- 03 Nov 10
The rescue of the Chilean miners prompts our columnist to reflect on the lack of dynamic leadership in our own political system
Chile's new-found pride in itself is well-deserved, and its new media-savvy President has done them a great service. I know next-to-nothing about Sebastián Piñera or his policies, but a quick Wikipedia search turns up a recent presidential campaign video which features a gay male couple (url.ie/7vqo) and the slogan “Welcome to Change”. There is no way I can judge whether or not this is a genuine representation of his progressive beliefs, or something cynical and manipulative – only a Chilean could tell me that, and alas I have no Chilean friends, not even on Facebook.
It doesn't matter. What matters is that something dramatic and moving happened in that mine, that gripped the world's attention, a narrative of challenge, leadership, resolution, professionalism, hope and triumph. Not surprisingly, for a man who owned a national TV station in Chile, Piñera appeared to be completely in command of the outside broadcast, being watched by an estimated billion people across the world. For 24 hours, his leadership inspired and impressed us. And, of course, in this benighted isle, I imagine I am not the only one who felt a wisftul envy, wondering what it would be like if we had such a dynamic leader at home to lead us out of our bankruptcy.
Never has it been more apparent how poorly we are served by our politicians. But it's not about lacking a good media manipulator. Good leadership should never be judged solely on soundbytes.
“Mission Accomplished”, was proudly displayed on a sign in the soon-to-be abandoned mine, before the last rescuers returned to the Earth's surface. The same phrase was written behind George W. Bush on a US warship in 2003, when he hubristically boasted that the war he started in Iraq was over. However much this served to copperfasten his international reputation as a dangerous hubristic fool, it is sobering to realise that he still managed to be re-elected at home. The rest of the world may admire Barack Obama, and perceive that he has managed to achieve a considerable amount of what he promised to do, not the least of which involved rescuing the US's dismal reputation abroad, but it looks like he is going to be crippled by a new Republican Congress, and it is no certainty that he will be re-elected. It's quite dispiriting.
It seems that we are entering an age where gestures of leadership, suitably TV-friendly, are more potent than real leadership. Americans like to be at war, and an intellectual moderate who is reluctant to put any more lives at risk than he has to, is not, seemingly, keeping the loyalty of his people. Obama may be responsible for saving far more lives than the 33 that Piñera's team saved, through his aversion to unjust wars and his health care reforms, but the sad truth is Americans don't value that. The narrative is not dramatic or televisual enough to give them the buzz of gung-ho euphoria, to rush behind the flag and cheer.
We do have visionary leadership in this country, but it is of the moral kind, not managerial, in the office of our President. To my joy, Mary McAleese turned down an invitation to be Grand Marshall of the 250th St Patrick's Day parade in New York next year, because it is run by a Catholic-run organisation, and it has a policy of excluding gay people. That sends a clear signal to the American diaspora that Ireland is modern and pluralist, and has no truck with outmoded prejudices. She makes me proud to be Irish, and I for one will be happy to join in on any public demonstration of gratitude and celebration when she steps down next year, whatever form that takes. Yes, even though she's Fianna Fáil.
I'm trying to imagine the sort of political leader that would make a difference here, to our public mood. Economics, everyone keeps on telling us, is about confidence. We are crippled with a lack of confidence in ourselves, our economic future. Our ever-present capacity to play the blame game has reached poisonous levels. Yes, it was a Fianna Fáil government that led us into this mess. And yes, it's time for them to go. But my fear is that we will be even more disillusioned after the next general election, that our heartfelt yearning for decent leadership, perhaps of the Piñera kind, will result in even greater disappointment.
The truth is that we don't value ideals or principles in Ireland. We are tribal to the core, and our political system is suffering because of it. This is evident not just in the dismal leadership of Brian Cowen, but in the person of our alternative leader, Enda Kenny, who is just as tribal – he survived the heave against him in a classic Irish, parochial way; it was never a battle for ideas.
As much as I would like to see Labour take the largest number of seats in the next election, I don't think it's possible, given the way our constituency system works. We will be left with a greatly invigorated Labour party, forced to submit to Enda's pompous tomfoolery, in thrall to Fine Gael's largely rural conservative base, and I am not sure the resulting government will have the mandate for change that Labour seems to think it will.
One of the possible benefits of the current Green-inspired discussions with the opposition over the planned four-year budget is that everyone might agree to do what the tribal parties on their own could not, for fear of losing their core vote: introduce a property tax, and re-introduce domestic rates. These are sensible moves, to ensure a more reliable source of tax income that is immune to recession, and which will prevent a property bubble ever materialising again. But neither Fianna Fáil nor Fine Gael will do that on their own, even as majority parties in coalitions, even if it's the most sensible option. However, if both of them committed themselves to it now, the country would benefit enormously in the long run. But both Enda and Brian would have to think in terms of what's best for the country, not for their parties. I'm not holding my breath.
Political leadership is not really about Piñera-style PR moments of glory. It need not be so showy or dramatic. It has to be about policy, and effecting change on the ground. How on Earth this government could have listened to the harrowing stories of Cystic Fibrosis sufferers talking about their mortal fear of Irish hospitals on Liveline for so many years, and not come up with a remedy ages ago, is beyond me. Especially when the solution involves bricks and mortar.
The truly dismaying thing about the current state of Irish leadership is the paucity of imagination on offer, the inability of our leaders to grasp that the Irish people will go through all sorts of hardship if (a) they get a heartfelt apology first, with justice seen to be done, (b) they understand why they need to do it and (c) the end result is clearly worth it. I believe we would pay for an entirely new regime of universal health care, and a stimulus package to create jobs, on top of paying for being swindled by the banks, if it meant that we felt better about ourselves afterwards – or even proud of ourselves. The British didn't create their National Health System when they were prosperous and could afford to be generous. They introduced it when they were on their knees and recovering from a devastating war. Imagine that.
If we can borrow €50bn to pay for the banks, we can surely borrow an extra 10% of that to make our country a safer, healthier place, with fewer people unemployed. It's not the money, stupid, it's what the money is used for. We've been poor before, and felt proud of ourselves before. We can be poor again for a few years, in fairly good cheer, if the sacrifice results in a fairer, healthier, less indebted future for the next generation. We just need someone to show us the way, offer us that vision, help us to believe in ourselves again.
I've got to visit Chile. They've even got universal health care. Imagine that.