FERGUS FINLAY: Wise old owls are wide-eyed as government starts to self destruct

Wise old owls with many years of public service cannot understand the timing of the heave against Enda Kenny.

It’s hard to imagine anything more destabilising of the government than a heave against the leader, writes Fergus Finlay

Imagine, if you will, a small parliament gathered for lunch. Nice room, in a decent club in the heart of the city, good wine with the beef, perhaps even a glass of port at the close of business. All gentlemen of course, and these gentlemen are here to work. Well, if not to work, to cogitate, reflect, ponder – to gather and share the wisdom of their world.

Don’t misunderstand me. The parliament I’m describing is no mere collection of elected representatives. Parliament, I discovered recently, is the collective term for owls. And these are wise old owls, with many years of public service between them, a fine track record of advising governments over many years, and in many cases responsibility for negotiating on Ireland’s behalf with considerable impact.

They meet monthly, always privately and quietly of course, to discuss major current issues. These wise old owls worry about the state of the nation, and although they are no longer active, their collective views still carry weight when they choose to have discreet messages transmitted to the political powers that be.

They gathered recently for one of the their monthly lunches in the immediate aftermath of Brexit. If you’d had a chance to listen in, you’d particularly have enjoyed the discussion about Boris Johnson. They’re not given to salty language, these chaps, but they made an exception in Boris’s case. Some of them have dealt with David Cameron and his team in the past, and there was a lot of shaking of heads over his misjudgement.

But their primary concern, of course, was what was likely to happen to Ireland, and how we’d be affected by the British decision.

Despite their vast experience and immeasurable intelligence (just what you’d expect from a parliament of retired senior civil servants) they weren’t able to conclude that the future was certain in any way (senior civil servants never are, by the way). But they did note some key ingredients, some things that definitely must be protected.

The European relationship, for instance. For good or ill, we’re strong in Europe. There have been times in the past when Ireland’s economic development depended on things like regional funds or cohesion funds, and the wise old owls know how hard won they were. And there have been times more recently when Europe seemed, and behaved, more like a cruel uncle. But the strength of the relationship saw us through the worst of that.

And of course, the parliament of owls reckon the Irish economy is fundamentally sound, inward investment looks promising still, the books are heading towards balance. Thank goodness, they concluded over the port, that after that rather bizarre election, at least we have a government in place that looks like it might survive a year or two — at least until the immediate Brexit crisis passes.

And, perhaps more importantly, we have a Taoiseach who knows his way around Europe, and is well liked by some of the more important European leaders. Through his involvement in the European People’s Party, he had a significant role in choosing the President of the Commission and the President of the Council of Ministers, and knows them both very well.

I have to admit there wasn’t unanimity on this point among the wise old owls. Not all of them are admirers of Enda Kenny personally, and a few even hanker after the good old days when the permanent government sat comfortably alongside the semi-permanent apparatus of Fianna Fáil. Still, as one of the owls said as they were slipping into their overcoats, “thank God we have an anchor tenant in Brussels”.

So you can just imagine the consternation when the group met for lunch this past weekend. This is not a group that does emergencies, but if it were, this would qualify as an emergency session.

They looked, as they always do, to the most senior of their membership — the Elder, they call him —for guidance. But the Elder was nonplussed. Years as a Secretary General, vast experience of the machinations of politics in many of the major capitals, yet he wasn’t sure what to think.

“I confess, colleagues,” he said, “to being entirely baffled. Our larger government party, despite losing seats in the election, has more seats at Cabinet than at any time in its history. More have been promoted than ever before. They have somehow managed to persuade Fianna Fáil — Fianna Fáil, can you imagine it, colleagues — to allow them to introduce three budgets with a reasonable prospect of seeing them passed.

“Three years of government lie ahead,” he concluded, “with complex international issues to be addressed but with a strong economy at home. And they’ve chosen this moment to seek to get rid of their leader.”

“It makes no sense to me either,” one of the other owls added. “It’s hard to imagine anything more destabilising of the government than a heave against their leader. Surely none of us could envisage the possibility that Fianna Fáil would, to misquote one of their former leaders, stand idly by while some bright young thing got the leadership of Fine Gael — and an immediate bounce in the opinion polls.”

As one of the younger owls passed the cheese around, they ruminated for several hours, trying to figure out why Fine Gael was apparently hell-bent on injecting an entirely unnecessary political crisis into what was already a difficult situation for the country. Fine Gael, one of them said, seem to specialise in self-destructive claptrap like this.

Was it some kind of infectious disease, another wondered. British politics was tearing itself apart, and American politics was on the brink of becoming more bitter and divided than it had ever been (and some of these elderly gentlemen could remember back to Barry Goldwater). Perhaps this entirely unknown backbencher Brendan Griffin had brought it home from some foreign trip.

This parliament of owls had all lived through some political crises in their day — ministers bugging each other’s phones, top politicians on the take, beef scandals, , Ireland losing its sovereignty to the troika. And now, it seemed, the Taoiseach about to lose his job over – well, what, exactly? Despite their sagacity and experience, that was the one thing they couldn’t figure out.

“They’re saying he’s a bit ratty and tired,” the young owl in charge of the cheese offered. The others chuckled. They’d all known leaders for whom the words ratty and tired would be a term of endearment. Ratty and tired, it seemed to them, were part of the job description.

“I think, gentlemen,” the Elder said as they got up to leave, “we’re living in a world that perhaps we don’t understand any more. But we should keep in close touch. If things go on as they’re going, we’ll be in the middle of another election by the time we meet again. Heaven knows what the outcome will be. Perhaps we’ll be asked to advise a grand coalition of a hundred and fifty independents. I’m not sure there’s enough stilton and port in the world for that!”

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