Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition.
Some years ago, I had to collect a relative from Dublin airport. The flight had been delayed, and it was quite late, and as I stood in arrivals I noticed a former Taoiseach standing in the small waiting crowd. Watching him for a while, it was striking that he got none of the double-taking that even well-known politicians get. He’d been the most powerful man in the country, and now was hardly noticed.
He hadn’t been a bad Taoiseach. It felt like he’d just, for the most part, physically been there. Like Enda.
Whilst it’s fair to say that Enda Kenny had achievements as Taoiseach, overall, as he prepares to leave office, you can’t help feeling that the phrase “squandered opportunities” will be the one that hangs most around the Kenny era. Here was a man whose government came to power with the greatest majority ever, and with a momentum in the country willing to toss aside the old ways of doing politics. He leaves office with the political system, in terms of where actual decision making power lies, in almost the exact shape that he found it.
His successor, whomever it is, needs to ponder that. The refusal to radically change the system didn’t help Enda in the long run. He’s not leaving office of his own volition, but just one step ahead of a political posse.
The next Taoiseach has to decide whether that is what he wants to be too? Another placeholder holding on by his fingernails until he too gets turfed out? Or a man with a body of work that will be his legacy. If he’s the latter, he needs to get cracking from day one.
I have, much to your surprise, dear reader, I’m sure, a few suggestions for our new Taoiseach.
First, decide in your head that less is more. Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York City, advised that rather than overpromise, politicians should under-promise and over-deliver, and not make a big hullabaloo about a policy until it is actually up and running. Don’t make vague and unmeasurable promises about “tackling” the housing crisis and A&E. Decide what you can actually do, do it, then declare it.
There are a number of things you can do quite easily. One, for example, involves a simple clear statement as Taoiseach stating that anyone who paid their water charges will get their money back. These are your heartland, and it’s time they got some respect for obeying the law you passed.
Secondly, explain in a straightforward way, face to camera, why the national children’s hospital has to be built in a congested urban area and not on the M50: there may be very good reasons, but no one in government seems capable of communicating them so far.
Reconsider the whole free GP visits for all proposal. It looks great on paper, but all it will really do is create waiting lists to see GPs. Like it or not, charging for GPs forces patients to perform their own triage. However, do recognise that the squeezed middle without medical cards are paying for everything: give them vouchers for a few free GP visits a year. It eases the burden without flooding GP surgeries.
Next, recognise that voter education, or rather, the lack of it, is the issue that is poisoning politics across the west and could easily do so here. Just look at the number of people on Obamacare who voted to abolish Obamacare and are now shocked to be losing their Obamacare. Government, the matching of finite taxes to infinite public service demand, is going to more and more require the public understanding why choices are being made. As it happens, the last Dail has done a lot of work on this. There is a proposed electoral commission, and minister Eoghan Murphy’s Tax Transparency bill is sitting in the bowels of the Oireachtas somewhere. Let these both be fast-tracked through as the beginning of an active campaign to educate voters as to why decisions are made.
Then move onto making the opposition work for their salaries. For years we’ve been promised an Oireachtas Budget Office that would take opposition proposals through the ringers and make sure the sums were right. Not only should you set it up, you should task it to automatically cost every opposition spending proposal. The opposition work for the taxpayers too: we’re entitled to value off them as well.
While you’re at it, push through elected mayors and that Seanad reform bill. A Seanad elected on a non-geographical basis will focus on national policy, as government has to. And elected mayors are the antidote to reckless opposition: let a load of Alphabet Left and Sinn Fein mayors have to legally choose between increased property taxes and local public services. Make them make decisions.
Finally, invite every EU member state with a population of less than 6m, all twelve of them, to a Summit of the Small. We’re forever complaining when Germany, France and the big six have their summits. Let’s have ours, and send out a clear message that we will defend the free-movement free-trade single market Europe and the sovereignty of small nations.
From day one as Taoiseach, you have a choice. You can just physically be Taoiseach, or you can set out to change the direction of society.