Friday, September 09, 2005

Fianna Fail/Fianna Gael and Leadership

I've commented before on British Labour Party under Blair. Here are some very brief personal observations on Fianna Fail and Fianna Gael here in Ireland.

Fianna Fail

A huge machine of course, very efficient organizationally and at vote management etc. Many skilled TDs and good marketeers. Leadership quality and image today is crucial. In my opinion Bertie Ahern is often underrated as a leader. He almost works on the subconscious level - Freud would probably have had a lot to say about him. I'm not even convinced he completely knows why he is good. Fianna Fail tend to win support from business people and middle class but they also have an appeal to working classes. Bertie has helped in fostering the latter. Part of it of course is the warm "one of the lads" Dubliner image and accent, enjoying soccer and other sports, drinking Bass, being friendly with people in the street, sense of humor. I honestly don't think he consciously works too hard on this (if he was playing a numbers game for instance he would probably force himself to drink Guinness!). He genuinely just enjoys doing these things - and of course by accident it helps his image. This is partly why he has endured doing his job for so long - by his own admission once on Late Late Show - "it's a great job" (being Taoiseach). BTW - notice we all tend to just call him Bertie - another good accessibility image thing. Other party leaders we give their full names to. Even big World leaders show how detached they are from common people by unfriendly surname references - "Blair" and "Bush" (never Tony or George). Nobody refers to our guy as "Ahern".

The above features of Bertie though are vastly complimented by his skill as a man who works hard on compromise. He is known to be a skilled negotiator and it comes across at all levels - local disputes, labour relations, coalition, European level etc. He is conscious about people's concerns - put's himself in everyone's shoes. This is quite an asset - and he is so strong at this that it often gives him the image of being slow at making decisions or dithering - as exploited in adverts by Michael O'Leary. In fact Bertie had such a passion for the concerns of workers in Dublin Airport that he got amusingly tagged a socialist. It's almost the opposite of Tony Blair's extended reach of "a socialist appealing to middle class"!

Bertie has a laissez-faire style of leadership in terms of running his own Government. A lot of Bertie's real strength has been that he recognizes his weaknesses. He puts together a quality cabinet (no doubt with loads of advisors helping) and let's them do their job with minimal interference. He certainly has many good departmental ministers. This style of leadership coupled with his compromising personality also helps him get the best from skilled mavericks like Michael McDowell. Bertie has held coalition government together better than many might have predicted over two terms. One might argue of course that the PDs are natural partners - their raison d'etre was after all a Fianna Fail breakoff in reaction to Haughey's antics. Also to be fair to Fianna Fail, I do think a complicating factor in their failing to get overall majorities - apart from the lingering gremlins of the Haughey era - has been the peculiar rise of Sinn Fein (but that's another story).

Fine Gael

Fine Gael of course are seen by many as the "emergency alternative" to Fianna Fail. If FF mess up then FG are there to jump in. FG have always had very good people but in my own view as a humble observer they have had image problems over the years such as:

1. Being traditionally champions of the farming community is washing down a lot now of course as agriculture decreases as an income source.

2. I always thought when I was a teenager that their leader at the time - Liam Cosgrave was awful in front of cameras - never smiling, terrible droning voice, dull as dishwater. I know he was a great man as was his father - but he never seemed to understand the importance of media skills. I just feel he didn't help FG to grow at a time when they could have exploited the emerging massive importance of good PR. I think it did them harm which lingered.

3. Alan Duke's Tallaght strategy was the most unselfish thing ever done by an Irish political party - it allowed Haughey to at last do something sensible about the appalling mess he had helped create on the national debt. However, unfortunately for Fine Gael it was a sacrifice for the good of the country that set them back heavily in their own fortunes. FG's image was worn down as FF were seen to do what the opposition were asking for - hence FG ceased to look like a real opposition.

4. A succession of leadership changes has haunted FG over the last 5 years and such things are always messy - a really good leader is the holy grail that all parties seek. Garret Fitzgerald, although far from being an excellent overall leader, was good on many levels - probably the best FG had in last 50 years. However, post-Garrett it's been a mess. I should say that there is as much serendipity at play as there is skill in good leaders emerging. All parties everywhere struggle with it. Bertie himself decided against putting his name forward as leader in FF when Albert Reynolds was coming up against Haughey. Enda Kenny is a good politician - his reputation is gradually improving. You get the impression though that it is a little forced - that maybe he is stretching himself beyond comfort zones. Appearing on chat shows and even on RTE's The Restaurant as celebrity chef he just seems lacking in personality for such events and is making himself do it to raise profile. He comes across as a good thinker who is naturally a bit publicity shy and certainly lacks that sparkle of leadership charisma. Enda Kenny could probably most kindly be described as an evolving force, but the best leaders are often almost born good.

Fine Gael need to start believing in themselves and thinking big. They need powerful leadership and start making the population believe that they can run the country themselves. This partnership lark with Labour is crazy - it's a defeatist attitude before they even get going. There is no reason why Fine Gael can't be strong enough to beat FF on their own. Labour are slowly becoming a spent force in Ireland - their punch being stolen by both Sinn Fein and Fianna Fail. Labour's association with Fine Gael will only do them harm. Conflicting ideologies and good chance of a clash while in Government. Success is an attitude of mind, if you don't believe it yourself, no crutches are going to help. I don't buy the idea that Fine Gael should "be realistic" in putting together a pact with Labour to become next Government. Look at Labour in Britain - a very weak force in the Thatcher/Major era with poor leaders like Michael Foot and the like. Look at them today - with the right winning attitude they have blown away the Tories with 3 terms of office and comfortable overall majorities. Fine Gael have an excellent opportunity to make a similar impact - they are still the second largest party and have the raw ingredients to make it happen. I'm not saying they won't get into Government with a Labour pact - I just think in long term it's a wimpish attitude and most unhelpful to their political growth.


Sarah said...

Hi John,

Much of what you say is correct but I'd disagree with you on some points.
1. Bertie's cabinet - He is actually extremely conservative. His first cabinets were just replica's of Reynolds. He was very careful not to demote anyone in order to avoid making enemies. Those he eventually did promote were long termers - there was no advancement of clearly talented people like Brian Lenihan.
2. On Enda Kenny. The great pity about him is that personally he is great crack - even more personable than Bertie and I've met both. In fact Kenny is one of the most popular TDs in the Dail. The strange thing is that,as you observe, this completely fails to come across on telly. He does have that stilted serious manner which is completely at odds with the Kenny I know. All I can hope is that this fades. If I was the Fine Gael press office, I'd be sticking him in front of a camera at every opportunity so people can get to know him but I think they have funny attitudes about the dignity of the position of the leader of the opposition....that's FG biggest problem...stunning media naievty...

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