Time for Gilmore to think the unthinkable


In its desire to end ‘machine politics’, the public is pushing Labour out of its old comfort zone, writes FINTAN O'TOOLE

LEAVE ASIDE the comic incompetence of the most inept attempt at a coup since the last bunch of Old Etonians decided to take over a medium-sized African country. What, otherwise, was the most remarkable aspect of last week’s little drama in Fine Gael? It was not the absence of a single stray shard of an idea. It was, rather, the almost universal lack of comment on that vacuum. No one, in other words, expected even the vaguest gesture in the direction of irrelevancies like values, vision or policy. In the middle of the greatest internal crisis in the history of the State, it could be taken for granted that the party that regards itself, by right, as the government in waiting, would not be getting upset over anything as trivial as an argument about the survival and regeneration of our society.

It will be said that the key issue for Fine Gael is not ideas but Enda Kenny and his failure to convince most of the public that he is credible as taoiseach. It is certainly true that the best definition of the indefinable “It” in political leadership is that “It” is whatever it is Enda doesn’t have. But his supporters were quite right to argue that Kenny’s lack of charisma, or intellectual distinction or media savvy, is neither here nor there. Pat Rabbitte is probably the most charismatic, intellectually acute, media-friendly politician in the Dáil. A fat lot of good it did him.

Kenny’s problem is his lack of ideas. The reason he comes across as an entrant in a small-town JFK impersonation contest (eerily like JJ Kilkelly in Tom Murphy’s play, The White House) is not because he’s not smart. And it’s not because he’s not likeable. It’s because he has nothing to say. Fine Gael has lots of policies – some of them very serious and well worked-out. The job of a leader is to synthesise those policies in an overriding message and to articulate that vision with urgency and passion.

Kenny doesn’t have that vision and it can’t be bought off the shelf. He is what he is – a machine politician, to the well-worn soles of his comfortable shoes. And what was confirmed last week is not simply that Fine Gael is happy with the kind of machine politics he represents but that his opponents were equally fixated on the things that oil the machine – power and patronage. They weren’t interested in questioning whether Fine Gael is an even vaguely adequate answer to the need for a radical break with the past. They were concerned with divvying up the spoils of a victory they assume to be already won.

The smugness is insufferable. The spectacle of Leo Varadkar, hardly a wet week in the Dáil, offering Enda Kenny the job of minister for foreign affairs in the next government is cringe-making. But it is also eloquent. Fine Gael is operating entirely on the assumption that it will take power whenever the general election is called. Why? Because it’s Fine Gael’s turn. The junior branch of The Machine inherits power whenever the senior branch screws up. Labour’s job is simply to facilitate this process in return for a modest share of power and patronage.

Eamon Gilmore seems to be struggling with the deep implications of all of this. Over the weekend, he described the Bruton heave as an internal matter and suggested a Labour -Fine Gael coalition is still the plan. The only issue, as he sees it, is which party wins most seats and gets to lead the government.

That is, of course, the conventional wisdom. But does it make sense? If Fine Gael is the largest party, its sense of absolute entitlement (and thus of contempt for Labour) will be intact. So will its belief that its own accession to power in itself represents the change Ireland needs. Everything Labour has gained by seeking to articulate a genuine alternative would be lost.

And if Labour were to be the largest party? Can anyone believe after last week that a party which is already divvying up the spoils of power would slip easily into the role of junior partners in a Gilmore-led coalition?

The Irish Timespoll that put Labour in first place may have caused ructions in Fine Gael but it also poses a profound challenge to Gilmore. The public is pushing Labour out of its comfort zone of alliance with Fine Gael and Fine Gael is inadvertently proving the public’s point. The desire for an end to machine politics is profound. Gilmore finds himself with the thrilling possibility – and the terrifying challenge – of giving voters the choice of a left-wing government. Living as we do in the Republic of the Inconceivable, this is the time to think that unthinkable thought.

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