Government must get on message before it looks accident-prone

WHEN Garret FitzGerald became Taoiseach in 1983 he was known as Garret the Good.

Widely regarded as brilliant, visionary and honest, he was a huge contrast to Charles Haughey. Within his own party, Haughey was seen as divisive (to put it mildly) and we all thought we’d seen the last of him when Garret took over the democratic leadership of the country.

Four years later, Garret was seen, if anything, as Garret the Messer. Four years of interminable cabinet meetings, unpopular decisions, wrong strategic calculations — even the odd triumph — had reduced his reputation as a leader to almost nothing. When people were asked about Haughey, on the other hand, everyone acknowledged that he was still a rogue and a chancer. “But at least he can make decisions,” they said. “At least he can get things done.”

And so a government elected to clean up Fianna Fáil’s mess (and what a mess it was!) in 1983 was swept out of office four years later. And Fianna Fáil, written off by scandal after scandal, swept back in. Nobody would predict it.

You may have spotted a parallel in the story so far. In 1992, some of us thought we were going to get the chance to clean up another Fianna Fáil mess, and we were determined to avoid the mistakes of the past. It didn’t work out quite that way, because FF were part of the government that had to clean up its own mess. But we still tried to put a structure in place that would prevent the strategic political mistakes of our previous experience.

That structure couldn’t deal with some of the cataclysmic issues, and some of the personal distrust, of the Fianna Fáil/Labour government of the next two years. But when Fine Gael, Labour and Democratic Left came together to form a government in 1994, that structure, although much criticised, delivered a credible programme — and more than two years of government that was almost entirely free of self-inflicted controversy.

But like every government, it went through periods of unpopularity. And every time anyone was interviewed about that unpopularity, the answer was always the same. We have to work harder at communicating our message. There’s a communications problem. We haven’t been as successful as we should be in getting our message out.

So I’ve been listening to that mantra for, God help me, just under 30 years. I had to put up with it again this past weekend, as a number of Government TDs from both parties were interviewed by RTE about the current slump in the polls. It’s a communications problem. We’re not getting the right message out. We have to work harder on our message.

Every time I hear it, and never more than right now, I want to kick the radio all around the room. I want to shout at it in capital letters. YOU DON’T HAVE A COMMUNICATIONS PROBLEM, is what I shout at the radio. THAT’S RUBBISH AND NONSENSE AND BALDERDASH. (I actually use less polite language that you wouldn’t want to see in such an august newspaper at this hour of the morning.) YOU HAVE A POLITICAL MANAGEMENT PROBLEM. AND IF YOU DON’T START MANAGING YOUR POLITICS PROPERLY, YOUR BIGGEST ACHIEVEMENT IS GOING TO BE THE RESURRECTION OF FIANNA FÁIL FROM THE POLITICAL DEAD.

That’s my rant at the radio over. So what do I mean by political management? It’s actually pretty simple, and maybe it’s best illustrated by a current example.

The Government gets involved in an entirely self-made controversy. It’s not about a household charge, because the majority of people either support that or are resigned to it. It’s about how the charge should be collected. And with the best intentions in the world, the Government, and especially the relevant minister, makes a complete dog’s dinner out of the whole thing.

But the controversy dies down a bit, after the minister has taken all sorts of heat. And the Government heaves a sigh of relief, because they have to conduct a controversial referendum campaign. It’s about Europe. It’s both vital and urgent, a real test of the government’s mettle. It needs total concentration for the next six weeks.

And then, last weekend, a story appears in the Sunday Times about the imminence of water metering, and the likelihood that everyone in Ireland could end up paying €300 for one of life’s most basic requirements. The first politician who’s asked about it is Eamon Gilmore. He says, simply, truthfully, and effectively, “we’ve made no decisions about that”. End of controversy. Back to concentrating on the referendum.

Until a succession of ministers, starting with the Taoiseach, start falling over themselves to contradict the Tánaiste. Within hours we’re told that we won’t have to pay for the installation of the meters, but we will have to buy them. Then we’re told that these meters, which cost about forty quid cash, will be paid for by way of a standing charge of 40 quid a year — for 20 years! By the end of the week they’ve created a new company — and a new controversy about whether appropriate tendering was done — and they’ve given some regulator or other a wider mandate. But they still can’t tell us how much our water is going to cost. Oh, and by the way, all of this messing is about something that will not happen for another two years.

A political manager would have dealt with all of this rather differently. He or she would have said, if we have to have controversy about water, we are not going to have it until the referendum is out of the way. And when it starts, we will (a) make sure that the facts are clear, precise, and understandable, and (b) that we anticipate the answer to every question we’re likely to be asked.

In other words, a decent political manager would have ensured that every other minister gave the same answer as Eamon Gilmore gave. We’ve made no decisions about that. And no decisions would have been made until there was room and space to handle the entire thing correctly.

Now, this Government, apart from having lots of capable politicians, has lots of very capable people working for it. But if they don’t start working as a team — politicians and advisers together — they’re going to be at each other’s throats before long. It would be mad, in a Government that has a broadly shared analysis and where there is considerable personal trust, to allow that to happen.

There needs to be someone in charge of political management, a behind-the-scenes boss who won’t make the decisions (because that’s the job of democratically elected politicians) but will have the cross-government authority to get them implemented. It doesn’t matter which party that person comes from — the only thing that matters is that they have the mandate to manage.

The Government I support and believe in, that needs to be really successful in all our interests, is starting to look accident prone. Like messers, in short. The rot can be stopped, though, and that requires the two top men to take it by the scruff of the neck. Right now.

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