Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition.
When I was a kid in the 1980s, becoming aware of politics, Sunday morning seemed to me to be an important time. Just before the Sunday dinner the opening credits of “Weekend World” would erupt from the television. The show about British politics, presented by former Labour MP Brian Walden, was nearly always too heavy for me to watch, but I always came away with two impressions.
The first was that its theme music, the prog rock group Mountain’s “Nantucket Sleighride” seemed to me as a kid a bit too mischievous for a political programme theme, in that, played over scenes off that week’s political events, it made politics look very exciting indeed.
The second was that this was a serious programme for serious people. The politicians who went on it, the Denis Healeys, the Nigel Lawsons, the Roy Jenkins, seemed to be very big beasts. They had to be, because Walden conducted what we now call a “forensic interview”. A minister or opposition spokesperson had to know their brief, not because the show got a large audience but because the guests knew that their colleagues and the press gallery would all be watching, and making a bags on “Weekend World” had an impact on your reputation as a serious player.
I was reminded of the show recently watching Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar teeing up to replace Enda Kenny as Taoiseach. How would all three men handle a serious-big-picture-with- details interview on their vision for Taoiseach? One challenge for all three is the tendency of Irish politicians to see an interview not as an opportunity to test an idea or communicate an objective, but as a chore to be endured. Usually with the presentation of a bingo card of safe inoffensive guff phrases like “world class health service” and “meeting the challenges” and listing out everything as a priority. Requests for detail will be met with declarations of support for “Comprehensive reviews”. In short, they try to ride out the clock and get the hell out of there without giving away too much.
We know for certain that the current Taoiseach does struggle with detailed interviews. Not because his government doesn’t have achievements, because it does. Indeed, he has been the victim of the simple churlishness of Irish voters who are willing to blame a government for every economic setback, but rarely give them any credit for creating an environment for economic progress. But then, get a vague Taoiseach, get vague voters.
If there is one lesson Coveney and Varadkar should heed, it’s the importance of being able to communicate a clear metric of what success looks like. The Fine Gael/Labour coalition actually did the opposite, running on a platform of opposition to many of the measures such as water charges and property taxes that they would actually be forced to implement. More importantly, they knew well before polling day that they’d have no choice given the state of the public finances.
But by 2016, the metric to measure them was what they said in 2011 and what they had lied about. What seemed like clever in 2011 to Labour nearly destroyed them as a party in 2016, with the spectacle of Labour activists cringing at the media actually using their own 2011 appearances against them.
It’s not good enough to spew guff about “tackling” the A&E or housing crisis. It’s about either man being able to stand alone in a room with a blank flip chart and a felt tip pen and write out the three or four specific objectives they will have pledged to deliver by the end of this Dail in 2021.
How long should a person reasonably have to wait in A&E before an actual doctor is treating them?
What is the reasonable percentage of gross income someone in Dublin should expect to pay in rent for a two bedroom flat?
There’s a whole raft of questions like those above, but here’s the thing. If either man looks at either of those questions and says “How the hell am I supposed to know?”, then I’d suggest they ring the other guy and tell him they’re withdrawing. They’re two simple questions about ordinary life, and if a prospective Taoiseach can’t either see that, or doesn’t want to answer them, or simply don’t think about things like that, they’re not the man for the job.
We have had, in Enda Kenny, and I’d suggest Brian Cowen too, Taoisigh who came into the job because it was the next rung on the ladder. Is there anyone who really believes either man came back from the park having met the president and rubbed their hands thinking “Finally! A chance to do something on policy X!” Noel Browne came into office determined to do bloody war upon tuberculosis. Labour in 1992 came in and immediately launched a swathe of liberal reforms, leaving a legacy in 1997 of the single most socially liberalising government in the history of the state. Dev from 1932, cumulating in a new constitution in 1937, had a plan.
In 1979 Ted Kennedy famously damaged his campaign for president by being unable to answer why he wanted to be president.
Simon and Leo have a question to answer: why do you want power?