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.