THE long-awaited, much-anticipated Fine Gael Leadership contest has finally been given the official start. I, like many others, believed the interests of Fine Gael would best be served by a full-blown contest where candidates would be challenged on their leadership qualities while debating the policy platform and future direction of the party.
I looked forward with anticipation, waiting to see who would enter the Leo or Simon lobbies. Some will of course have already made up their minds, others will be open to persuasion, using leverage to hold out for a certain promise in return for their vote, and then there will be those who simply don’t know.
Sadly the carefully choreographed queue for the Ministerial Bus we saw over the past week served no purpose other than to subvert and undermine a necessary policy debate, in turn denying the party members of a full and meaningful role in this election process.
I believe each candidate should have revealed their eight nominees. Thereafter no member of the Parliamentary Party should have declared a preference until we were well in to the debate. Coveney, a sincere politician with the courage of his convictions, has been side-stepped in the early stages, but some astute policy initiatives revealing the substance and depth of his campaign may edge him back into contention. Thereafter, win or lose, he will have done himself, his party and the country some service.
This fundamentally flawed process has effectively sidelined councillors and members. No marks to the designer of the electoral process who did not foresee this debacle as a possible outcome. This must never be allowed recur.
Senior party members, dazzled in the headlights of media headlines, jostled for Ministerial position with undue haste and in the wake of this campaign I believe they have left themselves open to a charge of having undermined the membership and the election process. Why not give the membership space and time to debate the issue, then decide?
In politics, the process itself is what leads to informed decisions, that’s why we debate and why we have an opposition, all in an effort to present informed policy decisions.
New Politics is the latest buzz phrase and the Fine Gael initiative to include the membership and councillors in the election of a party leader in principle sounded great. In practice however, because of an ill conceived procedure, the votes of members and councillors have been devalued because of an effort to decide the outcome by the Oireachtas members in less than 48 hours. In turn leading to a phoney battle for the heart and mind of the party that is proceeding for the next week or so, merely adding to the cynicism that is sadly rampant among many of the population that is underwhelmed by these needless shenanigans.
I have a certain experience of changing a party leader while in Government. I saw the divisiveness within a parliamentary party as leadership challenges played out. It is a difficult time for members, both individually and collectively. Sadly, regardless of the promises of party unity, there will be the inevitable recriminations, all the more likely because of the way events have played out.
This leadership contest is set to the backdrop of a very changing Ireland, Europe and world since Enda Kenny assumed the mantle 15 years ago. Historically, political seismic changes occur post economic crises. The political consequences of the Wall Street Crash of 1929 included the rise of right wing or fascist organisations such as the Nazis in Germany, Franco in Spain, Salazar in Portugal, Mussolini in Italy, Oswald Mosley’s Union of Fascists in Britain and similar organisations in Australia and the Balkans. The global financial crisis of 2008 is considered by many economists to have been the worst financial crisis since the 1930s and once again Ireland, Europe and the world are in the midst of political turbulence, with the electorate lurching to the far left or far right.
There is also a sense the political establishment has lost the confidence of large numbers of voters, who have rejected ‘business as usual’ and chosen to back politicians they see as challenging the status quo. In Ireland this has manifested itself with the rise in support for a far left wing populist movement and anti-establishment personalities. We have a minority government struggling to find the necessary consensus to enact meaningful legislation. We, the electorate, need to reflect on this whilst the challenge facing our politicians is to win back the trust and confidence of the electorate.
We hear talk of New Politics but in reality Ireland’s new politics is simply a case of doing old politics differently. Prior to the last General Election I called for our political leaders to embrace the message the electorate was going to send them and for Fine Gael and Fianna Fail to form a stable government, they failed to do this. Instead we ended up with a caretaker government that struggles daily to offer any meaningful decisions.
The recent success of Mr Macron in France might open our eyes to what New Politics and real change can look like, it doesn’t have to be far left or far right but it has to be competent, balanced and imaginative.
I still have faith in the Fine Gael electorate and they have much to consider as they set about electing their leader. Politically, they will have one eye on the future of their party while equally looking at who is best equipped to lead a minority government. So what are the party faithful looking for in their new leader, what are we the public looking for?
The definition of political leadership is a somewhat elusive concept that often remains beneath the radar and under-analysed. To be a doctor, lawyer or a nurse there are clearly laid out requirements, but how is our political leader defined? Like Machiavelli’s Prince, the modern political leader need not have all the innate attributes deemed necessary to function capably. An astute political analyst many years ago identified three basic qualities of any prime minister: competence, balance and imagination. The first two were taken as a given, though apparently not any more, the third separates the great from the good. As the old adage goes, vision without action is a daydream, action without vision is a nightmare.
Our future is precarious so we have to carefully consider whom we elect at local, national and most importantly as leader of out country over the coming years. Which of them, Simon or Leo, has the necessary balance and vision in terms of leading the party and the country into those said choppy waters?
The public do not have a vote, ultimately this is an internal party election to elect the leader of Fine Gael. The Dáil will elect the Taoiseach. When it comes to a head to head, I suggest we have already seen such a debate, after last year’s election we saw Leo and Simon set about negotiating the formation of a minority government. We saw who had the competence, to successfully conclude these negotiations as against the candidate whose lack of balance and imagination surely placed a major question mark over his ability to lead a party of big egos not to mind a minority government.
In this area alone, Simon showed his leadership ability with his steadfast commitment to the task in hand and was the stabilising influence in the Fine Gael negotiating team.
Given the importance of the forthcoming Brexit negotiations, I feel Simon has both the European experience and competence that will stand to him as Taoiseach. He has served as an MEP and held key Ministry’s in Agriculture, Marine and Defence all of which are very much on the EU agenda. We need someone who knows his way around the European corridors of power as we face into one of the greatest challenges facing this country since we joined the European Market
With majority governments apparently consigned to history, one of the main leadership challenges for the future is about building the relationships we need to offset constant change and inherent political instability. That requires a hard-working, no-frills type decent politician. New politics requires collaboration with and the cooperation of people and organisations outside government, ultimately this will be achieved by the leader with a safe pair of hands who is pragmatic in his approach.
In a minority situation, the philosophy and leadership style of the Taoiseach can be a critical factor in how long a government lasts and how productive it is. Simon has an inert social conscience matched with a burning desire to do the right thing in the interests of all sections of society. I feel he is best placed to strike the balance between social and economic policy. He will provide leadership with appropriate humility, competence and financial shrewdness. It is somewhat reassuring in this day and age of cynicism and negativity to get a politician in the genre of what you see is what you get, no hidden agendas, no baggage, no elephants in the room, just a simple commitment to honest endeavour and service to the nation.
Having attended Declan Hasset’s recent play on Jack Lynch, I am reminded of how an innate decency can sit comfortably on the shoulders of a political leader. Lynch was a rare breed of politician, genuinely modest about his abilities, to the point of greatly undervaluing himself. It takes a politician of conviction to comfortably carry the responsibility of leadership, and take on the difficult challenges of housing and water.
Electing a party leader while leading Government is an added pressure on the Fine Gael membership. Not only do they have to reflect on their party’s future, they have to consider the short and medium term future of the country. They have to analyse the candidates and come to a conclusion as to who has the competence, balance and imagination to lead their party.
I hope the membership will resist judging their leader on the basis of who provides colourful sound-bites, and elect a leader who has the necessary all round skills set to be a political leader against the backdrop of the political realities of today.
Throughout his time as a Minister, Simon has shown an ability to reach consensus by principled compromise. He has what is needed in a political leader at this time with the ability and vision to lead both the Government and Fine Gael, with the proven ability to play a leadership role in the formation of the next Government. I am quite clear that not only is Simon Coveney the most able candidate, he is also the right leader at this moment in time. Like Lynch, his perceived weakness might in fact be one of his key strengths.