The Luck of the Draw in Politics
There are a raft of qualities and ingredients that are essential if you are to meet with success in the world of politics.
Generally you need to have an instinct for what the wider public wants; have strong ideas; have energy and motivation and a fire in the belly; have cleverality (be it intellectual or cunning); and have personal qualities that will impel people to vote for you (even if they don’t really like you!).
On top of that you need have infinite patience (because you will spend most of your life listening to people complaining about something or other); and have enough ruthlessness to seize an opportune moment, even if it means some other poor divvil is going to get shafted.
But there are two things that have nothing to do with the politician, and owe nothing to how brilliant he or she is, or how woeful.
They are luck and timing, and in many ways they are linked! Look at the case of Michael Noonan.
If a pile of naive rebels hadn’t persuaded Richard Bruton to face down Enda Kenny in June 2010, Richard Bruton would be the Minister for Finance. Michael Noonan would be a party grandee, writing the odd learned paper on financial matters, and known to posterity as a controversial Minister for Health and another of those Fine Gael leaders who never managed to become taoiseach.
Let’s look at another scenario provided by Greece. When the banking and economic catastrophe began to unfold there in 2009, the socialist Pasok swept to power. In a sense the party was untainted by the causes of the crisis. It did, however, promise that it could fix it.
Of course, events unfolded quite differently. And so badly that the party that branded itself as the saviour in 2009 was destroyed in this year’s elections, allowing the centre-right party it ousted to step back in.
If Brian Cowen’s advisers were knowing and cycnical and vulpine enough back in 2008, they would have told Brian Cowen to hold a snap election in the autumn of 2008, take a beating, and look at a new government get splattered even though none of the problem was of its making. At the subsequent election, the party could have cruised back into power.
Instead, the party’s senior ministers clung to the wreckage and also clunk to the delusional plan that somehow it would all be made right just in time for the next general elections.
At the time of the 2007 election, it didn’t look great for either Fine Gael or Labour. Both parties had put in middling performances and looked condemned to seeing out a third long fallow period in opposition.
But it was a blessing in disguise. The crisis coincided with the emergence of previously unseen and multiple failings in Cowen as a leader. Within two and a half years, through incompetence and bad luck, the biggest oak in the forest had been felled.
Sure, it’s the old MacMillan line of ‘events, dear boy, events’. But old as the line is, there are fewer truths in politics.
We are approaching the 18-months mark of this Government and it’s still relatively early in the cycle. There is massive uncertainty about the wider crisis affecting Europe and only a knave would predict that Ireland will soon be out of the woods.
Although some Labour backbenchers might not think it at this moment, the Coalition has had a good first year and a half, with wins easily outweighing setbacks. Sure both parties (particularly the junior partner) oversold what they could do prior to the election and Labour’s penchant for self-hype has continued apace, compared to Fine Gael’s slightly more low-key approach.
But luck has played a part in that too. Early on in the term, all the Government’s efforts to win concessions on the bailout deal and on bank debt met with cold rebuffs.
Its first stroke of luck came when Greece was awarded a second rescue and Ireland benefitted by proxy from the lower interest rate.
And last week too – though the Government had little inkling it was going to happen – the Summit came up trumps for it, with Ireland getting a good break on the back of a solution designed for others.
Last weekend, the way Gilmore sold it (and he wasn’t even there) was that it was a triumph for Irish diplomacy and that the Spanish and Italians had come in on the Irish coat-tails.
It was as if bold Eamon had been involved in schoolground fight, pinned Angela Merkel down to the ground until she finally conceded: “Ok, ok, I give up, It’s Labour’s way Eamon, it’s Labour’s way.”
Enda Kenny was no less full of self-praise with talk of a ‘seismic shift’.
But the reality was that the hero of the hour was neither the Taoiseach nor the Tánaiste but a senior German ECB official, who would until then have been virtually unknown in Ireland.
As my colleague Arthur Beesley reported earlier this week, Jorg Asmussen, an ECB executive board member, showed himself to be unexpectedly supportive of the Irish push to have a specific reference in the outcome. He co-drafted the paragraph, with its key references to sustainability and equality of treatment, and helped secure agreement at official level.
Sure, the Irish themselves pushed hard. But would they have got it over the line without the intervention of Asmussen? Those I spoke to this week think not.
So it’s a German ECB official we need to thank as much as EK or EG.
It was a providential moment.
But I have no difficulty with either Fine Gael or Labour bigging it up.
It happened on their watch. The net result was good for Ireland. And for a second time they are entitled to accept the kudos, as Shane Ross acknowledged in the Dail this week.
The lesson? In politics you need to be good but you also need to be lucky.
The corollary: you can be always good but you are not always lucky. And that’s why most political career end in failure. Your luck eventually runs out.