Traumatised electorate deserves a leader at the top of his game

 

The Taoiseach showed an alarming ignorance of what the public now expects of someone holding high office, writes STEPHEN COLLINS

BRIAN COWEN must be feeling shattered by the fallout from his Morning Irelandinterview – but he has nobody to blame but himself.

The episode has put into clear focus serious questions about his ability to do the job as Taoiseach which simply won’t go away.

Cowen, a fundamentally decent person, might promptly have been forgiven the inept performance if it was his first bad interview, or if the country was still living through good times.

Sadly, neither of these scenarios is the case.

Since he took over as Taoiseach in May 2008, Cowen has delivered a series of poor media performances, punctuated by the occasional passionate and inspiring speech.

More to the point, the country is now going through what is probably its worst economic crisis since the foundation of the State, and the least a traumatised electorate deserves is a leader who is at the top of his game all the time.

Partying till the early hours of the morning at a Fianna Fáil think-in is no sin. But in believing he could conduct a major interview on national radio a few hours later, the Taoiseach showed an alarming ignorance of what the public now expects from someone holding his office.

Simon Coveney’s observation on Twitter within minutes of the Taoiseach’s interview was brutal, but it reflected what a lot of people up and down the country were thinking.

The frenzied reaction of the media was not pretty to behold but did reflect the level of anger that exists among an electorate shocked and bewildered at what is happening to the country – and the seeming inability of the Government to get to grips with it.

Friends and supporters of Cowen are distraught at the way events panned out in Galway, and angry at the media response. People who work with him are adamant not only that he is a decent and talented individual, but that he is a politician of substance and a tower of strength at Cabinet.

The problem is that leadership in the modern age of mass communications demands skills that Cowen simply does not appear to have.

It requires a very different attitude both to the business of politics and to media relations than that which worked in earlier times. It also requires an ability to speak in a language that ordinary people can understand, rather than the bureaucratic gobbledegook to which Cowen appears addicted.

In his autobiography, A Journey, Tony Blair provides some fascinating insights into the workings of politics in the 21st century. A key point is that the skill set required by a politician who wants to make the modern state work effectively is very different from that needed in the mid-20th century, in a whole number of ways. Understanding the role of the media is one of the key differences.

Blair observes how the power of the media in shaping the public mood is critical.

“When the mood is benign, it is truly benign: errors are charming eccentricities, gaffes are amusing, agonised processes of decision-making are simply a reflection of a profound sense of responsibility to get it right.

“When the mood is harsh, it is like running against a relentless headwind: each faux pas is magnified, previous transgressions are recalled and reiterated with renewed vigour, agonised decision-making is just incompetence.”

The contrast between the media’s indulgence of Bertie Ahern’s eccentricities, including the wads of cash stored away in his safe at St Luke’s, and the unforgiving attitude to Cowen’s inability to communicate, illustrates the point.

It may not be fair, but in its current hour of need the country expects a quality of leadership that has not been evident for a long time. A key component of the leadership now required is an ability to inspire people with an acceptance that the common good demands sacrifices from everybody and a vision of hope for the future.

Cowen’s problem is not just that the media was on hand to witness and participate in the late night revelry at the Ardilaun Hotel in Galway. The Taoiseach should simply not have been partying in the first place if he had an important engagement the following morning.

That Cowen doesn’t seem to appreciate this after more than two years in office has to be a worry for his Cabinet colleagues and his parliamentary party. They may seek to dismiss the whole affair as one generated by Coveney and a hostile media, but if they believe that they are simply fooling themselves.

By this stage Fianna Fáil TDs must been aware of the electoral implications that arise from the lack of confidence in their leader, but whether they will do anything about it is a different matter.

By contrast with the bluster coming from some of his Cabinet colleagues, Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin showed yesterday that he is living in the real world by accepting that what had happened was not good and there were lessons to be learned.

He suggested that the Taoiseach would be the first to realise the full extent of the fallout, and learn lessons from it.

By contrast, Green Party leader John Gormley showed just how out of touch he is by claiming that the Taoiseach had dealt with the matter, and that in any case it was just a distraction from the serious issues facing the country.

The stark reality is that the question of leadership has never been more important. A popular leader is not necessarily required, but one who understands the scale of the problem and is capable of conveying that to the electorate certainly is.

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