Some people have the ability to fascinate us in terms of their life, their charisma their problems and their failings. For all the talk about politicians it is rare to find ones that really capture our imagination for good or ill. The vast majority fade into a great grey mass of arguable merit. They neither excite or annoy us. When we feel a politician lets us down we can become easily disillusioned and sceptical and we turn instead to the banal and dull. In Ireland we have been let down many times and it is reflected in the current Dail. We have reared a generation of politicians who are experts at the safe answers, who avoid the risks and strive to be completely sanitised products.
Quietly this has led to people reviewing the past and talking about other politicians. The reason for this is simple. Modern politicians like to try keep things steady. They dont want to lose big so they never have the chance to win big. When times are tough people look for hope and leadership, they look for someone that can changes things. You can never be a true leader if you always play it safe, if you are always in line with expectations and if you never upset anybody. Leadership takes risks.
When reviewing the past the obviou person people feel safe discussing is Lemass. There is little argument across all parties but that he was a politician of a very different mould and one they all aspire to emulate. The interesting thing about Lemass is that unlike his predecessor and successor Lemas did not enjoy the full endorsement of the people while he was leader. He took risks, he changed things, he upset people and that never makes for overwhelming electoral victory. It does however make for a legacy many years later.
What I find interesting is the much quieter way people have begun to debate Charles Haughey again. With a new TV drama of his life hitting our screens soon one can be sure that our fascination with his life is set to continue. Some hate him. He represents much of what went wrong in Irish politics and his personal failings were immense. He remains as controversial a figure as he ever was. When I was researching him for ‘Dynasties’ I was struck by the depth of argument he still could provoke, sometimes among people who were only born when he was in power and never knew his governments at all. Haughey was the most charismatic man I ever met. He had a natural gift. He could also be a brilliant politician, visionary and tactically smart. Ireland will never get over the issues around his personal finances, the way he handled politics and some of the game playing that was so destructive to the economy. He also had several good economic measures and decision. That is why he remains this paradox that we still debate.
Nowadays I find people complaining about politicians then they seem to shyly talk of the past, they put out a few feelers, try suss out your reaction. If you say ‘At least they are not corrupt’ the person will often nod and agree and leave it at that. If you venture to suggest that there was merit in politicians of the past you will hear the comment ‘For all they say about Haughey, he was a great leader, he would be great now’. This type of conversation never ceases to amaze me and it sometimes comes from the most unexpected of sources.
I do feel that it is driven, not by a love of Haughey, (apart from the odd few die hards) but rather from a much deeper need. It is a need we all have to feel that the people who are at the top are smart, clever and know exactly what they are doing. That takes many guises. Haughey was brilliant at crafting an image, sometimes that image was very much manufactured and different to the reality, but it has lasted. At the height of the revelations about his personal finances, people still revelled in the idea of Haughey telling AIB that he could be a very difficult customer if they did not back off.
When we think of Haughey we know he was conniving, self serving and ruthless. They are not features we like but in the current climate it makes us think that because he was like that he would never have let the banks continue as they do, he would never have sacrificed his party and electoral fortunes to please the troika, he would not be played with like a mouse at the EU table. We like to think that Haughey was so bad he would be like a mafia character always having a trick up his sleeve.
I am not too sure about that analysis or whether Haughey could really deliver different results. What I can say is that people want someone who will. They want someone who, even if they don’t like them, they respect them. Someone who scares us a bit. In such a sterile political world someone with those talents could have a very major impact. The problem is that such people can do amazing things or they can do very wrong things. They are a risk. however, we are a nation just waiting to welcome such an individual from whatever quarter.