The newcomer, on the other hand, didn’t have the measure of the minister
FOR the past few days, a flurry of letters and emails have been circulating among a group of people – some of them civil servants, some of them private sector workers – who have little in common other than a boss they once shared.
We worked for this man starting 22 years ago, when he was appointed a minister. Most of his new staff knew him only by reputation. I knew him because, with several colleagues, he’d undergone a media training course at the company I then ran. It had been an interesting experience. Very interesting. The man involved was so given to heckling his colleagues that my husband, normally the most pacific of men, got shirty and told him he was a verbal terrorist, which seemed to please, rather than annoy him. He was interested in what we did and stayed in contact afterwards.
Then he was made a minister. I was called to attend upon him in his new office, where he told me I was to be his communications advisor. I pointed out that I was somewhat hampered by having to alternate between a wheelchair and crutches, not to mention suffering aphasia (word blindness) as a result of a car crash and would have to be in hospital for various surgical episodes during the following months. He told me he was committed to equality and asked me if I was inviting him to discriminate against someone with a disability. There is, and was, no answer to that.
A week later, we had his official photographs taken. The session began with the usual video and still shots of him coming into his office, sitting at his desk and making a phone call.
“Now, Minister, let’s get you in more workaday situations,” I suggested. “Get the jacket off.”
“Nobody but my wife has ever seen me in my shirtsleeves,” he said, and it was clear that wasn’t going to change. This man didn’t do or tolerate casual. His shoes were as highly polished as those of an army officer, his shirts starched, his ties spotless. Coming from a family of drapers, he knew cut, colour and fabric and could, at a glance, tell you roughly the mixture of textiles in another man’s new suit.
He arrived each day in outrageously good humour, the arrogant, talkative height of him used to full effect when he wanted to make a forceful point to, say, a journalist, who he would impale, mid-chest, with an extended index finger. If they were male, that is. No woman was ever attacked, talked about or mauled. Unlike many of his colleagues, he tended to formal handshakes with women rather than hugs and kisses.
That said, he did overwhelm both genders by sheer force of personality and capacity to talk. The weird thing was that – a little like the way flautist James Galway seems to be able to play music when breathing in just as much as when breathing out – this man seemed to be able to listen, hear, register and remember what people said, even when he was talking at the same time.
In the beginning, any executive accompanying him to public events found the task excruciating. He played the country yokel, and his staff, watching the curling lips of people meeting him, wanted to say: “You don’t understand, you’re being misled, this guy is actually so smart.” Then, one by one, his staff realised that they didn’t understand what he was at. What he was at was intelligence-testing on the hoof. If a newcomer, faced with the yokel performance, decided this minister was a gobshite, then the minister had the measure of the newcomer.
The newcomer, on the other hand, didn’t have the measure of the minister, who could understand a complex concept at first hearing or reading, and would then attack its layered implications to a degree which tested even the most expert civil servant. The word quickly went out: don’t go into this man unless you really, really know your stuff. (And never go into his office without your jacket on.)
Not that he was a difficult boss. Demanding, fast-moving, raucous, bumptious and talkative, yes. But if you made a mistake, he neither reproved nor blamed you. He publicly carried the can and continued to work with you as if it had never happened. He was kind, too. If someone close to you needed surgery, you would emerge from talking to the surgeon to find the minister – and his wife – outside, waiting quietly to commiserate or celebrate, depending on the prognosis.
Above all, he was buoyant and riotously funny, often at his own expense. He loved even the harshest caricatures of himself. The only time he got stroppy about satire was when Scrap Saturday included his wife in their sketches. That, he saw as invasion of her privacy and was seriously exercised about it until she told him to get a grip. She loved it, she said, and couldn’t wait each week to find out what the Scrap Saturday team had her doing before she served her husband “sangwiches”.
He was a fascinating study, as became more evident as he moved up the ladder and took on the job of EU commissioner. His peers regarded him as a hell of an operator. He could duck and weave, trade in corridors, build consensus – and if there was a dinner or a party afterwards, sing and socialise into the small hours. Next day, when the rest of them were swallowing aspirins in handfuls and looking like they’d been dragged through a hedge backwards, he’d be polished, groomed and full of craic.
He understood complexity and managed contradictions. Passionately Catholic, he nonetheless authorised a public health campaign for Europe that involved him sending greeting cards to journalists with condoms attached. He had theories which were partway between religious dogma and sociology, with business organisation thrown in; about politics in provincial Ireland, which he believed was infinitely more subtle and intriguing than the conspiracies journalists wanted to explore. Open about most things, he was secretive about the fact that he painted in his spare time – in retirement, he’d perfect his talent, he said, and until then it wasn’t worth talking about. In one area of his life a traditionalist, he was a quick adopter of new technology and gently adept with it.
Every negative about Pádraig Flynn has been repeatedly covered in recent years. This weekend, though, the occasion of his seventieth birthday, was not the time for analysis of the totality of a man’s career.
Instead, it was a welcome chance for those of us who worked for him and loved him to recall and relish, all over again, the unequalled fun and excitement of a few magic years serving the big verbal terrorist from the West.