Wanted: A brave leader with vision - Qualities political leaders need

IT may not be an analogy Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s handlers might comfortably offer, but if the saga of his leadership, and particularly when it might end, was imagined as a dance of the seven veils then Mr Kenny can have only one, or at the very most two, veils left ahead of tomorrow’s Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting where it is expected but not certain, that he will clarify when he will shed the last veil. 

Mr Kenny has repelled, with a cherubic smile, suggestion after suggestion that the sun has set on his era, he has declined to vacate the position he has held since 2002. In our split-second world, a reign of that longevity may seem a tad Elizabethan for a republic but it did not begin until almost 20 years after Gerry Adams was named as leader of Sinn Féin in 1983.

Mr Kenny’s retirement — and Mr Adams’ — cannot be too far away, long-live-the-king realities confirmed by the suggestion that Mary Lou McDonald has been selected to succeed Mr Adams. The perception that either only Leo Varadkar or Simon Coveney has any real prospect of succeeding Mr Kenny confirms it too. The perception that the race to lead Fine Gael — and in today’s circumstances become Taoiseach — involves only two contenders may prove inaccurate but, as these events always do, it sidelines reasonable questions: What do we expect from political leaders? What qualities, what principles should they embody? Are they elected to please or to lead? Have politics just become a dull, earnest arm of the entertainment industry or can they really lead the kind of reform that lifts all boats?

Should Fianna Fáíl not be restored to what it imagines is its birthright — semi-permanent power — after the next election then Micheál Martin’s leadership would hardly continue unchallenged, so these questions are relevant, but will we ever answer them? Probably not; the heart will, as is usual, rule the head.

Last January’s inauguration in Washington, when a man, who seems more and more like a barbarian every passing day, was sworn in as President of the United States suggests that those questions are more pressing than we might acknowledge. It is impossible to believe that Trump’s campaign, despite the open-the-door inadequacy of his rivals, would have succeeded had those questions got the attention they always deserve.

Last Sunday’s Paris inauguration elevated a very different kind of man, one we are told “is that politician the tabloids of any country — and their uneducated rich owners — love to hate: an unashamed globalist who likes nice restaurants; a philosophy graduate; a Schubert-loving piano player; a writer of books full of ideas. Just for a second compare all that to Theresa May. Or Donald Trump”. Even if President Emmanuel Macron was a hedge fund manager and turns out to be just another bluestocking child of privilege he seems by far the better option, but then the prospect of President Le Pen forced France to ask itself what it really believed.

We, or at least those who vote on the Fine Gael leadership, should do the same. We know they will confront social welfare fraud but will any of the candidates insist that the bankers who transgressed when they disadvantaged those who held tracker mortgages be held to account? Will any of them confront industry or agriculture over climate change? Will any confront the special interests in, say, health, policing or education? Will any accept that the market’s interests are not served by resolving the housing crisis and restore the State’s direct role in this area?

The questions are myriad but the answers are dispiritingly predictable. As Trump shows, and as hopefully, Macron will show in a very different way, we cannot afford more of the same. We need conviction-based leadership, not the kind of all-things-to-all-citizens fudge that has become the currency of, and diminished, all politics in this Republic.

That such a prospect seems so remote suggests that the seductive dance of the seven veils will remain as important as ever to our political class — that is, of course, unless we insist on answers to these very obvious and important questions. And if we don’t ask, then we’ll get just what we deserve.


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