Eamon, don’t let the sneaky backroom boys get you down

DEAR Eamon, I’ve been half-wondering when it would happen.

The sneaky little bit of back-stabbing. The careful placing of a damaging story, just at the moment you don’t need it. The nice juicy anecdote designed to put you on the defensive, and hopefully to keep you there.

It goes with the territory. I’ve been a supporter of every Labour leader since Brendan Corish, and every single one of them has had to put up with that attempt to sort them out. It nearly always starts the same way, with an unattributable remark that is designed to be personally and politically belittling. The trick is to put you in a position where if you don’t react, you look like a wimp. But if you over-react, you look childish and petulant. You did the right thing — you dismissed it out of hand, and got on with your job. It would probably do no harm to make a bit of a joke out if it in due course. But you avoided the main trap they were trying to set for you, which was to get you to confirm, by your reaction, that the original put-down was true.

I remember back when Dick Spring was about six months in government with Garret FitzGerald. He had gone in with something of a reputation, having taken over a party that was in rag order after years of infighting between Michael O’Leary and Frank Cluskey. Labour hadn’t been expected to do well in the previous general election — in fact not long before, Vincent Browne had written a long and considered piece outlining all the reasons Labour wouldn’t survive the 1980s. But somehow, Spring had pulled off something of a recovery, and was regarded as someone you shouldn’t really mess with.

But six months into that Government (spot the coincidence?), a piece appeared in the newspapers that quoted one of the Fine Gael ministers saying that actually, Dick Spring was a “sheep in sheep’s clothing”. Apart from anything else, Dick wasn’t best pleased — he wasn’t the sort of man who would take that sort of thing lying down. But it was more important at the time to find out what the motivation was.

And the motivation became clear soon enough. It wasn’t, we discovered, one of Spring’s cabinet colleagues (just as I’d be pretty sure it’s not one of yours now, Eamon). It was a backroom boy, one of those types who believes it’s important to “put ‘em under pressure”.

Every now and again, the same chap, usually in cahoots with a favoured journalist or two, would plant something nice and juicy — always at a moment that would distract attention from something we really wanted to achieve. With impeccable timing he wrecked two of our party conferences in those years, by succeeding in splattering an irrelevant story over the front pages of the newspapers on the day the conference began.

Of course there’s a huge difference between knowing who’s up to those sorts of tricks and being able to prove it. If I could prove the identity of the mischief-maker in our day, I could name him. But alas, the laws of libel prevent me from doing that. And you’ll probably never be able to prove who is trying to set you up either. If you could, I imagine they’d be waving goodbye to their job – and without a civil service golden handshake either.

There is a difference between you and Dick Spring, mind you. In those early days (although he was never a sheep in sheep’s clothing), Spring was somewhat in awe of the economic brains of both Garret FitzGerald and Alan Dukes. It took him a while to come to terms with the fact that his legal training was simply not the best qualification for the tough economic times that government had to work its way through.

You don’t have that problem, Eamon, because you’re more than a match for anything Fine Gael have to offer. But you do have a couple of things in common with Spring — and with everyone else who has led the party in government.

The first thing is that it’s a bloody hard job. In Dev’s constitution, the Tánaiste was seen as someone who filled in for the Taoiseach when necessary. Otherwise, being Tánaiste was an honour, without too much work attached to it. Being Tánaiste in a coalition government — especially a coalition of two parties with strong ideas of their own — is a different matter. You have to be totally on top of everyone’s brief, not just your own. At least you have to have a pretty good idea of what’s going on right across government, and especially what’s coming down the tracks.

The Taoiseach has to be on top of things too, but he has a couple of hundred civil servants whose job it is to keep him alert and abreast of every development. You don’t. If you’re lucky you have a couple of talented advisers and a few diligent civil servants keeping a sharp eye out. But mostly, you have to do the work yourself and if you don’t read the briefs, you’re going to get caught out. And that, of course, is on top of running a party, minding a constituency, and managing a demanding cabinet portfolio. Your party expects you to be on top of everything that comes in front of the cabinet, and to ensure that the party’s end is always held up.

And that’s the second thing. You have to survive in cabinet for five years. In the interests of your party, there’ll be deals to be done throughout that time. There’ll also be rows to be had and compromises to be struck.

On average every few months you’ll have to deal with a crisis that suddenly appears from nowhere. So, you actually can’t start off shouting and roaring at the cabinet table. You have to feel your way a bit. You have to know who your allies are likely to be, and who will be your enemies. You know already that once you’re in the cabinet room, allies can come from the other party and enemies from your own. That’s the way the cabinet dynamic works.

It’s about building political capital and using it wisely. As you know only too well, sometimes an early compromise, or even a concession on something that really matters to someone else, can repay itself when you really need it. On the other hand, if you use up your entire store of political capital by throwing your weight around when it’s not necessary, you can find yourself isolated at precisely the moment when you most need support.

It’s entirely possible, of course, that some eejit has mistaken the job you have to do, and the way you have to do it, for timidity on your part, and has decided to paint a sneering picture for the media. Don’t let it bother you Eamon. In fact, the only thing you need is to really know what you want out of this government, and what your bottom lines are. Once you are confident about that, then the more they underestimate you, the better for you in the long run.

Best wishes.

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