WITH his penchant for fascist uniforms and salutes, his goose-stepping demeanour, and his ranting monologues, Benito Mussolini has become something of a historical figure of fun these days.
A poor man’s Hitler, if you will, even though he was a monster himself, responsible for almost half a million deaths.
But 100 years ago, Mussolini’s star was on the rise in his native Italy. By 1925, he had styled himself Il Duce (The Leader) of all his country, borrowing a Latin monicker he hoped would thrust him into the echelon of a 20th century Caesar.
His motto became ‘Una duce, una voce’ — ‘one leader, one voice’ — leaving nobody in any doubt that he was the boss, the chief, the big cheese.
Nobody in a modern-day democracy like Ireland has any interest in replicating such a dictatorship — least of all, you suspect, the man who is cast as our own big chief.
Micheál Martin is a Taoiseach who believes in fundamental democratic principles. Even his biggest enemy can sense an innate decency about him and a distaste for grandstanding, showboating and power-plays.
The Corkman’s sober style of leadership appears more akin to another Latin phrase: primus inter pares — a first among equals. He seems, at heart, to be a team player.
However, as this year-long battle with Covid-19 reaches a hoped-for endgame, Mr Martin needs to shake off this tendency to rule by committee and leave the talking to others, and use his own oratory skills to drive the nation towards a brave new world.
In doing so, he must try to silence the white noise of a hundred politicians and their armies of PR people and advisers around them, and speak with one voice: His own.
Our Taoiseach needs to claim the narrative, drown out the cacophony of voices surrounding the Government, often delivering conflicting messages on Covid on an hourly basis, and adopt a little of the old dictator Mussolini’s philosophy. One leader, one voice. And he must do so for the sake of his own position and legacy, for his party’s future, and for the sake of a wearied, bruised and anxious nation.
It’s become increasingly clear in recent months that the mood of the people is changing and the style of the Taoiseach needs to change with it.
But bizarrely, at a time when we are almost being overwhelmed with reams of good news about the vaccines and their efficiency, and at a time when optimism is rising that life can return to some kind of normality in the months ahead, the Taoiseach is behind the curve.
At times, he still seems to be mourning the decision to slightly reopen society at Christmas, and is failing to tap into the new mood of renewal that is required.
Worse, he is allowing his Tánaiste, Heath Secretary and others around him to dictate the narrative. When it isn’t politicians trying to drive the narrative, it’s experts from NPHET and the HSE, and whatever you’re having yourself. It all adds up to a confusing picture for a rattled and restless public.
Micheál Martin needs to get a grip quick amidst all this gaggling and leaking, assert himself as the person holding the reins of power, produce a path (I hate that word roadmap) to lead us out of the lockdowns and towards a brighter future, and bring us all along with him.
How ironic if he should spend the first nine months of his time as leader battling wave after wave of bad news, but still retaining the respect and support of large swathes of society. Only to go and undo all that hard work by dropping the ball when the good news started to arrive, allowing others to claim the credit and political capital.
It’s time Micheál found his inner dictator.
The phrase ‘Una duce, una voce’ has a certain significance in Fianna Fáil circles dating back to Charles Haughey’s time (now there’s a man who had no trouble tapping into his inner dictator).
His infamous press secretary PJ Mara once uttered the phrase to a roomful of political correspondents after declaring that the questioning of Haughey’s leadership of the party would have to stop.
When one journalist reported the remark, it turned into a minor spat because PJ felt it was an off-the-record aside, and Haughey gave him a private roasting over its connotations.
More recently, Micheál Martin used the phrase, in 2013, to attack then Taoiseach Enda Kenny (now there’s a man who had no inner dictator; in fact, he seems far more at home these days pootling on his bicycle along old railway lines than ever he was in the corridors of power).
Mr Martin accused Mr Kenny of adopting an ‘Uno duce, una voce’ approach for refusing to debate with him on TV about his party’s referendum to abolish the Seanad.
(The proposal was defeated by just 43,000 votes — the population of Longford — which was a pity; another pointless election for it is currently taking place, in case you haven’t heard... but I digress).
Enda, like Haughey, was suitably outraged by this inference of dictatorship — those grainy images of his Fine Gael predecessor Eoin O’Duffy looking like a wannabe Mussolini are as touchy to his modern-day party as, er, VAT on children’s shoes.
Kenny and Haughey were very different characters and leaders — polar opposites in fact — but what both men understood during their years in power, was that there were times when a leader had to lead from the front. Una duce, una voce.
Now is that time for Micheál Martin.