Enda, decide you're going to be the best leader and just go for it, writes Fergus Finlay
Dear Enda, First of all, you know I have no axe to grind (well, maybe one, but I’ll come back to that in a minute).
I’ve never been a supporter of Fine Gael and you know I’m not a member. Where I could, I supported the work of the last government, and I strongly wanted to see it re-elected.
That government made mistakes and some bad choices, and I was critical of them when I had to be. But I’ve argued before that history would be kind to the last government.
It looks like you have a chance to be elected head of a minority government, one that will struggle to keep on top of the numbers in the Dáil.
There’ll be many who will argue that you’re only serving at the will and pleasure of Fianna Fáil and that they’ll be looking for opportunities to pull you down whenever it suits them.
Here’s what you need to do. Go for it. Just go for it. Decide right now that you’re going to be the best leader you can be of the best government you can put together.
You have a golden opportunity to once and for all establish your reputation as the most successful leader your party has ever had, and to do another considerable service for your country.
Look at where you’ve come from. You’ve been written off throughout your career. You were written off when you took over the leadership of your party — a lightweight, everyone said — and it was confidently predicted that you didn’t have what it takes to beat Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen.
But you did all that, and kept a government going through some of the toughest years and hardest decisions imaginable. Now, there’s a real prospect of economic growth, a real chance of a balanced budget once again, and a real opportunity to fix some of the things that desperately need fixing.
One caveat before I go on. Like many others I suspect, I will oppose in any democratic way I can any attempt by the Labour Party to re-enter government.
I have no objection to the party playing a constructive role, based on values and policies, in supporting the new government from the opposition benches where it can — and opposing the government when it must.
But Labour was soundly rejected by the people in the election. It failed completely to communicate its purpose and intent throughout its time in government, and it quite simply has no mandate to enter government now.
Were it to do so it would split the party irreparably. Labour does have a responsibility — the responsibility to seek to rebuild support for its values and character. It can only do that by refreshing itself — not by further exhausting itself in government.
You do have a mandate. Yes, it’s a diminished one, but you’re still the leader of the largest party in the government.
You have three simple tasks. The first is to present a fresh and invigorated government to the people.
You will have fresh faces in your cabinet anyway I assume, with the arrival of a number of independent TDs. Don’t give them token jobs, give them real, tough jobs. Be prepared to make the same demands of them that you would of your own.
And within your own party, find the fresh faces. There are people who have served you very well, both from the backbenches and from some of the more thankless jobs at junior minister level – people like Paul Kehoe, Regina Doherty, Damien English. It is time for you to ask some of the more senior people, who have looked increasingly tired in the last year or so, to take a rest.
I don’t know how people like Heather Humphreys, Michael Noonan and Richard Bruton would react to being returned to the bench, but it’s a bullet you have to bite if you want your new government to look and feel re-invigorated.
The first way to send out a message that you are determined to make this government work and last is to inject new energy into your team, as hard as that is. The second is to re-design the portfolios to reflect the real priorities that face us now.
That’s always a bit of a headache. If the senior civil servants don’t like what you have in mind, they have ways, as you know, of slowing things down. But it has to be done. The crisis in homelessness and the acute shortage of housing requires both an ideological shift and a real driver. It will need carrot and stick, and it will need to be led by someone whose sole focus is on making every available agency work as hard as it can.
That’s only one example. But how you design your government, and the people you choose, are a real statement of intent. And those choices will also heavily influence some mildly important stuff, like media reaction.
It’s been a long time in Ireland since a government was given a honeymoon, and your next government won’t have high expectations attached to it. A government that looks fresh and different — and tough and focused — will help to change that.
But the real defining issue is the set of priorities you establish on day one. This cannot be a government like any other. It must be one that starts with an open and frank acknowledgement that the people of Ireland, for the first time in our history, rejected simplistic tax cuts at the last election.
That’s not to say that people aren’t feeling burdened by taxes, it’s simply an assertion that people recognised that there are things wrong in Ireland, and they must be the priority.
Homelessness, especially family homelessness, is top of the agenda. But so is childcare, real high quality childcare, operating to decent standards and not driven by a search for high margins and profits.
So is child protection — we all thought we had resolved that these endless scandals would never happen again, but until you adequately resource our child protection systems we’re never going to be able to say that we’ve done everything we can to keep our children safe.
Rural Ireland is a major priority, and you’re also going to have to accept that water has become a public policy joke. The mess of Irish Water is not something you can blame on anyone else — it happened on your watch, and you probably need to accept that a fresh start is needed.
The waiting lists in our health and disability services got worse on your watch too, and they must be seen as problems that deserve new solutions from a government focused on social justice.
You’ll get opposition and challenge — but also help — from a reformed political system if you set out to achieve that. You have no choice but to govern step by step, and to rebuild a divided community brick by brick. You’ll have to do it more transparently than any government we’ve ever had.
But none of that is anything to be afraid of. Relish it. Go for it. Be the best leader you can be.
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