Brian, pardon my meddling, but here are two men fit for promotion

DEAR Taoiseach-in-waiting, not long to go now. At 2.30pm tomorrow, the house will be called to order and nominations will be put in place for the office of taoiseach. There may be some wrangling about the procedures, which would be normal enough.

And it’s just possible, though it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, that some the opposition will nominate Enda Kenny for the office and force a vote.

Others will argue that instead of nominations for a new taoiseach, the people should be asked once more who should have the mandate.

The last time this happened — that a taoiseach left and another took over in the middle of a Dáil term — was on December 15, 1994.

You’ll remember only too well (I think we both carry a few scars) the events that led to that momentous day. It was Albert Reynolds’ last day in office and John

Bruton’s first. On the day itself, the Dáil rattled through a bit of routine business and then the nominations began.

To everyone’s surprise, Bertie Ahern was nominated by Albert Reynolds himself that day. The outgoing taoiseach spoke in glowing terms about his minister for finance and he was seconded, rather laconically it must be said, by David Andrews.

Then it was John Bruton’s turn to be proposed and seconded, and when the vote was called, it was Bruton who won by 85 votes to 74.

The good old PDs (there were more of them then) decided in their idiosyncratic way to abstain on the vote for Ahern and to vote against Bruton.

Of course, despite the contest and the speeches, the result was a forgone conclusion back then, as indeed it will be tomorrow.

But you will be reminded on the day, and on many days subsequently, that you are a taoiseach without a mandate. You owe your elevation to the Dáil rather than to the people and that will represent a difficulty for you over time.

Your first difficulty, of course, will be settling all the bets that are flying around by announcing your cabinet. It must be an absolute record in Irish political history — and a sure indicator of the style you intend to follow — that there hasn’t been a single informed leak about any of that.

No one is willing to speculate about whether you’ll be radical or conservative, about who is in favour or who isn’t, about who’s got the nod or who’s feeling particularly apprehensive. So you’re going to have to put a lot of people out of their misery pretty quickly. I’m sure I’m one of the last people in the world whose advice you’d be seeking in matters like that.

So let me just say I have had an opportunity to observe a couple of people at close quarters in the recent past, as a result of my day job, and I think you could do a lot worse than promote the Minister for Children to full cabinet rank. In his present job, Brendan Smith has impressed a lot of people with his mastery of a complex brief and his accessibility.

If you decide to promote him, there’s a TD down Limerick way called Peter Power who has also impressed many people in our area of activity with his command of the complexities of child protection law and he would make a worthy successor to Brendan Smith.

He’s also a solicitor and would be a useful man to argue the case for the constitutional referendum on the rights of children to which you are committed.

Anyway, I said I wasn’t going to interfere too much in those difficult personnel choices (and I hope I haven’t damaged anyone by recommending them).

But I am going to offer you two bits of advice. There are two make-or-break areas for a taoiseach and you need to know them. Sorry if this sounds arrogant, but every one of your predecessors has found out the hard way.

I’m not going to tell you to be yourself or have a makeover, or lose weight or buy better suits.

Anyone who knows me knows I’m not the best person in the world to be giving lifestyle or sartorial advice and you’ll get plenty of that kind of stuff anyway.

No, what I want to say goes to the heart of what kind of taoiseach you can be. It assumes you are a person of conviction and that you already know that at about 3pm tomorrow you’ll be stepping onto the bottom of a steep learning curve. If you don’t believe me, ask Gordon Brown.

So, first bit of advice. Forget you were ever minister for finance. Appoint whoever you want to that post and let them get on with it.

The first (and often the last) job of the minister for finance is to say no. And to say no from a particular perspective, the perspective of the public finances. Saying no can sometimes be the taoiseach’s job, but if it is, it has to come from a wider perspective.

The taoiseach’s job is the common good. Government is about making choices, sometimes between unpalatable alternatives. Over the past decade or so, that hasn’t always been too difficult because there were always enough resources to make the choices easier. It won’t be nearly as easy over the next couple of years.

And you will be surrounded by voices telling you there’s no alternative, that cutting is the only way to go. When you’re faced with the task of reconciling competing interests and deciding where the common good lies I would urge you to remember this: sometimes the people with the weakest voice have the most important interests at stake.

When you’re faced with a choice that involves a diminution of human dignity — as you will be — that’s when you have to put value before expedience.

AND the second piece of advice. It was Margaret Thatcher (probably not your favourite role model) who once said, “I’m not a good butcher but I’ve had to learn to carve the joint”.

As a team player, who has always prized loyalty, you’re not going to find this easy.

But you’re the team captain now. In fact, you’re the manager, the coach and the selector as well. It’s your job to pick the best team you can and then make them perform.

You’ll get no thanks from anyone if your government is seen to fail because one or two members of the team aren’t pulling their weight.

Sure, I know it could be said that the last two governments survived despite some disastrous failures in terms of policy and implementation.

But it was easier when the economy was growing and when money could be used to correct mistakes. You won’t (and you shouldn’t) have that luxury. So you’re going to have to reinterpret the meaning of loyalty — as team captain, you and your programme, built around the common good, have first call on the loyalty of your government and party colleagues.

Anyone who doesn’t get it will have to get out.

Apart from all that, may I wish you the very best of luck in facing the challenges ahead. You’re going to need it.

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