Unpredictable future will provide challenge and opportunity

Picture: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

As Enda Kenny’s reign nears its end, Fine Gael MEP Brian Hayes outlines the requirements for his replacement, and says history will be kind to his current party leader

ENDA Kenny’s leadership of Fine Gael is now entering its final phase. After 15 years at the head of Fine Gael and six years leading the country, he will shortly hand on the baton to a new generation within the party. The time ahead, a period of political transition, will be both exciting and unpredictable.

History will be kind to Enda Kenny. The Kenny years will ultimately be recognised as years of achievement. He has confounded the longstanding observation about politics — that all political careers end in failure.

For me, his most outstanding legacy to Fine Gael is that he gave new TDs an opportunity to shine both in Government and on his front bench while in opposition. Today, Fine Gael has at least five or six TDs who could make an excellent leader.

The election of a new Fine Gael leader and Taoiseach, represents a major political event in political life. But it’s more then that — it represents for the country the opportunity for renewal. It also represents a chance for centre ground politics in Ireland to be redefined with a younger leader with a fresh start.

A wily French MEP predicted to me last year that Emmanuel Macron would win the French presidency because he was the only candidate talking about the future and offering hope.

Government of course confronts all the great campaigners with the reality of office and the choices that have to be made with scarce resources. Yet, even in government and even as a minister there is still the opportunity to define a new vision.

A new leader always offers the hope to a political party, even traditional parties like Fine Gael, that the clock can be reset and that a new conversation can begin. It’s the most pure form of replenishment in politics.

There is always a risk of that a leadership election will cause internal party divisions, causing resentments to fester. When careers are at stake things can get very personal.

On taking office, the new Fine Gael leader must be fully conscious of the need to unite the party, selecting a government from all sides. And the conduct of the campaignmust not be allowed to poison the new Government that will be constructed after.

Is the Taoiseach chairman or chief? Someone who knows what’s happening across Government, but who doesn’t meddle obsessively in every department. Someone who gets the idea of what can be achieved by Government today and tomorrow, without being so unrealistic so as to annoy the public with setting targets that are never attained.

The key requirement for the office of Taoiseach, especially today, is to have an ability to constantly communicate and be authentic. People are not stupid. They know what’s possible and what’s not. Post-financial crises. Ireland needs a Taoiseach who can not only be a straight talker but can confront people with honest choices.

Good team management is also very important. Selecting the right people for ministerial jobs and other key appointments is essential.

There is no road map for the current hybrid model of Irish politics. It will take skill and patience to keep this minority Government together. A new Taoiseach will also be a bit of a marriage counsellor. Relations with the Independent members of Government and with Fianna Fáil will demand the most careful and sensitive attention. Nobody can be taken for granted.

I believe that the public would not thank centre ground parties if this transition resulted in an election. Whatever about the limitations of the current Dáil, people want the parties to try to come to agreement without recourse to the constant threat of an election.

There is a perception that Dáil business and, to a lesser extent, general government business is in something of a limbo. This needs to change. The top priority must be keeping the economy on a sustainable growth path, and delivering on a long term investment strategy to cater for a growing population and changing demographics. Without a strong economy and a healthy public finance position, everything is at risk.

Brexit will obviously command an enormous amount of attention over the coming years no matter who is in Government. The same applies to the Peace Process. A taoiseach needs to manage several key external relations. The most important of these include Northern Ireland, British/Irish relations, and Ireland within the EU.

As in any human situation, personal relations do matter at international level; it is something which Irish politicians are good at. A new taoiseach will have to be particularly conscious of the internal dynamics of British politics.

Success for political parties today is pretty much determined on their ability to adapt to and manage change. Leaders must be able to inspire confidence and trust. To do so they need high levels of empathy. One of the advantages of being a small country is the closeness of politicians to the people. A high level of energy will be required. Something that Enda Kenny had in spades.

Ireland is among the top ten most developed countries in the world. Instead of dragging us back to the mistakes and the recriminations of the past, a new leader may well offer the country a chance to finally move on from the humiliation and pain of the bailout.

That event ruptured confidence in moderate Irish politics. Maybe there is an opportunity now to finally bookend that dreadful period in our economic history. An opportunity to finally move on under a new generation of political leadership.

Brian Hayes is a Fine Gael MEP and former director of elections

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