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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: March 2, 2010 @ 12:45 pm

    Calamity Coughlan?

    Harry McGee

    Tánaiste Mary Coughlan has a huge perception problem. Her reputation is probably unrecoverable at this stage. The Sunday Times gave her a going-over, not once but twice, the weekend before last.

    However, the evidence that has the commentariat dub her as Calamity Coughlan is thin on the ground, when you begin to parse it. I think she is lacking in the requisite skills for this job, but for different reasons than  my fellow members of the commentariat have chosen.

    I’m not saying that Coughlan is an outstanding Minister. She has a list of flaws and faults that I will list. But there is an overall argument that needs to be made above and beyond that.

    In this era, politicians need a strong communication strategy. Like those of most other Government ministers and the Taoiseach, Coughlan’s advisers are either not forceful enough with her or don’t get it.

    Early on after being appointed as Tánaiste, anecdotes cropped her of encounters where she used crude language and expletives. She would not be the first politician ever to be found guilty of that, but it too a very long time for her to tone down her language and for her handlers to attempt to put that into balance.

    She also floundered in the early days of her new ministry, as Brian Lenihan did. She was unconvincing when doing Order of Business on Thursday morning. She also handled Fianna Fail parliamentary party meetings in a high-handed, hectoring manner, brooking no dissent from the official party line. She should also have learned from those early mistakes as Lenihan, the adroit barristerial generalist, did.

    This brings me to my problem. I just belive that the Calamity Coughlan insult is a lazy label that has little basis in reality. It has meant that anytime the slightest controversy erupts involving her, the label is brandished by a commentator as proof positive that she is not up to the job. Ergo, she finds herself under more scrutiny than most of her colleagues.

    But what I have struggled to find is the plethora of evidence that makes her position untenable. One of the Sunday Times pieces, Matt Cooper’s column actually, said the list of her gaffes and mistakes was so long  that it didn’t bear repeating. The other piece listed an inappropriate remark she is supposed to have made while in Saudi Arabia but cited only two or three other examples. The list of mistakes isn’t huge.

    Of course, there’s the Michael O’Leary offer. Like his cheap flights, there was small print galore. He wanted to get something unencumbered by his arch enemy number one, the DAA, and that would hurt his arch enemy number two, Aer Lingus. O’Leary is such an effective operator that he had a facile victory in the propaganda war with Coughlan. She had a strong argument about huge efforts being made to accommodate Ryanair on hangar accommodation over the past year, backed up by documents,  but she was slow off the mark in getting her riposte in. She also made a tactical blunder in saying she was not prepared to telephone him. That made her sound petty. He can sound petty and get away with it because he has no popular mandate. But as a Government minister she can’t afford to be.

    The other elements of the list. She made a very poor defence of the October 2009 budget. Her trip to the US with Willie O’Dea to save Dell jobs was an empty gesture and reflected poorly on her. She made a mistake confusing Einstein with Darwin (big deal!). She has a tendency of talking before thinking. That was evident in her recent comments that emigration was actually a good thing for young Irish people.

    But one of the things that’s really worrying is that an assessment should go beyond public pronouncements and gaffes to performance as minister. In comparision to Mary Harney, who was Minister during a jobs bonanza, Coughlan took on the job during the most difficult possible time, when unemployment when through the roof, when there’s a squeeze on credit, and when the world is in recession.

    What strikes me is that she hasn’t tried to be a politician… to go out there and be positive and say we’re going to tackle this and we’re going to find a solution. She has tended to play it safe, hide behind department speak, and take the conservative philosophy on change from Brian Cowen.

    Her immediate predecessor Micheal Martin might not have made much more impact but at least he got out there and threw a couple of ideas around and spelled out his vision as to where he wanted the department to go.

    That’s been Coughlan’s biggest failure, in my opinion. She seems to be a middle manager just runnng the ship, not a  senior politician coming out with new strategies, new ideas, new energy and a mission to deliver a strong sense of hope.

    But the whole calamity thing? I just think it’s over-cooked. Mediocre Mary doesn’t have the same ring. But it’s more accurate in my view.

    • Quite Contrary says:

      ‘Damned with faint praise’ I think is the expression!

    • Enda says:

      If it looks like a horse, walks like a horse, and sounds like a horse, then it’s probably a horse.
      I do find it interesting you focus on the perception of Mary Coughlan though. Politics and political media for the last few decades has focused almost entirely on managing people’s perception. It doesn’t actually matter what you do, as long as it’s perceived that you’re doing well. Hence the furore over O’Dea’s statements in the media while the abandonment of the Limerick inner city regeneration plan is barely mentioned. The political game may be fun, but it’s also pointless, redundant and destructive. This relentless focus on spin and soft political soap opera only detracts from the real issues.

    • robespierre says:

      I work as an advisor to businesses. It goes beyond her communications although those “skills” are woefully inadequate for a person dealing with corporate entities. You also left out the entire saga involving Fás.

      She was in charge of a department and hadn’t the foggiest of the basics of corporate governance. As a minister she is lucky she does not have a fidiciary responsibility to the country. Her approach to the Ryanair negotiations was wrong as well. You never rule something out at the start, you cost it as you step through the process and it rules itself out.

      It is called the salami technique. Face facts, she has never had a real job and this ministry requires somebody with some understanding of either how a business works or of economics. Harney and Richard Bruton were accomplished in the roles because they had a strong grasp of economics. Micheál Martin less so – he sounds like he swallowed an MBA manual.

      It is not just about the sum of the parts, it’s also about reading between the lines. Matt Cooper was a business correspondent for many years and with the greatest of respect Harry, he is much closer to views of the dozens and dozens of people I know in the business world than you are.

      Outside the microcosm of leinster house perception will become reality in the absence of consistent evidence to the contrary.

      She has no strategy to get the country back on track and if she does have one she has not articulated it well. Nobody in government has.

      On a slightly different but related point watching Darragh backbencher on the Frontline last night was a lesson as to why we are where we are. We could line everyone from Krugman to Stiglitz up to point out to the government how incorrect NAMA is and they will still ignore the evidence and protest that they are right and everyone agrees they are right.

      It is an extremely sad but not surprising reflection of the culture of Cowen’s Fianna Fáil they cannot follow Keynes’s wisdom when he was accused of flip-flopping “when the facts change I change my mind, what do you do sir?”.

    • Desmond FitzGerald says:

      Oh dear Harry, you going native again – that Stockholm syndrome not fully cleared up yet.

      By any yard stick she has utterly failed in her job. There are nearly 500,000 examples of how badly she has failed. We all know someone who lost a job but for a bit of extra credit being extended by a bank or some lateral thinking and support being offered by the countless quangos she has set up to pass the buck to.

      Why was she given this job? On the basis that she upset no one in Agriculture – even Martin Cullen couldn’t have messed up in Agriculture given the boom time there was during her time there – a boom that had nothing to do with anything she did it should be noted.

      She is a politician, not because she has any particular vision but because she was most likely to get the sympathy vote after the death of her father and uncle. I’m sorry if that seems harsh but to trying argue she is a conviction politician driven by ideas is really a step too far.

      She is the personification of gombeen Irish politics and has no education, background or training to warrant her being a team leader in an insurance company, never mind a cabinet minister.

      John Gornley should be Tánaiste.

      Mary Coughlan should be a back bench TD and until we start expecting a far higher standard from cabinet ministers then we get what we deserve.

      Other countries fill their cabinets with people who have BAs and MAs and PhDs and have built businesses and succeeded in life outside politics. Instead we get people who were elected because they had a name people had heard of and whose father or uncle had been good at bleeding the system and arranging strokes and nods and winks.

      In her entire political career she has not produced one single policy paper on any topic – not once.

      I’m sorry Harry but there is not one single member of the cabinet who have been a success at their job. This nonsense of saying they are decent people or that they are trying their best isn’t good enough. They have all been there long enough to have brought about real improvements and still they haven’t – they failed when money was flowing and they failed in the bad times.

      As long as we keep accepting such low standards we deserve the pi** poor politicians that feed off our taxes for their own financial gain. They don’t have an ounce of vision between the lot of them.

    • emer says:

      “She made a mistake confusing Einstein with Darwin (big deal!). ”

      Actually, that is a big deal, especially when you’re talking to international investors about how smart we and our workforce are… And especially when international employers are noticing a general pattern of “mediocre-dressed-as-first-class”…

    • QC says:

      On the ‘low bad words’ issue as Dr Johnson called them, remind me, what was it the Teashop said to her, not so sotto voce recently (ish)? Not that that justifies inelegant language, but I think the subtext is that while it may be acceptable from a man, it’s just not acceptable from a woman. Standards dear boy,standards!

    • dealga says:

      If George Dubya Bush had confused Einstein and Darwin in the manner she did, even ten years ago, people would still be joking about it.

      Maybe I’m being precious but to my mind only an Arts graduate could consider a person in a position of authority and influence making a gaffe like that as not a big deal. Would your colleague Fintan O’Toole gloss over an Arts Minister getting Yeats and Wilde mixed up?

      If she doesn’t go bright red at the memory of it, well…

    • El Leader Maximo says:

      Keep taking the tablets Harry. She’s beyond parody. Utterly incompetent, incapable of articulating a single, interesting, original thought. All she can do is come out with newspeak – we are where are, going forward, taking the hard decisions. Why do you think people are interviewed for jobs ? would you recruit someone with a couple of years social work experience to a high profile business job with a budget of billions ? would you then decide to also make them second in command of the whole country in the biggest crisis since the foundation of the State ? No didn’t think so. But it’s okay for Biffo becase the country doesn’t matter. FF comes first. Always has, always will; it was founded in corruption.

    • Dan Sullivan says:

      I think the Calamity Coughlan name has more to do with the fact that she is befallen by calamity, that all around her awful things are happening not necessarily that they are 100% her fault but that unlike Mary Harney she is an very unlucky general.

      The other problem she has which is not down to circumstances is that both herself and Brian Cowen have been captured by the governmental system hence their reliance on department speak and lack of any notion in the public mind of what direction they want to lead the country in. Sure they want things to be “better” but they’ve no clear idea or measurable definition of what “better” is and how we might go about getting there. It’s no coincidence that both Mary Coughlan and the Brian Cowen have spent almost their entire adult professional lives as TDs having not even had to fight to get on the ticket but inherited nominations in by-elections. And once there it was simply a case of managing the concerns of those who come to you with constituency matters and not doing anything dramatic or risky.

    • Hud says:

      Harry, you are laughably offbase with this. Even if none of the endless gaffes, cockups and quixotic missions (Mary and Willie go to Dell) had happened, she stands indicted for the Hardtalk programme, which showed her up as the clueless óinseach she is. In this, Stephen Sackur excoriates her by asking hard questions and accepting no soft plámás or condescension. It is notable that he is better read on her brief than she is.
      With respect, Harry, if you cannot see that she has been promoted beyond her paygrade, it’s all a matter. Her performance reminds me of that Jim Carrey movie where the bould Jim is plucked from mediocre middle management and installed as CEO to deliberately depress the share price and capsize the company.
      The only thing I can assume is that Cowan placed her front and centre to make himself look competent.

    • Harry says:

      Coughlan certainly provokes a reaction. I take the comments made by Dan and others about Calamity, but as far as I know (and I know a bit about this) is that the ‘calamity’ name came directly from the perception that she gaffes at will and can do nothing right. The point I am making – and this reflects on the meeja including myself – is that very strong positions and opinions are sometimes adopted, that are not backed up by detailed or empirical evidence. H.

    • Dan Sullivan says:

      Hud, are you sure that’s not your namesake movie with Tim Robbins and Jennifer Jason Leigh?

    • Deaglán says:

      No it was the Paul Newman-Patricia Neal one.

    • QC says:

      @10 I was going to suggest the alternative soubriquet ‘Cock up’ but ‘Hud’ got there first!
      Before anyone complains about vulgarity the expression has nothing to do with male Members of the Dail or any other variety..
      oinseach? plamas? was ist das bitte?

    • robespierre says:

      Ok Harry – forget the term calamity. Discuss her performance on handling the Fás fiasco, the regeneration of Limerick and Shannon, the rollout of the IDA strategy and the fostering of supports for small businesses.

      Fás was a disgrace that people should result in people going behind bars. Address her performance on the mismanagement of the sacking of Rody Boland, the lack of governance structures etc.

      I am not surprised at how poorly Fás was managed when I look and see how little practical business experience was sitting on it.

      As Niall Fitzgerald pithily put it of his friends who were on boards in banks – “You either didn’t know what was going on in which case you were incompentent or you did know and did not nothing about it in which case you were incompetent”.

    • Hud says:

      @ Dan.
      Yeah, I had forgotten about that Coen brothers plot. That works equally well as a template. (BTW, the Jim Carrey film was “Fun with Dick and Jane”). Both pretty poor films, while we’re at it…

      Harry, it might be an idea to throw together a column on the dynastic dunces this government has provided us. Man, there are some real clunkers.

    • QC says:

      @5 ‘A little learning is a dangerous thing’ as Pope once said. That’s Alexander not His Holiness…and so gratifying when they’re exposed as a ‘parliament of dunces’ (so called because all lawyers were excluded donchya know?)
      You’re welcome don’t mention it!

    • Hud says:

      @ QC:

      óinseach: eejit, female.
      plámás: soft soaping, flattery, cajoling.

      óinseach: eejit, female.
      plámás: soft soaping, flattery, cajoling.

      Said concepts are embodied by her in the HardTalk programme. It’s on the BBC iPlayer if anyone chooses to watch it:

      http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00qzdkw/HARDtalk_Mary_Coughlan_Deputy_Prime_Minister_of_Ireland/

    • barbera says:

      Oh for Pete’s sake, Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers and so if the alliteration works it must be right! An Tanaiste is calamitous because the “C” of Coughlan works with the “C” of calamity Duh. Harry is right.
      The Tanaiste’s team should bite back with some positive alliteration — cool, clear, competent, careful, considerate, Coughlan or marvelous Mary. If I were the tanaiste, I would just giggle at those spineless detractors who resort to pathetic assault by alliteration.

    • Harry says:

      Funny that Dan. As it happened looked up the stats on dynasties yesterday. 31 TDs who are sons or daughters of former TDs. How many are dunces? Depends on what side of the fence you are looking from. There’s a funny (but not terribly flattering) thread on politics.ie on which consituency in the country has the worst TDs. And as the thread shows, we are talking more than a handful!

    • 'QC' says:

      @17 grma ‘Hud’ and yet another coinkydinky…see mine at 16… cyber synchronicity…? Spooky!

    • robespierre says:

      So Harry you are still dealing with the window dressing of language. What about the substance of her appalling performance heretofore?

    • DesJay says:

      I heard Mary C on car radio days before the first Lisbon referendum. She told us that it would make the EU more democratic, and would confine every member state to only one commissioner. For the rest of the campaign, Mary was invisible.

      Mary embodies all that’s wrong with FF and has been wrong for decades.

    • Handling of Rody Molloy’s pension is worth a mention. As is her series of misstatements about the contents of the review body report on pay of senior civil servants.

      There was about three weeks there pre-Christmas when she seemed to make a mess of LQs every time. The latest comment (in the BBC interview) is the type of thing she continuously does.

      On the flip side, what has she done well? I struggle to find one thing.

      Dempsey made a holy mess of a few things in his time but over the course of his career there have been a few positives. Maybe Coughlan is “Calamity-…” because she makes a mess even once in a while and never tips the scales the other way.

    • Calamity Coughlan is a fitting title for our Donegal Mary. She is an embarassment to us up here in Donegal. She promised 50 jobs for her area in South Donegal, yet this is five years on and no sign of jobs and over 2/3 of people locally are unemployed.

      If a new title for her is needed then In my opinion “cover up coughlan” would be more suited, she tried to cover up the one million silence money to Rodney Molloy, she is covering up other FAS scandals even in her own Northwest area. She covered up what was really happening in Donegal VEC, now she promoted her former boss the CEO of Donegal VEC to FAS board.

      Calamity Coughlan is her name used in England and France, as can be seen on any notice board or u tube.

      One day everyone in Ireland will wonder why Cowen still has Calamity Coughlan in Government, I dare Cowen to call a General election and lets see will Calamity Coughlan be returned! Cowen will not call for a replacement to Pat the Cope as TD as FF will loose.

      Cowen the clown
      Calamity Coughlan
      What a disgrace


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