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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: June 30, 2009 @ 5:30 pm

    Have They All Had Charismadectomies?

    Deaglán de Bréadún

    The summer won’t be as quiet politically as previous years. We are awaiting important reports from ‘An Bord Snip Nua’ and the Commission on Taxation and, of course, the Greens will be wrestling very publicly with their consciences.


    The great are only great because we are on our knees: Big Jim Larkin statue in O’Connell Street, Dublin (Photograph by Frank Miller)

    The two reports could have implications for the referendum on Lisbon. The campaign will be ticking over during the summer months but it is unlikely to get into top gear until early September when the school holidays are over.

    If, as may well be the case, various interest-groups (loosely-defined) are affected in a negative way by either of the reports, then they may decide to withhold support for Lisbon until their concerns are addressed.

    We saw something of this from the farming organisations and some elements in the union movement prior to the last Lisbon vote. Might not go down too well with a frightened electorate worried about economic destruction.

    In the meantime, Irish politics continues to suffer from a serious “charisma deficit”. In a country that can boast such leaders as Michael Collins, Eamon de Valera, Edward Carson and Jim Larkin, we really are in a sorry state at present in the inspirational leadership stakes.

    Collins, Dev, Carson and Larkin all inspired their various bands of followers to such an extent that they would literally go out and die for them. Thankfully, we live in a much calmer time and neither want nor need that kind of devotion nowadays, thank you very much.

    But to revive one of my favourite themes, there is hardly a decent orator among the current crop. I’m trying hard to think of one. There are some good speakers in the Seanad, like David Norris and Eoghan Harris. Except for Pat Rabbitte’s sharp and witty contributions, who have we got in the Dail? Eamon Gilmore has his moments.

    The much-criticised Christian Brothers used to say to us way back when: “There’s been enough dying for Ireland; what we need now is people who will live for Ireland.” We are skulking in the shadow of possible disaster in economic terms and rarely in our island story has there been a greater need for self-sacrifice.

    But who is there to issue the call? Who will face down the “Nimbies” with their selfish preoccupations? It’s not that we need latter-day Hitlers or Mussolinis, or anything like that, but who will persuade the nation to knuckle down, get a grip and hang on tight until we see our way through this economic storm?

    Interestingly, neither Collins, Dev, Carson or Larkin had a spin-doctor, nor anyone who would resemble that description, as far as I know.

    • eamonn says:

      Batt O’Keeffe and Ned O’Keeffe should be publicly disgraced: Look at this pattern of absolute moral deficit and weep. Please ask some journalist or columnist in there to write about this.



    • John Heavey says:

      Biffo with his robot-speak will inspire us all to greater heights. Not forgetting the Lovely Girl (Mary Coughlan), Martin Cullen, Micheál Martin et al. It’s all good.

    • Joanna Tuffy says:

      A big omission above is James Connolly, founder of the Labour Party. Connolly as far as I have read was not considered a great orator, but he was a great thinker, writer, and leader. Are great leaders necessarily charismatic? Not so sure that FDR was supposed to be that charismatic but without question he was one of the great leaders of the last century. It’s ideas and actions that matter most and politicians that have conviction and act on their convictions, and this quest for elusive leadership qualities is misplaced.

    • Joanna Tuffy says:


      I take it back about FDR not supposed to have been charismatic. I had read somewhere that he wasn’t supposed to have been a particularly warm person on an individual basis but that is very different to not being charismatic. He obviously was charismatic. But there is another point about him that is relevant to your post and that is that his leadership was not about persuading people to hang on tight and weather the storm. His legacy was that his conviction was that the Government could and must actively do something to create employment, get the economy moving etc. I read a paper recently that said that he put 60 per cent of the unemployed to work, mainly on public works, including libraries. His efforts in getting unemployed people not only tackled the hardship of those that benefitted it also left a great legacy for American arts, culture and architecture. That is the very opposite to this idea that you express there, i.e., that we need a leader to convince the people that we must batten down the hatches and wait for the storm to be over. And that is where the present Irish government and most commentators are getting it wrong in the view of left wing thinkers and politicians. And it is the opposite to the approach of the current American President.


    • Dan Sullivan says:

      Joanna, charisma is necessary in that it moves your “ideas and actions” from being yours and yours alone to being embraced by enough people to give them effect.

      As for the large-scale public works projects, very true FDR did engage in a lot of those. But remember he didn’t do so by employing people at the salaries that had pertained at the time of the preceding boom. They were subsistence labour jobs, what we would no term WorkFare, i.e. he gave the unemployed an income but made them work for it.

      If the state were to suggest it was going to redevelop our school buildings and God knows a lot of them need it but they were going to employ the unemployed to do so and pay them only the minimum wage or even say €10 per hour to do so, there would be outrage from the construction industry unions at undercutting their sectoral wages agreements.

      The Irish trade union movement has always prioritised the needs of its members over and above those of the unemployed starting with the first partnership agreements.

    • Joanna Tuffy says:


      That sounds like a rebuttal that Billy Kelleher or some other Ministers/Minister of States that are sent out to give those kind of rebuttals by Fianna Fáil (or in the alternative Deputy Varadkar might do it for them).

      Labour’s Ruairi Quinn established the Social Employment Schemes and the unions did not block those schemes, many of those on them working side by side with unionised workers in the public sector. I was on one myself for a while way back when I couldn’t get a job and it was much better for me to be working on a scheme than on the dole. I carried out administrative work at a local hospital that at the time would not have been provided otherwise and I got a great training from the people I worked with and not long after that employment.
      The New Deal was not just about work schemes. Private contractors were employed to build public infrastructure via the Public Works Administration. The point I was making is that there was serious state intervention involved in his creating jobs and putting Americans to work on very worthwhile infrastructural, cultural, educational, environmental and other projects. He did that based on his conviction that this was the way to achieve economic recovery. His other legacy was that he reduced income inequality in the United States massively and lifted many Americans out of poverty.
      FDR’s is not the only example in History of that type of Government intervention in a time of recession or depression. The other example is the creation of the NHS and massive housebuilding by the Labour Government 1945 to 1951. Those examples are the opposite to the batten down the hatches and gracefully take your medicine type of approach.


    • Dan Sullivan says:

      Joanna, I’m not sure if I’m being damned with faint praise or just plain damned there. Probably the latter but I’m an optimistic person today!

      I happen to think that FDR was broadly right in his approach but there are a lot of people who make a persuasive argument that it was the ramping-up of war production that really took the US out of the depression. FDR might have stopped the country descending into barbarism but did the New Deal revive the economy on its own?

      Also, the UK isn’t a great example to follow in that the house-building programmes of the late 1940/50s were also taking place at a time when rationing was still in place while it had disappeared in Germany. Britain ended up saddling itself with massive borrowing problems that almost killed the country in the late 60s though it staggered about a good bit during the 70s like a zombie economy unaware that no one wanted its goods at the price they cost with the poor quality they had. And just like what they did to their city centres with that building programme.

      Also, are you sure it wasn’t the government that Ruairi Quinn was a member of that created the SES rather than it being his own idea? Fair enough if the idea blossomed from his head alone but I’m almost certain the SES were an evolution of schemes that had existed before that.

      Also a major problem with many of the SES was that they weren’t training people for work outside of the schemes but were really a means to get work done on the cheap. The fact that when many of the SES were hacked off by Mary Coughlan in 2003/04 many had been on them for 4/5 years plus: a mark of the failure of the schemes to do what was intended i.e. provide people with an opportunity to gain valuable skills before leaving and entering the regular workforce and instead they can become a means to provide certain services without having to properly budget for them properly or make a case for them.

      The measures we need to take will require us both to batten down the hatches and venturing out onto the deck to spy out new directions for us to take.

      And while I have you, can we stop seeing the public sector unions wheeling out the people on 20K a year as solely representative of the employment situation in the public service? Because if there are a lot of people on 20K and I don’t doubt there are thousands there must be an equal number on 80K to get that average of nearly 50K per year that was recently published. Where are the 80K people hiding behind the skirts and trousers of the 20K people and why are the 20K letting them?

    • Des FitzGerald says:

      Haven’t the problems we face gone so far beyond anything that any previous generation has to face that the idea that a good speech from a witty public person is enough to put things right?

      Until we actually face up to the root cause of our problems – ie our acceptance of corruption through continually voting for Fianna Fáil – then nothing is going to change.

      Not only do we need someone to tell us what they will do better; we also need to know what they will do differently. We need an entirely new system, from how the Oireachtas is set up and how politicians are paid and raise money to how the legal profession, criminal justice system, education and health systems are all geared only to provide for those with money.

      All previous politicians only had to manage the existing system better – or so we thought.

      That is simply not good enough any more and the sad thing is that there is not an ounce of evidence from Fine Gael or Labour that either has the will or aim to change the system.

      The only time I can recall when it seemed the ‘system’ was going to change was when we elected Mary Robinson.

      We need a similar gear-change to put right the mess the present generation of 30-60 year olds have created – although in my defence I have never and will never, ever vote for a Fianna Fáil candidate.

      Where is Ireland’s Clement Attlee?

    • Joanna Tuffy says:


      I take your point about the problems with SES schemes (it was the later version of Community Employment Schemes that in fact Mary Harney cut) but I certainly was glad to have been on one rather than moping at home. I didn’t even have a computer then to distract me.
      About a couple of thousand people have been let go from local authority employment in the past few months. Yet there is work to be done that is not being done, like for example the work of cutting the waste high grass in local cemeteries in South Dublin County.
      The County and City Managers Association recently told the Oireachtas Committee on Environment, Heritage and Local Government that they have applied to FAS for the provision of work on local councils through something similar to the social employment schemes of the past.
      Not so sure you would agree with me that those local authority staff should not have been let go nor that the temporary staff that used to be employed for jobs like cutting grass in cemeteries and collecting junk should be employed now, but not employing these people has left a gap and people on the dole. Work schemes at least would give unemployed people that want an opportunity to work, build up a cv, get some experience, a chance. We could learn from the mistakes that were made regarding previous schemes such as those you mention. But many people like myself did go on from Social Employment Schemes to get work and Ruairi was the Minister that established them.

      Paul Krugman, James Galbraith, and many others are also persuasively demolishing those arguments that it was war production that brought America out of depression.


      If it’s the voting in of Fianna Fail of the problem then it’s not the system that is the problem but rather as you have said numerous times yourself people need to be persuaded to vote for a different political approach. Talking about systems, albeit important in their own right, is just raising a red herring about why we are in the situation we are in now.

      As for Clement Attlee – it wasn’t just him it was the Party he led, the Labour Party, that gave rise to a great legacy in just 6 years of Government, that survived even Thatcher. That’s what we need here – a Party that will decide that it will go into Government for the purpose of achieving a worthwhile legacy that will survive its being in Government.
      If there is a problem with governments in Ireland (and in Britain with New Labour I admit) that crosses political ideology, it is the use by political parties of terms in Government mainly to get back into Government. That is not a problem with our political system, it is an attitude problem and spin-doctoring is a huge feature of that type of Government.

      You could speculate that the FF/Green Government in taking “unpopular” decisions now is actually only doing this to set itself up for another splurge in time for the next election. An FDR or a Clement Attlee would in contrast from the outset of their governance make decisions to spend all of their term in Government building schools, protecting the poor, training people, creating a good public health service and a cleaner environment, as part of its economic recovery.


    • Dan Sullivan says:

      Joanna, Here’s the thing, though, when you say “There is work to be done that is not being done” a lot of people will agree with you, but when you ask them to pay for it they look at you blankly.

      We have an appalling standard of maintenance of most public works because the public have no desire to contribute to their upkeep. Ask the general public to contribute to the upkeep of the graves and they will say “I pay my taxes” and leave it at that.

    • Dan Sullivan says:

      To finish my point, we have work that needs doing but which people don’t display an interest in paying for but we have loads of work that was done to pay for things we really didn’t need, SUVs, big tellies, SKY subscriptions and an XBox.

      And that wasn’t the fault of the State but of the people.

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