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Aoife Finneran: Lee's wave of goodwill crashed in Dail

It was always going to be the only obvious ending. When George Lee burst onto the political scene in May last year, he sparked a frenzy so hysterical it would have to give way to stark reality sooner or later.

It turned out to be sooner, with George throwing in the political towel after a mere nine months with Fine Gael. Looking back on his tempestuous term in politics as a representative for Dublin South, its fair to say it was a rollercoaster in every sense.

Days after he had collected his membership card, I joined him on the campaign trail in Rathfarnham.

It remains the most surreal afternoon I have ever spent observing any politician, such was the bubble of extreme enthusiasm which George appeared to inhabit. Utterly devoid of cynicism, he spoke with the type of passion not normally seen in political circles.

One of his more dramatic moments was when he declared: "People don't want me to change. I can't be anything other than who I am. If somebody like me is afraid to go out on a limb, then what hope have we? I can't be afraid. I will not be afraid."

Re-read with a jaundiced eye, those words now bring a sense of grim foreboding. George Lee might have had the talent and the expertise to steer the country out of economic crisis, but Fine Gael and Enda Kenny lacked the foresight to harness it.

Defence Minister Willie O'Dea put it best when he described George as Fine Gael's bidet, saying: "Nobody knows precisely how to use him, but they feel he adds a bit of class."

He certainly had class, and looked on his economic aims as challenges that could be overcome through sheer hard work and enthusiasm. Alas, he was wearing rose-tinted glasses the day he signed for Fine Gael, and they clearly didn't come off until he was well and truly rendered immobile by the party's rigid modus operandi.

My campaign trip with George took us into several housing estates in Rathfarnham. Thanks to his status as RTE's economics editor, he enjoyed 100pc face recognition on the doorsteps.

Later, as he traversed the streets, he was mobbed by men and women of all ages. Even a bunch of school children sidled up to shake hands with the man off the telly.

The level of adoration was astounding. I watched as housewives waved away his election leaflets, telling him they were already convinced of his economic intelligence.

They had a point. After all, the country had fallen headfirst into a recession and Lee had become a household name for his doom and gloom prophecies on RTE.

Entranced

Suddenly, by bidding for a seat in a Dail where he might actually be able to put some of his plans into action, he became something of a Messiah. Even voters in other constituencies were entranced, and the prospect of Lee in the Dail seemed to be the perfect solution for the entire beleaguered country.

In hindsight, perhaps the adulation contributed towards his shock resignation yesterday. He came into politics on a tide of high expectation, only to come crashing down to earth when he found himself constrained by the stifled closed club that is Fine Gael.

Nobody ever doubted George's ability to create viable economic policies, thanks to his work in RTE. But his problem was that despite insisting: it's time for change, he was never challenged as to his path towards achieving that change.

So, it should never have been a surprise that he would find himself hitting the same brick walls that have stalled many a politician before him.

I watched in Leinster House when he took his seat in the Dail for the first time. His arrival was nothing short of a spectacle, with Fine Gael advancing en masse to the front gates of the complex to welcome their new deputy. He was then paraded extravagantly around the chambers by Enda Kenny.

When he first got to his feet to speak, his every utterance was recorded, and public confidence soared to new heights. Yet the problem was that once he made it into the Dail, Lee was incapable of putting his plans into action.

For a start, he was relegated to a back bench position and afforded limited speaking time. He was forced to battle the predictable resentment of back benchers who felt threatened by the new man.

Most TDs are condemned to serving for years on the back bench before they ever get within sniffing distance of a portfolio. Faced with the prospect of Lee parachuting in towards a front bench place, there was a large degree of animosity.

It was clear that George felt utterly excluded from his peers, and he was never a part of the usual banter and chatter that book-ends every sitting of Dail Eireann.

When he eventually settled into the job, he found himself sidelined. He routinely languished at the rear of the chambers during Dail business, clearly frustrated. From time to time, he made small ripples, most recently when he pointed out the staggering lack of trained economics brains in the public service. In the meantime, he has also been reduced to focussing on such pressing matters as lollipop ladies, the subject of a recent press release.

Kenny had the grace to wish him well yesterday after hearing of his resignation. But there can't be any doubts about Fine Gael's reaction to the loss of Lee. Such was the fit of pique yesterday that Lee's homepage on the party website was removed yesterday evening.

hnews@herald.ie


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