TERRY PRONE: Events of last week demonstrate the political system works beautifully

THE consensus arising from the departure of George Lee, contributed to in a minor way by the exit of Déirdre de Búrca, is that the political system has failed. Never was a consensus more wrong. The events of the last week demonstrate the political system working beautifully.

It’s a bit like when a job applicant, asked why they left their last post, explains their departure by reference to office politics. As if office politics was a weird symptom of a rotten company. Office politics are a natural, nay, inevitable and necessary expression of the human dynamic at all ages and in all situations. A lovely experiment, a few years ago, examined how different groups of toddlers decide who gets to share a bit of technology. The technology was one of those old-fashioned viewing yokes into which gets fitted a circular card incorporating coloured slides. Each click of the gadget advances a new slide into the viewfinder. The researchers handed one viewer to a group of little girls, another to a group of little boys, and, clipboards in hand, observed what happened.

The little girls had a discussion and came to an agreement: turn and turn about. Each of them would get to see, say, three of the slides before handing on the viewer to the next in line.

The little boys, in sharp contrast, set to and knocked the hell out of each other. Out of the fracas emerged one small winner, who appointed a gauleiter. Once the winner had sated himself with the slides, he began a grace-and-favour operation, instructing the gauleiter to let individuals among the defeated have a go at it, depending, one presumes, on how enthusiastically they were prepared to lick up to the winner or promise him some benefit within their gift. Clientilism, office politics and the political process at kindergarten level.

Humans and animals spend much of their lives sorting out how they stand, relative to others, and become seriously unnerved when the system they’re used to breaks down. That’s one of the reasons the banking crisis is such a game-changer. We were all used to the ritual dance of proving to bank managers that we were reliable solid citizens, well able to pay back whatever the bank manager might deign to lend us, if the wind was in the right direction. We were – as Uncle Gaybo has pointed out – used to the solidity of banks, so when we wanted a secure old age, we invested in those institutions. When it all went belly-up, it was like discovering that our granny had been dealing cocaine on the sly: unimaginable and extremely difficult to cope with. The departures of George Lee and Deirdre de Burca, on the other hand, show the political system working the way the political system always works. In de Búrca’s case, what happened was simple. She ran into a wall named Máire Geoghegan-Quinn. The new EU Commissioner wouldn’t give her a job.

Now, even a smidgeon of advance research into the new commissioner’s well-established gait of going would have made it clear that she was NEVER going to give her a job. Not because MGQ is agin de Búrca or the Greens, but because MGQ is a meritocrat before she’s a clientilist. Given that she is Fianna Fáil to her back teeth, if she could give a job to someone Brian Cowen wanted employed, she’d undoubtedly do it. But – in selecting staff – she would always start by wanting the brightest, best and most immediately relevant to her needs. Given that this commissionership is the final phase in her career, she was never going to consider favour-delivery, if that impinged in any way on her capacity to deliver on her portfolio.

Accordingly, Déirdre de Búrca never had a prayer. Which is not to say that she’s untalented or lacks potential. Neither would be true. But talent and potential were not what was wanted. Proven relevant skill and capacity to deliver under pressure in a specific area were what was wanted.

When de Búrca didn’t get what she wanted, she decided it was John Gormley’s fault. It was neither Gormley’s fault nor Cowen’s fault. It was the political system operating in a predictable way that she failed to predict. More to the point, it was the political system operating in a clean way, demonstrably free of cronyism. Brian Cowen would never have reneged on a deal with Gormley to push Déirdre de Búrca as a contender for the EU job. He probably did push her, just as Gormley undoubtedly delivered on whatever undertaking he made to her. The fact that neither succeeded should raise a cheer, because what we saw was the system working the way it should work. Someone got the job because of what they knew, not because of who they knew.

In the case of George Lee, it’s important to remember that George entered politics with one stated objective: to fix the economy. His objective required great communications skills narrowly applied. It didn’t require him to do a lot of superb broadcasts or write great features, both of which he has done, can do and will do again. In this instance, he didn’t have to influence the nation or his constituents. Both were already bought in. He had a much smaller target audience. That audience was Richard Bruton. If George was going to change Fine Gael policy in the ways he apparently wanted to, then he had to convert just one man, and temper his communications skills into a sustained and successful negotiation with that one man. Influencing people within the party who might help ensure that singular change of mind would also have been useful.

Somewhere along the line, a disconnect happened. At this point, it doesn’t much matter where or why that disconnect happened, nor does it diminish George Lee’s motivation for entering politics or his commitment to contribute to the public good. But it also should not distract from the fact that neither the political system nor the Fine Gael system set out to defeat him or were proven to be either causative in, or grievously flawed by his departure.

In fact, the system proved fairly flexible and positive. Enda Kenny took time, at the outset, to warn the new recruit of the humdrum pressures of politics in the aftermath of a byelection triumph. Other party members sent him documents seeking his input. In recent weeks, a group of Fine Gael backbenchers led by Michael Darcy figured out that George was not a happy bunny, thereby demonstrating unexpected attention to a newcomer, rather than concentration on their own constituency interests. They approached him, indicating willingness to ask the leader to put him on the front bench, thereby demonstrating concern for the man and the party rather than dedication to their own individual preferment.

It was the political system working at its best, informed by the generosity of a bunch of people prepared to back-burner their own immediate ambitions in the interests of an exceptionally talented colleague.

What’s not to like about that?


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