Many people will remember the politics of the 1980’s. It was a turbulent time and one of the key issues was that of trust. Charles Haughey led the largest party but there was always a question mark over whether people could trust him or not. There was a theory that Haughey was the problem, he was what Garret Fitzgerald described as a ‘flawed pedigree’ and what Dick Spring viewed as a ‘cancer’ on the body politic.
The problem was much deeper than just Haughey though. The reason his party remained so strong was that his opponents were not trusted either. Whether that was economic trust to handle the issues or whether it was the fact that once in government people saw no real difference is a matter for debate. Des O’Malley was expelled from Fianna Fail and went on to set up the Progressive Democrats. The mood suggested the time was right for a new party. Of course like many such endeavours it had profile but no roots or organisation so its expansion, after the first wave of enthusiasm, was stunted.
Charles Haughey departed the scene and Albert Reynolds took over, but he, Alan Dukes, John Bruton and Des O’Malley all failed to capture the public imagination and all failed to win the trust of the people for different reasons.
Then came the era of Ahern, Bruton, Harney and Spring. There was a feeling that perhaps Ireland had moved on and we could trust people at the helm again. One can only wonder now if that is just symptomatic of a country when it starts to get more prosperous rather than one in recession.
Ireland has a problem. We desperately need leadership but we are struggling to trust anyone enough to follow them. We are not a belligerent people. Ireland has demonstrated a desire to be led, a willingness to take pain and tough economic measures if we can just be assured that people know what they are doing. So why is it so difficult to find that true leader?
People were burned badly by Bertie Ahern. He was a nice guy, a very ordinary unassuming chap. He was also a highly skilled politician, acknowledged by friend and foe. He did not seem into money or trappings of power, he just seemed to love what he did. In recent years that shroud of comfort has been torn away from us. A man we trusted turned out to have the most inexplicable personal finances possible and worse was to come. While we trusted him to have the measure of everyone, it seems he was really just gambling on what the guys at the top of the banks told him.
Brian Cowen was a man people felt was trustworthy too. A man who at least seemed to have none of the weight of dodgy personal finances or political funding hanging over him. He was strong and determined. Yet we then found out that he too was just going with what the bankers said, and he displayed an alarming lack of anger at where they led him. Then he crumpled up in the job of Taoiseach and lost all the vigour and ability to speak that people had liked him for.
It’s hard to keep trusting. Yet, in 2011 we gave our trust to a new government. It was seen as a final acceptance that FF and the PDs and all that was said about them was true. The Greens were collateral damage for having been seen as naive. The new government was given the greatest mandate of public trust that any government has ever held. Two years later and they would not be re-elected in the morning according to Opinion polls. This no doubt will be blamed on the ‘hard decisions’. No doubt that plays a part but the real issue is that hard decisions have double the impact when accompanied by a lack of leadership. A tax on your home is due by tomorrow, yet again people have shown they are willing to pay, but nothing in the approach of Phil Hogan has suggested to the people that they should trust him. Nothing in the approach of James Reilly has suggested that people should trust him in health and nothing in the approach of Alan Shatter will convince people that he is to be trusted either.
These were Enda Kenny’s closest aides when he was faced with a leadership challenge. Yet these are the ones letting the government down the most. There is nothing in the approach of this government to suggest that it treats issues of trust any differently to its predecessors. The same old rules are at play. The opposition do not cover themselves in glory either with FF stumbling around on the Abortion issue due to an outdated view of leadership and SF still determined to say everyone else is wrong on absolutely everything. Previous governments eroded public confidence in the system, they appeared arrogant, dismissive and concerned only with survival. Previous governments seemed obsessed with keeping their job and their colleagues in a job rather than facing up to the rights and wrongs of an issue. That is a major reason that previous governments were led to electoral Armageddon. This government had a chance to observe and learn and react differently. So what answer did they give us? Pat Rabbitte.
The government has proven itself less about leadership and more about playing the game. Less about considering the issues and more about bragging rights and forms of words. It is every bit as much about retaining power as its predecessor and in the public eye it seems remarkably similar to its predecessor in being peopled by Ministers that have no intention of having to return to their job after the next election and instead are already focussed on what legacy they might like to include in their memoirs. Trust is key. Whoever can win public trust will win big, but that will not be achieved by standing over the same old point scoring and the same lack of honesty that we have always seen. This week the government will tell us the debate on Alan Shatter is a distraction, which has always been a great defence. Like a sword of Damocles over the people, warning them that if they keep asking questions they will suffer more because the work they need done wont be done. It seems Ministers are incapable of answering questions and doing their job at the same time, they have a very limited ability and attention span. They are easily distracted and upset and we are to blame. Maybe gender quotas will be the best thing to ever happen politics here, because god knows, we really seem to lack the ability to multi task.