Taoiseach – all in the eye of the beholder?

Taoiseach Enda KennyEnda Kenny has become Taoiseach. Election results and recent polls suggest that the vast majority of Irish citizens regard him as being more than up to the task. His handling of the first set of Leader’s Questions has received generally positive media coverage.

This is in sharp contrast to earlier perceptions of Enda Kenny as being unsuitable, including, as late as December 2010*, when a third of Fine Gael voters expressed a preference for Eamon Gilmore as Taoiseach. Only six months previously, nine members of the Fine Gael front bench didn’t have confidence in him to lead the party into the General Election. The generally held belief, by most media commentators, that Kenny was a “lame duck” leader was accentuated in Vincent Browne’s ill-advised suggestion involving a darkened room, a bottle of whiskey and a revolver.

Enda was accused, by those supporting Richard Bruton, that he didn’t “connect” with the electorate; that he was a poor media performer; that he wasn’t good on policy detail. Kenny’s political obituary has been written and re-written many times in recent years. Commentators have, more recently, damned him with faint praise as being “more Chairman, than Chief”.

Not only have the reports of Enda’s demise been greatly exaggerated, but it would appear that despite the misgivings of many, the public have already warmed to the notion, now reality, of Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Perhaps Enda has changed beyond recognition since he was written off as Taoiseach material, or perhaps the perception of Taoisigh is in the eye of the beholder?

*Red C poll 13-15 Dec 2010

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Irish Budget – A one-armed bandit?

Image of a slot machineWhile previous Irish budgets have been portrayed as one-armed-bandits, this budget may be far closer to that analogy than we would ever have imagined.
The role of independent Dáil Deputies would appear to be crucial in determining the final numbers for the vote on the budget and the subsequent Finance Bill. However, as has been the practice, independent deputies appear to be bargaining on behalf of their constituencies, regardless of clichéd “national interest”. Although Michael Lowry insists that his support is not dependent on Government support for the Tipperary Venue, including a revision of gambling legislation, news reports suggest that the report on gambling legislation is being fast-tracked through Cabinet. This is presumably so that any new Government will have the published report in their In-boxes.
Michael Lowry, like Jackie Healy-Rae, Finian McGrath and other independent Deputies, answer directly to their local constituents, but too often put local issues above the priority of national issues. A cursory examination of the distribution of the ill-fated decentralisation of Government departments demonstrates the local clientelism with which those departments were relocated. Similarly, the favouritism shown to parts of Kerry for sports and tourism grants during the Arts, Sport & Tourism Ministerial supervision of John O’Donohue
The Dail is a national parliament. We need a system which prioritises the national interest for all the members of that parliament. Until that happens, we have situations such as will happen tomorrow: the decision on the adoption of a national budget may ultimately depend on the whim of the proprietor of a one-armed-bandit emporium.

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Bill Clinton’s horrible word…

Former US President Bill Clinton

Bill Clinton demonstrated his communication prowess once again during his visit to Dublin last week. The 42nd president of the United States told it as it is and used direct language to connect with his audience when referring to Ireland’s financial difficulties: “It’s a horrible time now but you will get out of it. It will get better as long as you hang together”
Contrast this language with that of those elected to lead the Irish public: euphemistic, evasive and filled with financial and economic jargon. Calling a spade a spade, or a horrible time exactly that, is the kind of political communication desperately needed in Ireland today.
Having let his audience know that he understands how they feel, Clinton continued by offering hope: “All the talents, all the abilities, all the incentives. They are still there. I have really no doubt that the country will come back and that you’ll come back with a more diversified economy, less vulnerable to what just happened to you. As long as everybody keeps moving ahead.” Sadly, this sort of inspiration is thin on the ground in Ireland today.
Perhaps the greatest lesson that Irish politicians can take from Clinton’s visit is that you don’t have to avoid telling the bad news while still bringing your audience with you. “Take the bitter medicine you have to take,” he advised, before reminding people of the strengths of today’s environment: “This is not the drab horrible story that drove thousands of emigrants to the shores of the United States almost two hundred years ago.”
Clinton again demonstrated his ease in his use of the vernacular during his Business & Finance speech when he advised that “We just have to get our mojo back”, not only using a conversational tone and language, but invoking “we”, as in we are in this together and we will get through it. Also consider the use of “we” rather than the impersonal “the Irish people”, “the electorate” with which we are familiar from our Irish politicians.
Horrible, just horrible.

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Coveney’s lucky strike

In the midst of the trials and tribulations of Taoiseach Brian Cowen and his lack-lustre performance on Morning Ireland, the role of Simon Coveney in focussing the media spotlight on the issue has been glossed over.
Following his tweet criticising the Taoiseach’s interview, Simon Coveney was feted by a variety of media outlets in a manner which suggested he had stratigically “outed” the country’s leader. However, an examination of Simon Coveney’s Twitter account suggests that this strategic hit could probably best be described as a lucky strike.
The drunk-or-hungover tweet was only the fourteenth issued in five months by the Cork TD, having first opened his Twitter account on April 2nd, 2010. One might be safe to assume that Simon Coveney was prompted by the huge success being enjoyed by his fellow Cork parliamentarian, Senator Dan Boyle. Coveney has struggled to embrace the medium to any significant extent, even tweeting on September 7th, “I’ve been offline on twitter for a while”.
If Simon Coveney hand’t really embraced Twitter before his lucky strike, he now has an opportunity to capitalise on it’s usefullness. As the Cork TD tweeted his opinion about the Taoiseach’s radio peforrmance, he had just over 150 followers; he now enjoys over 1,500 followers – not bad for a lucky strike!

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The Taoiseach’s real crime

Taoiseach Brian CowenGiven the furore over Brian Cowen’s interview on RTE’s Morning Ireland and the ensuing media meltdown, one might be forgiven for assuming that our Prime Minister might have more quickly understood the nature of the difficulty in which he found himself.
However, given the Taoiseach’s initial reaction in describint the tweet as “pathetic and pitiful” and his very late apology for not giving his “best performance” on Morning Ireland, it would appear that he only came to this understanding after considerable rumination on the matter and, one assumes, much prompting on the part of his media advisors.
So, what was the Taoiseach’s crime? Simon Coveney, the opposition TD whose tweet became headline news, did not accuse Brian Cowen of either being drunk or of having a hangover, but of *sounding* halfway between the two. Brian Cowen’s initial response – and those of most of his Ministers “methinks protested too much” when they lept to the defence of “a new low in Politics”, i.e. the suggestion that the Taoiseach was either drunk or hungover.
As Brian Cowen initially dismissed criticism of his interview, Micheal Martin was the only Government Minister to acknowledge that the Taoiseach’s performance was less than should be expected of country’s leader. His cabinet colleagues, defaulted to defending the Taoiseach, come hell or high water. Their knee-jerk reaction displayed their shared lack of understanding as to what the Taoiseach’s real failure was that morning.
It really doesn’t matter whether the Brian Cowen was drunk, hungover, hoarse from singing, exhausted from running the country, or any other possible explanation for his poor performance on Morning Ireland. What is important is that the Taoiseach thought it acceptable to attempt to communicate with a significant portion of the electorate in a manner which was less than acceptable and without explanation.
When Cathal Mac Coille thanked the Taoiseach for “coming over before your breakfast”, Brian Cowen should have made reference to his poor voice and, perhaps, explained it as the consequence of singing the night before. Any comments subsequently made about the quality of the interview could be answered by the Taoiseach’s own explanation. The issue would never have become the media sensation that developed later.
This was an appaling communications gaffe, made worse by an inability to recognise it as such. This was the real crime – not the possible cause of the Taoiseach’s performance, or lack of it.

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No such thing as bad publicity?

Fine Gael logo

Fine Gael seems to have, once again, proved its detractors wrong by demonstrating the truth of Brendan Behan’s belief that “there is no such thing as bad publicity”.

Despite endorsing the current leadership only days after the majority of their front bench declared a lack of confidence in Enda Kenny, Fine Gael improved its position in the latest RED C survey for the Sunday Business Post, reclaiming its position as the most popular party in the country.

On the face of it, this is hard to understand, particularly comparing FG to a corporate entity: Senior key figures in an organisation publically declare their lack of confidence in the manner in which the organisation is being managed / led and demand change at the top. No such change occurs, yet public perception of, and support for, the organisation increases.

It is understandable that Enda Kenny’s support would rise, having seen off an attempt to topple him. He has clearly demonstrated several leadership attributes in doing so. But what has motivated further support for a party that has clearly demonstrated its divisions and the (at best) uncertainties of its senior members in the abilities of the person they would offer as Taoiseach?

Was it simply that the media spotlight shone on the party and its frontbench, providing an opportunity for members of an alternative cabinet to shine? Was it purely a matter of greater brand recognition, given the saturation media coverage during the attempted heave?

“There is no such thing as bad publicity” is often quoted without identifying the source. As it happens, those words are only part of the quotation. The full quotation from Behan is “There is no such thing as bad publicity except your own obituary”. As close as this was to being Enda Kenny’s political obituary, it came closer still to burying Fine Gael’s chances of leading the next Government. Maybe the Borstal Boy was right. Time will tell.

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