25 Jun 2022

Political Notebook: In politics it’s better to be lucky than good

Politics is frequently about luck and timing as much as anything else.

Politics is frequently about luck and timing as much as anything else.

If circumstances were different, and the political ball had bounced another way, we might well be discussing these days the performance of Taoiseach Charlie Flanagan.

But for the vagaries of politics, and sheer bad timing, we would certainly be ruminating on the performance of Minister Charlie Flanagan.

Mr Flanagan has sometimes been in the wrong place at the wrong time in a relatively long career.

What about the following scenario? What if, in the Fine Gael melt down of 2002, he had held his seat in Laois-Offaly and Enda Kenny, who had survived by a whisker in Mayo, had lost out to Jim Higgins, now an MEP, whom he narrowly defeated?

Following the inevitable resignation of Michael Noonan as leader, Mr Flanagan, Mr Higgins and Richard Bruton would, more than likely, have battled it out for the leadership.

It would have been a difficult call predicting the victor. But Mr Flanagan, with a strong Fine Gael tradition and an impressive Dail performance on his CV, would have been a strong contender.

And, if successful, he would probably have taken a path similar to Enda Kenny to the Taoiseach’s office. He would have been a stronger performer on the Opposition leader’s bench than Mr Kenny.

Had he not supported Mr Bruton in the heave against Mr Kenny in the last Dail, he would now be Minister for Justice, having excelled in that role in Opposition.

There was another time Mr Flanagan found himself on the wrong side of the political fence, as is outlined in John Downing’s biography of the Taoiseach, “Enda Kenny, The Unlikely Taoiseach’’.

Mr Downing has penned a well-researched and well-written biography, which gives the full Kenny story, from the machinations of Mayo politics, which he has survived since a 1975 by-election, to his sometimes turbulent path to the Taoiseach’s office.

The author recalls that at 3.50 pm on Thursday, February 10, 1994, four Fine Gael TDs walked into the office of the then party leader, John Bruton, in Leinster House to tell him to stand down.

They were Mr Flanagan, Dublin South TD Alan Shatter, Jim O’Keeffe, of Cork South-West, and Mayo’s Mr Higgins. Mr Downing writes that Mr Bruton had been hearing all the rumours of meetings in various Dail offices over the previous days.

“Confirmation that he was to be confronted came that morning when the four asked for a meeting,” he adds.

“He had summoned his back-up team and was now ready to fight for his political life.” That back-up team included Mr Kenny.

Mr Downing notes that the four TDs – soon to be called the “Gang of Four” – were from the party’s solid middle ground and not the expected suspect rebels.

Mr Bruton told them “forcefully’’ that he had no intention of resigning and would face down any and every challenge. The parliamentary party meeting to consider the motion of no confidence in Mr Bruton lasted over seven hours, with 41 speakers.

The vote was by secret ballot. Mr Bruton won the day. Mr Flanagan and others were consigned to the backbenches. “The party has spoken,” said the Laois-Offaly TD. “I accept their decision.”

When the FF-Labour Government later imploded and was replaced by the Rainbow Coalition, Mr Bruton promoted those who had been loyal to him, except for Mr Noonan. There was nothing for Mr Flanagan.

Today, the Laois-Offaly TD is Chairman of the parliamentary party and an obvious choice for preferment should there be a ministerial vacancy. But will there be vacancies when Mr Kenny has a mid-term reshuffle? Will there even be a mid-term reshuffle?

As is clear from Mr Downing’s book, the jury remains out on Mr Kenny’s performance as Taoiseach.

But it is also clear from the book that he can never be underestimated. Will his legendary luck, some of which he made for himself, hold out and an economic upswing, if it comes, boost his ratings with the Irish people?

Mr Downing writes: “Enda Kenny has the essential quality Napoleon Bonaparte looked for in all his generals: he has been lucky many times over the past decade in politics.”

The author rightly notes that his success or failure will be measured in terms of the revival of the Irish economy.

He adds: “But, as his second year in office draws to a close, the economy is, according to Government think tank, the Economic and Social Research Institute, ‘bouncing along the bottom’, with few signs of revival on the horizon.”

Mr Downing observes that the Taoiseach must reduce unemployment, which currently remains depressingly high.

Time will tell.

This splendidly comprehensive book, which details a long political career, will warrant an update when Mr Kenny’s performance as Taoiseach can be fully analysed.

What will Mr Flanagan’s role be?

In a gaff-prone Cabinet, he would be an experienced political operator and a safe pair of hands.

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