Set out to break down barriers. Not the trendy ones, but the really insurmountable barriers, says Fergus Finlay.
I HOPE you’ll forgive the familiarity. “Is mise Leo”, is what it says on the home page of your campaign website, so I’m assuming you won’t object to being addressed, at least for now, by your first name. It’s looking very much as if we’re going to address you as Taoiseach in a few weeks’ time, barring an accident or a scandal.
And as you know, anything is possible in an Irish election – just think back to our last presidential election, and you’ll know that it’s never over ’til it’s over. But the way the numbers are stacking up now, you look to be in an unbeatable position.
I confess to being a bit surprised. I’ve seen Simon Coveney at reasonably close quarters over the last couple of years, as he has sought to get to grips with the housing and homelessness crises. I’ve been deeply impressed, not just with his sincerity and commitment, but at the doggedness with which he is putting building blocks in place.
He’s a guy who means business. He may have devoted a bit too much time to seeking to address a huge societal problem, and not enough to preparing his leadership bid, but oddly enough, that says a lot about him that’s positive. If I was a Fine Gael member (which I’m not!) he’s a leader I’d have been comfortable following.
Your preparations, it must be said, have been impeccable, to such an extent that Simon must have felt he was hit by a juggernaut in the first few days of this campaign. And there’s no doubt in my mind that if you do become Taoiseach, which is looking increasingly likely, your profile will have an international as well as a local impact. You’ll join a new and growing list of young and different leaders around the world, and your election as a gay Taoiseach will make welcome statements about Ireland few would have thought possible just a few short years ago.
But there is a difference between running a great campaign and being a great Taoiseach. I’ve seen a few Taoisigh in my day, and there’s a couple of things I reckon you ought to know.
Maybe the first of them is that nothing you’ve done up to now really matters. I’ve been amazed at the number of commentators and analysts who have been trying to compare you and Simon on the basis of ministerial achievement. Again and again, I’ve heard your supporters being forced to rattle off the fact that you single-handedly invented the Gathering, and that it was you alone who decided to join up the Luas lines.
Really, lads? Think back a minute. Who would have predicted, on the basis of his ministerial achievements, that Albert Reynolds would secure a place in history as a peace-maker? Or that Bertie Ahern, before the fall, would be the most popular Taoiseach we’ve ever had? Or that Enda Kenny, based on his track record as a minister, would survive six years as Taoiseach? (And in the eyes of many he did a lot more than survive.) One of the things that history does teach us is that you can judge how someone is going to perform as taoiseach by what they have done before.
But there are three other things that history does teach us. The first is that no-one stays the same in the office. The men who have risen to the top, and it’s sad that they have all been men so far, all either grow or shrink in the job. Nobody stays the same. Sometimes, the higher the expectations, the worse the outcome — and vice versa. If you want shrinkers, think Charles Haughey, or Brian Cowen. If you want growers, look no further than your present boss.
The second thing is that no matter how bright, no matter how articulate, no matter how well-prepared, when you step into the office of Taoiseach you step on to the bottom step of a steep learning curve. An incoming Taoiseach must have a strong sense of vision, an awful lot of stamina, and a willingness to learn from their mistakes. Because almost from day one, the course of your life will be determined by events.
Anyone who thinks they can control the events that will swirl around them is a fool. It’s about how you react and manage and think your way through, and about how you learn.
The third thing history teaches is that it’s not about what you know. It’s about who you are. The brightest boy in the class is never going to succeed as much as the one who understands other people. Emotional intelligence matters an awful lot more than academic intelligence. Above all, the job of Taoiseach demands character and understanding.
And yes, toughness too. Within a week or two of becoming taoiseach, you’re going to have an awful lot of nostalgia for those heady days when you were a media darling. You’re about to become a media target. And that, by the way, is the way it should be. The job of the media, no matter how fair-minded they are (and I hope they are) is to remind you every day that you have a duty to honour whatever mandate you have.
And on the subject of mandate, you may or may not know this. But glib references to being the taoiseach for people who get up early in the morning won’t cut ice for long. You may be inheriting an economy that’s growing, but you’re about to take charge of a society that is deeply divided.
Your duty — actually, your primary duty — is to the people who can’t get up early in the morning because of illness or disability. Your duty is to the thousands of people who force themselves out of bed to do unrewarding, low-paid jobs to try to feed and clothe their children. Your mandate may come from the middle classes, but they are not the only ones who struggle to cope.
If you want to be a taoiseach who is remembered, set yourself a moral task. Set out to break down barriers. Not the trendy ones, but the really insurmountable barriers. The barriers facing people who are stigmatised by their addresses. The barriers facing children born into multi-generational poverty. The barriers that divide a well-to-do society from the thousands of people who struggle to find any hope at all in their lives.
You don’t, I’m sure, want to be remembered as a popular or glamorous taoiseach. You want to be remembered as one who made a difference, who left the country better than he found it. Every decision you make now, and in the immediate future, deserves to be tested against that objective.
You’re only chasing the hardest job in the country, and you’re not going to know what hits you when you get it. Whether you know it or not, you’re going to need the one other thing that history can offer (or deny) an incoming taoiseach. Some of your predecessors were luckier than they deserved, some of them never got a break. So let me wish you luck. You mightn’t know it yet, but you’re going to need it.
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