizarre 'swing-gate' scandal. Meanwhile, Maria Walsh almost overnight propelled herself from Rose of Tralee winner to frontline politician.

Details of Ms Bailey's escapade in a Dublin hotel made for the juiciest soap opera in a long while.

The fallout from sitting on a swing, a bottle of beer in one hand and bottle of wine somewhere nearby, transfixed the nation. A gamut of questions following the Fine Gael TD's claim for personal damages hang in the ether.

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But be that as it may, it was Maria Bailey's subsequent radio interview which plunged a simmering controversy into a possible career-destroying crisis. The core problem is not so much what she said, but how she said it.

Quite simply, her tone of hectoring self-righteousness meant residual sympathy for her plight ebbed away.

She would do well to study how public relations consultant Gordon Reece shaped Margaret Thatcher's image back in the day. A key part of his approach was persuading her to tone down her mode of speaking.

Thatcher did her best to heed his advice - with some notable lapses - and restrain her instinct for stridency.

Circumstances meant Maria Bailey was already battling a very sticky wicket. But in trying to get herself back on track, she threw petrol on a raging fire. There are lessons to be learned for all politicians in our image-fixated age.

The European elections were yet another reminder that being an adept performer on television and radio is ever more important in the creation of a public persona.

Granted, this is an electoral contest when 'bread and butter issues' are put to one side by many voters; they indulge themselves by plumping for a candidate outside their comfort zone. But what provokes support for somebody who is essentially an unknown quantity?

Such is the case with Maria Walsh. Apart from her Rose of Tralee success, as a member of the LGBT community she has been direct and courageous in expressing her views. Also a member of the Defence Forces Reserve, in pre-election jousting she was well able to defend her patch against party colleague Mairead McGuinness.

But we will have to wait and see how things work out when her political mettle is really tested. Brexit has certainly sexed things up in the European Parliament, but making a mark during grey and amorphous days in Brussels is difficult.

Operating away from their home patch will be uncharted territory for even seasoned warriors like Claire Daly and Mick Wallace. Over the past few years, these two lone rangers were sure-footed in the Leinster House cauldron.

They siphoned off certain issues - most famously the Maurice McCabe saga - and by dogged research and preparation kept sundry Government ministers on the back foot.

Over in Brussels, who to attack is all too often a problem. Taking on a vast bureaucracy can be mentally draining and at times rather pointless. Maybe the new cohort of populist right-wing MEPs from across the continent will be enough to stir the ire of the Irish duo.

But apart from the story of the two Marias, there is another woman for whom the election signalled a fork in the road.

The upswing in the fortunes of Sinn Féin has come to a shuddering halt south of the Border. It could be the politics of the whine-fest have plateaued.

All those easy answers to head-wrecking problems - like health and housing - are a declining currency. And so the next election will be pivotal for the fortunes of its leader.

Perhaps Mary Lou McDonald should learn a thing or two from the Maria Bailey drama.

What the Sinn Féin leader has to say all too often sounds like designer outrage - always on tap no matter what's at stake. Shock horror.

But should she also learn a lesson from the life and times of Margaret Thatcher? There's come a time to tone things down a bit.

Irish Independent

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