GUEST COLUMNIST: Áras adviser van Lieshout row sheds light on the shadowy world of political power

Advisers live in the half-light between the public mandate of the elected office holders they serve and the permanent government of the civil service who eschew and usually escape the strobe lights, relentlessly searching and bleaching the political process

CONTROVERSY this week of who is out and who is up in the pecking order of advisers at Áras an Uachtaráin is a warning to all in that trade. Political intimacy should not be confused with any other sort. It is intense only in the pursuit of shared goals and then it disappears instantly. The ultimate art in advising politicians is indifference to whether your advice is accepted and organising your exit before their end.

Indifference is necessary because you are not there to pursue your own agenda. An eye for the exit is needed because nearly all in politics stay beyond the point of their useful lifespan. The advising class are the flotsam of political life and usually the first to become its debris.

They, and for years I was one, are the most dispensable in a cruel trade. advisers live in the half-light between the public mandate of the elected office holders they serve and the permanent government of the civil service who eschew and usually escape the strobe lights, relentlessly searching and bleaching the political process.

President Higgins’s adviser Mary van Lieshout left the Áras expectantly early both in the term she was appointed to and that of the President she was appointed by. She left behind a welter of speculation that the reality of her role enjoyed less traction than her title implied and that she perhaps expected.

In particular the importance of the President’s executive assistant Kevin McCarthy, nominally her junior, supposedly grated. Whatever the truth, the Áras has strongly denied any such difficulties existed, and van Lieshout has moved on to a responsible role with the charity Goal.

Moving on in politics is something too seldom attempted and moving successfully not always achieved. The lady has my respect on both counts.

Politician’s advisers like all mongrels are looked down upon. They enjoy no share of the political mandate of the politicians they completely depend upon. They are denied the respect given to an apolitical and supposedly disinterested civil service. At best they are tolerated within the government system because of the personal intimacy the connection with their political master confers on them. If they are wise they will supplement that with as much regard as they can muster in a system ultimately unaligned with the political trajectory they exist to pursue and which must succeed if they are to continue.

Civil servants, backbenchers, other ministers and the media all have a shared sense of condescension towards the political place men and women who live awkwardly and allegedly too well in the gutter that runs between responsibility and power. “Power without responsibility” said the British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin in 1931 “is the prerogative of the harlot down the ages.” He was attacking the press. But it is in essence the point of attack on unelected apparatchiks apparently feasting on power that others can never access.

The cliché is an old one. In Dante’s Inferno, the wicked counsellors were sent to the eight circle of hell. Their evil tongues which did not tell the truth in this life were horribly replicated by the tongues of fire that consumed their flesh eternally. Having worked nefariously in the twilight suited to their machinations, their damnation was to be hidden in the flames that consumed them ever after.

It is the topsy-turvy nature of the power of the adviser that attracts attention and repels sympathy. Upstarts who do not know their place, it must surely be a public good to bring them down again. The role of upstart at the Áras has been assigned in the story, as spun, to van Lieshout’s colleague the lowly executive assistant McCarthy. He was fit to drive Higgins, the presidential candidate, around the country. The strong implication left over from recent coverage is that he now enjoys an overly inflated role in the Áras.

This of course fits a double stereotype. The implied caricature is both of the evil counsellor and an upstart; a Baldrick to the President’s Blackadder. If McCarthy lacks a sense of humour sufficient to enjoy his vicarious fame he can at least console himself that times have changed and evil counsellors are lampooned now instead of murdered. Halls Pictorial Weekly, Scrap Saturday and Gift Grub all owe large and unpaid debts to political advisers.

Whatever the comedy of the stereotype or the truth of the story, an underlying truth exists.

Proximity confers power. Formal structures and job titles ultimately tell relatively little about where real influence lies. It is the intimacy and informality of the relationships between politicians and their advisers, and occasionally even more so with their assistants, that translates access into influence and onwards by extension to resentment among others.

The slow accretion of familiarity allows for bonds to build up which if instantly dissoluble under political pressure also allow while they last for influence to accumulate. advisers like courtiers, for they are closer to that than the “non-established” civil servants they contractually are, may be occasionally hired for their ideas but overwhelmingly their ultimate use is political not policy expertise.

Access to meetings can be important. In the goldfish bowl of government and the Áras a lack of access is as close to the social and political death that Saint Simon the great diarist of court life as Versailles ever described. Not to have the ear or to be able to catch the eye of power was not to exist.

IT IS the personal nature of their appointment and the physical proximity their role confers that gives them a basis on which an offering of ideas, information, and a more general political utility can be built upon.

Olivares the great minister of Philip IV of Spain famously said he would not allow the king to piss, unless he held the pot. Lyndon Johnson understood the power of the urinal and employed it in reverse, forcing his aides to attend him as he relieved himself; thus literally putting them in their proper place. Access and intimacy are jealously guarded.

advisers are alternative sources of information to and from power. Their presence denotes their power and the traction they can accrue marks the extent of it. Their employment varies from great affairs of state to the most inconsequential delicacies that might pacify a backbench TD, a constituent or even for a while a member of the press.

Civil servants, conscious of their apolitical propriety, will not undertake these trifling but necessary tasks. It is this foraging in the undergrowth, and an ultimate personal dependence on the office holder that creates bonds if not of loyalty at least of interdependence unique in our government system. Unless you get out in time, you all go down together.

Stories about who is up and who is out at the Áras are a sort of ancient staple that tell in shorthand what we want to know about power and who has it. It is not always the truth, but it is always entertainment.


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It came as quite a surprise to learn that I had been writing my Weekend column in the Irish Examiner for 21 years — how the years have flown by and how the food scene has changed in Ireland over those two decades.A letter from Darina Allen, celebrating 21 years writing for The Irish Examiner

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