Thursday, 2 October 2014

The McNulty Affair - Enda the Line

In the eponymous Shakespearean drama, Macbeth, Thane of Glamis and Cawdor, is driven to murder his friend Banquo in a spirit of "vaulting ambition" and in a forlorn and ultimately futile attempt to prevent the latter's descendants from taking the throne of Scotland that he so covets. Of course, the original sin associated with the Thane's ascent stalks the hapless King, who can never escape from the guilt associated with the murder of Banquo and King Duncan ("Glamis hath murdered sleep and therefore Cawdor shall sleep no more. Macbeth shall sleep no more."). So great a mark did this dramatic phenomenon make on English-speaking culture that it gave rise to an aphorism whereby a lingering feeling or memory banished from articulation by the rules of etiquette is now said to "haunt the room like Banquo's ghost". For the last three years, a phenomenon has haunted the Irish political scene in just such a manner. If that phenomenon could accurately be given a singular name, it would be "Kenny-Lite", a phrase coined by the Sunday Independent's John Drennan to sum up the prevailing view that the Irish commentariat took of Enda Kenny when he first sought the Fine Gael leadership in 2001 - that of a dim-witted bumpkin who had been over promoted by a dying party.

Back in 2002, when an exhausted and depleted rural rump of Fine Gael TDs elected Kenny to the leadership, the jury was still out on whether or not "Enda", as the new Dear Leader billed himself, was a glorified Jackie Healy Rae (which was the predominant view of him in the Dublin suburbs) or whether the former view represented a supercilious manifestation of Eastern Seaboard elitism (a view held by the phalanx of BMW Region TDs who formed his political base). In election after election (2004, 2007, 2009 and finally 2011), Enda eviscerated Kenny-Lite with all the brutality with which Macbeth did Banquo. However, much like Banquo's ghost, Kenny-Lite's has never ceased to stalk the room. Indeed, for a politician who has, since his ascension to party leadership, seen off three Labour Leaders (Quinn, Rabbitte and Gilmore), two Fianna Fail leaders (Ahern and Cowen) and an entire party (the Progressive Democrats), who has presided over the single largest trough to peak gain in seats of any party leader since Sinn Fein's 1918 annihilation of the Irish Parliamentary Party (a gain of 45 seats in two elections) and who has been the first party leader since 1927 to win more votes or seats than Fianna Fail in any national election, it is one of the most bizarre peculiarities of Irish politics that his political skills have continued to be so consistently questioned and disparaged. The last three years have demonstrated that this does not simply represent the envious resentment of history's also-rans, but the simple and devastating fact that the arid transcript of Enda Kenny's political achievements is far more impressive than the man behind it. The real Enda Kenny was a man of vulpine shrewdness and almost unfathomable good luck. Sadly, the former is far less useful in government than in opposition, while the latter was always bound to run out sooner or later. For Fine Gael, like it or not, the day that John McNulty was appointed to the board of the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) was the beginning of the end of Kenny's leadership of both party and country - all that remains to be seen is whether party will wait on country or seek to preempt the country's verdict with a swift cauterisation of the weeping, festering wound on the government's body that the Taoiseach has become.

So who is Kenny-Lite? Kenny-Lite is the sulphurous cloud of unseriousness that has followed in Enda's wake throughout his career. Kenny-Lite was in evidence as far back as 2001, when he ran against Michael Noonan to replace John Bruton as Fine Gael leader. Kenny had been the Fine Gael education spokesman during a teachers' strike that year and yet his public name recognition was amongst the lowest in a not exactly star-studded front bench. In a cringe-inducing RTE interview, Kenny constantly referred to himself in the third person and delivered the toe-curling promise to "electrify" Fine Gael, without being able to enunciate any coherent policy or vision for how such a grandiloquent promise could be kept. Writing in the Sunday Independent at the time, Gene Kerrigan commented that Kenny seemed like a fresh new face - until one realised that he had first been elected in 1975. The fact that he had achieved so little name recognition after 26 years in the Dail was itself a symbol of his vacuity. When he was defeated by Noonan, his victorious foe had so little respect for him that he left him off his front bench altogether. Even in his Mayo heartland, his star (such as it ever was) was on the wane. In a nightmare election, Fine Gael's three seats in Mayo fell to two and Kenny's first preference vote was below that of Michael Ring from Westport and the electorally uninspiring Jim Higgins from Ballyhaunis. Only the chance and unexpected elimination of Castlebar Fianna Fail TD Tom Moffatt gave Kenny the improbable few hundred second preference votes he needed to overtake Jim Higgins - and by all of 88 votes. Those 88 voters can justly be regarded as having achieved nothing less than a political "Butterfly Effect", pushing over that one small domino whose fall precipitated an unlikely rally which ended on Merrion Square in February 2011.

But the nine intervening years were excruciating. No sooner had the Mayo TD ensconced himself in the leader's chair than he humiliated himself and his party by telling a bizarre personal story about a deceased friend which climaxed in his use of the N-word. For a whole year, he made meandering and incoherent speeches characterised by cringe inducing soundbites like "They say Kenny's a nice guy but does he have the bottle?" - if you have to ask the question then the public's answer is evidently going to be no. Only after the disaster of Fine Gael falling behind the Labour Party in the May 2003 MRBI opinion poll for the Irish Times did Kenny begin taking the kind of risks necessary to save himself and his party from political oblivion. He did just about enough to take advantage of Bertie Ahern's growing unpopularity and the gradual exposure of Pat Rabbitte's empty rhetoric and preserve Fine Gael's position as the country's dominant oppositional force. Slowly and laboriously, committed positions were drawn out of him - opposition to benchmarking, value for money, pro-law-and-order positions etc. However, he seemed unable to do anything more than the bare minimum necessary and in the crunch moment of June 2007, the electorate (having already preferred Kenny over Pat Rabbitte) blinked and let the tired and scandal-scarred Bertie Ahern back into Merrion Square - a humiliation which Kenny's 20-seat gain allowed him to disguise, thereby saving his leadership.

Given what was to happen four years later, it is easy to forget that in the brief Cowen boomlet that followed Ahern's eventual defenestration, Fine Gael fell 16 points behind the Soldiers of Destiny in the first Irish Times/MRBI. The subsequent Fine Gael surge had, of course, far more to do with the economic nightmare which unfolded in the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis than Kenny's political skills (which were limited and augmented by a gargantuan tailwind) or Cowen's (which were never as terrible as the disaster surrounding him made them look). Even then, he managed to make a meal of it. This blog has before opined that the so-called "Gilmore Gale" was the product of a concerted campaign on the part of the Dublin 4 media to build him up at Kenny's expense. However, what is beyond doubt is that Kenny's lack of substance left the doors open to the public sector-left's attempt to derail him and his party, a point not lost on his smarter lieutenants whose 2010 mutiny failed because Kenny and his grinning Gauleiter Phil Hogan lowered the bar by employing a truly noxious combination of class resentment and cronyist bribery to beat the no-confidence rap. The immediate consequences of the putsch were positive. Kenny had to move away from his comfort zone of vague "lowest common denominator" populism on taxation and spending and commit himself to a sharper focus on spending cuts and public sector reform. In the few months between the heave and the election, Kenny, along with Michael Noonan, Leo Varadkar and Richard Bruton, produced the few months of effective opposition which delivered the seat gains necessary to bring the Blueshirts within spitting distance of the overall majority that no party has achieved since 1977. However, the years spent by Kenny selling asinine headline-grabbers like abolishing the Seanad had taken their toll and the party's belated conversion to a more substantial agenda amounted to too little-too late. Of the 24 points of support that Fianna Fail managed to lose between 2007 and 2011, Kenny's army took just nine - a result which condemned the country to an incoherent coalition arrangement.

The government's blatant and ham-fisted appointment of John McNulty to IMMA followed by a Seanad nomination within a fortnight is hardly a matter of earth-shaking seriousness in and of itself. The IMMA appointment does not represent one of the more lucrative examples of political patronage, nor is modern art a matter of existential importance to the taxpayer. As for the Seanad appointment, the upper house's electorate has been constitutionally gerrymandered in favour of the government, with party organisations sewing up elections in quiet backroom deals of a type which are as old as the Constitution itself. Nor can it be said that this is the biggest scandal to emerge since 2011 - Alan Shatter's disastrous reaction to Garda whisteblowing deserves that accolade. No. What makes this scandal so disturbing is the sheer triviality of cabinet-level behaviour. In this week's Irish Times, Fintan O'Toole (who this blog seldom quotes favourably) nailed it:

"I’m not suggesting that this affair is as serious as the large-scale cases of corruption in high office we’ve seen before. But it is remarkable for the sheer thoroughness of the abuse. Indeed, precisely because the stakes were so small it is all the more breathtaking that so many fundamental principles would be shredded."

To make matters worse, in the same week that this scandal has erupted, another example of petty Fine Gael pork hustling has emerged. Hilary Quinlan, a Waterford based Fine Gael councillor who lost his seat in this summer's local election has been appointed to both the board of Irish Water and as a chauffeur to Waterford-based Minister of State, Paudie Coffey. This blatant use of the public fisc as a gilded social welfare fund for unemployed politicians is bad enough. What's worse is the sheer brazenness of it. Quinlan's comments on the matter, quoted in the Irish Times are unintentionally revealing of what is presumably the mindset of Kenny's taxpayer funded entourage:

You tell me one party out there who doesn’t look after their own. I don’t see anything wrong with it. It’s politics.

A comment so nauseating requires no elaboration. What does require elaboration is the underlying condition of Fine Gael's internal culture, which has been revealed by these two affairs to be rotten to the core. It is a truism to say that the various planning and other tribunals have revealed that Fine Gael has never been free from graft. What is new and disturbing is the extent to which the worst element of petty rent-seeking has permeated almost the entire party leadership - which looks increasingly like Bertie Ahern-era Fianna Fail. What all of this means is that Ireland is being governed by unserious people who see their public office as a means by which to extract taxpayer-funded gravy for themselves and their supporters.

The source of the rottenness is not easy to gauge. My best guess is that something has changed in Fine Gael since its previous periods in office. When John Bruton became Taoiseach in 1994, Fine Gael had been out of power (and away from its trappings) for seven years. When Garrett FitzGerald became Taoiseach in 1981, they had been out of power for a mere four years. By contrast, the Fine Gael which swept to power in 2011 had been starved of power for 14 years. Perhaps the party's years in the wilderness watching others bringing the bacon home to their supporters whetted their appetite in a way that fostered unscrupulousness. However, this explanation does not altogether satisfy. After all, Fine Gael was out of power for 16 years before its successes of the 1950s and for the same period before Liam Cosgrave's tenure in the 1970s and the party's culture did not atrophy in such an obvious way. Sadly, the contrast between the Fine Gael of Costello and Cosgrave and its "Kenny-Lite" variant is the putrid system of career politics that has come to dominate our legislature since the 1970s. The Fine Gael of yesteryear had a parliamentary delegation composed primarily of professionals and businessmen - i.e. people with positions of importance and responsibility in the society on whose mandate they relied for electoral purposes. The trappings of office (which were much more modest than today) are likely to have had less of a hold on the previous generation. Today's TDs are full-timers, who arrive in office with their bridges into the conventional economy burned, often highly indebted from expensive campaigns, economically insecure due to their jobs being sent out to tender in no more than five years' time, with expensive praetorian guards of staffers and local councillors necessary to look after the home turf and protect them from rapacious running mates eager to take their seats and with a rational incentive to scratch backs rather than put backs up. Hence, as John Bruton used to say about Fianna Fail, nobody wants to ask hard questions of nice men.

It thus seems that there is no easy cure for the sickness of petty slush funding - and that goes for every party and group currently in operation. The ouster of Enda Kenny is not sufficient to deal with a crisis of which he is only a partial author - but it is necessary. Kenny has become the embodiment of a culture of trivial government, with political spoils being divvied up on the basis of personal loyalty. Kenny's Deputy Leader (Reilly), his Justice Minister (Fitzgerald) and her predecessor (Shatter) all received their positions in return for their support in the 2010 heave. Of the three, two have been widely recognised as "problem" ministers, who have undermined the government's reputation. He appointed his buddy Phil Hogan, whose cabinet tenure was uninspiring (to say the least), as Ireland's European Commissioner, even though his principal qualification appears to be an (overstated) ability to win three seats in five-seater constituencies. In his initial cabinet, he concluded that James Reilly, a former president of one of the healthcare industry's most powerful lobby groups - one with a history of negotiating mean deals at the expense of the taxpayer - was a suitable person to spearhead healthcare reforms. His appointment of Heather Humphreys, a freshman TD with no junior or senior ministerial experience and no qualifications of particular relevance to her portfolio had all of the capricious hallmarks of a man who has come to enjoy the exercise of arbitrary power - refusing to promote able but critical colleagues such as John Deasy and Brian Hayes to cabinet, whilst promoting nonentities like Humphreys and giving out plum appointments to glorified county councillors like Hogan. Meanwhile, his imposition of the party whip on the Lucinda Creighton-led bloc of TDs over what has traditionally been treated as a conscience issue had all of the hallmarks of the kind of "Uno Duce, una voce" leadership associated with Mrs Kenny's former boss, Charlie Haughey.  

Kenny's incompetent, authoritarian, splenetic and puerile leadership has had its Golgotha moment. It is time for a reunion of the 2010 mutineers and an alliance with the nervous backbenchers who must now fear for their seats with the objective of repeating that year's coup successfully. The current situation calls for a brave Fine Gael parliamentarian to channel the spirit of Leo Amery, when he said to the hapless Neville Chamberlain:

"You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go."   

If someone in Fine Gael does not say words to this effect as soon as possible, the danger is that the electorate will act on them first, and if that happens, Fine Gael may be punished by the election of a Sinn Fein Taoiseach - and that's a punishment in which every Irish man, woman and child will share.