Friday 24 May 2019

Liam Weeks: 'Let's take a leaf out of football's book and ask our exes to help government'

With four surviving taoisigh we should be making better use of their combined talents and their considerable experience

USE THEM: Enda Kenny (pictured), Brian Cowen, John Bruton and Bertie Ahern. These former taoisigh could be called on to put their years of experience to good use
USE THEM: Enda Kenny (pictured), Brian Cowen, John Bruton and Bertie Ahern. These former taoisigh could be called on to put their years of experience to good use

Liam Weeks

In a time of crisis, who do you look to? If the recent experience of Real Madrid, the famous Spanish football club, is anything to go by, you call on your ex. Since the departure of its manager Zinedine Zidane last summer, after winning an unprecedented third consecutive Champions League title, Real Madrid have lurched from one crisis to another.

Zidane's replacement, Julen Lopetegui, lasted just 14 games before he was sacked in October 2018. Lopetegui's successor, Santiago Solari, survived 32 games, until Real were dumped out of the Champions League by Ajax earlier this month.

Trailing Barcelona and Atletico Madrid in the Spanish football league, the Real Madrid president, Florentino Perez, felt he had little option other than turning to one of his ex-managers. While it is believed his preferred choice was Jose Mourinho, who managed Madrid from 2010 to 2013, Perez opted for Zidane, the man who walked out on the club last May.

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This left me wondering, in a time of uncertainty in our own national political arena, and with a potential crisis just around the corner if the Brexit doomsayers are correct in their predictions, is it time to turn to our exes?

The exes to whom I am referring are our former politicians, with decades of experience between them, now idly languishing in retirement. They are already being paid a handsome amount by the State in terms of their pensions, estimated at €20m annually, so it seems a shame not to put their skills and nous to use.

Let's begin with the four surviving taoisigh: John Bruton, Bertie Ahern, Brian Cowen and Enda Kenny. They held the number-one job in Irish politics for more than 20 consecutive years between 1994 and 2017.

Former Taoiseach Brian Cowen. Photo: Arthur Carron
Former Taoiseach Brian Cowen. Photo: Arthur Carron

An awful lot happened in that period. The Celtic Tiger came and certainly went. The Great Recession came and seemingly went. The Troika came and thankfully went. These taoisigh acquired considerable experiences and no doubt invaluable lessons in handling these events. They had innumerable dealings and interactions with various world leaders, civil servants, and industry executives.

Could they not be a source of useful advice to a sitting Irish government in terms of the practicalities, logistics and nuances of managing events and personalities?

We are at a critical moment in the Brexit process, where the Irish Government will need all the help it can get to ensure the EU remains onside in terms of our interests, and to minimise the damage to Ireland resulting from whatever outcome materialises.

John Bruton, and especially Bertie Ahern, have been providing invaluable insight in the media on how Brexit is unfolding and its implications for Ireland. But, why is it just the fourth estate that gets to benefit from their knowledge and experience? Could not a formal arena be established to learn from them in a more structured and beneficial manner?

Former Taoiseach John Bruton. Photo: Tom Burke
Former Taoiseach John Bruton. Photo: Tom Burke

It is not just former taoisigh we could use in this way. How about past presidents? Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese between them served more than 20 years in the job from 1990 to 2011.

While Aras an Uachtarain was long considered a retirement home for its incumbents, it's quite noticeable that neither Robinson nor McAleese remained inactive in their post-political lives. Mary Robinson went on to serve as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, while Mary McAleese pursued academic studies, and was recently appointed to a professorship at the University of Glasgow.

This model of activity is a path that former US presidents, particularly from the Democratic Party, have followed. Jimmy Carter has gained more kudos for his post-presidential role, setting up the Carter Centre for the promotion of peace and human rights, for which he later won the Nobel Peace Prize. Both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have also remained active within the Democratic organisation, advocating and campaigning for a variety of candidates and issues.

At the moment, the only official role for our former taoisigh and presidents is as ex-officio members of the Council of State, the body whose role is to advise the incumbent president on the exercise of his or her limited powers.

Aside from this, their input is largely restricted to the occasional opinion piece or appearance on a Sunday chat show to discuss the newspapers.

While many may want these former leaders to remain in retirement, at the very least we could learn a lot from their mistakes and experiences. By understanding where those in the past went wrong, present and future politicians could hopefully then avoid repeating such errors.

This is not to advocate giving these ex-officeholders any formal or executive powers, but perhaps they could come together as a wider consultative forum?

They could be used as a non-executive advisory board, or to lead and promote discussion at a public level on key national issues. For example, why couldn't former taoisigh, or even retired government ministers, play a role on leading a public debate about Ireland's role in Europe?

Britain made the mistake of not having such a debate until after a Brexit vote, and we don't want to repeat that error.

Former Senator Maurice Hayes chaired such a body, the National Forum on Europe, after the defeat of the first referendum on the Nice Treaty in 2001.

It was disbanded in 2009 by Brian Cowen, but could not a similar forum be re-established and led by our former politicians? They could provide an invaluable insight to the public on the EU, or indeed any other issues that require a wider debate.

We're going to have a referendum in May on removing divorce from the Constitution, as well as plebiscites in Cork, Limerick and Waterford on the introduction of a directly elected mayor. To date, there has been little debate on these issues. While they may pale in insignificance to Brexit, if we're going to have a vote on something, it may as well be deliberated. Could our ex-politicians not chair and lead such discussions?

Our current incumbents are often too busy with their day-to-day tasks to get involved in such longer-term activities, and they also have to wonder if it would bring them any electoral benefits. In contrast, retired politicians have no electorates to hobnob or party whip to follow. They could be free to talk about any issue under the sun, and take any position, with no ramifications.

It is not just former taoisigh and presidents we could use in this manner. There are many former politicians only dying to play a greater role in public life. I don't necessarily mean that another quango should be established to incorporate them, but perhaps we could have a Dail emeritus of retired parliamentarians?

With our contemporary politicians often so controlled and regulated in what they can say, imagine how refreshing and interesting it would be to hear former officeholders speak freely about political issues. They wouldn't have to worry about being on message, or have to run their speeches by a strategic communications unit. It is likely that we would hear a lot more frank and useful debate in a parliament of retirees than we get in the current Dail.

I'm sure the quick-witted among you will point out that we already have such a Dail emeritus. It is called the Seanad. Nevertheless, if such a forum of exes was to be established, there should be one stipulation. That no ex-politician is permitted to wear the skinny jeans Zinedine Zidane modelled at the press conference unveiling his return to Real Madrid last week. That is something we can all do without.

Dr Liam Weeks is director of the MSc Government & Politics at University College Cork

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