11 February 2010 Edition
A Lee-gend no more
BY JOANNE SPAIN
Well one thing is for sure - no one comes out of the George Lee debacle looking good. Between allegations of Lee being a petulant, egotistical maniac, to speculation that his departure sounds the death knell for Enda Kenny’s leadership, a rabid media didn’t know which way to swing this week, or where to level more accusations. It was a win-win day for journalists and a lose-lose situation for the former Mr. Popular and Fine Gael.
The news that the celebrity TD was leaving the party and the Dáil on Monday came out of the blue, but did not come as a shock for those of us who listened to Lee’s economic commentary before his shock candidature announcement. In recent years, RTÉ’s front man had become a stringent critic of government economic policy. Even though us left-wing policy makers didn’t always agree with his analysis, he seemed to have his finger on the pulse of some of the more heinous Fianna Fáil/Green Party economic decisions. He seemed to be an intelligent man. His decision to not only join Fine Gael, but to stand for them in a winnable seat, made no sense. Any objective critic of economic policies will point out in a heartbeat the similarities between the two largest parties’ economic policies.
Over the last number of years, both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have advocated a low tax model for Ireland, kept artificially low by the introduction of numerous stealth charges; they have both advocated privatisation of essential services; they have both advocated lax regulation, the kind of policy that led to the current banking crisis.
Lee was either incredibly naïve or stupidly egotistical or both to join a party that was more or less a mirror of its opposition and claim he was going into politics to bring his expertise to the economic debate. Surely it would have been easier to write a book.
THAT SINKING FEELING
His error became apparent (though we were discussing it long in advance in the Dáil canteen) very quickly when it looked as though Richard Bruton had adopted Limerick West TD Kieran O’Donnell as his second in command on the economy. George Lee’s balding head could be seen behind the party’s major players in the Dáil chamber, bent down and scribbling furiously during Finance debates, but it was Bruton, O’Donnell and even Leo Varadkar who made the main contributions. When he did make interventions, they were out of sync with Fine Gael policy - he questioned some of the cuts in the budget and the response of the ECB, with its interest rate changes, to the crisis. This approach set him miles apart from the party’s finance spokesman Richard Bruton. Indeed, Bruton’s distance from Lee could probably be attributed to the former wondering when the hell Lee was going to wake up and realise that he had joined a party full of policies he didn’t agree with.
His resignation - whether it was in a fit of pique or something that had been brewing for months - throws up several issues of interest, but none more important than the political system in Leinster House. Lee said that he felt like an outsider and that he was frustrated. This might have been an internal party issue, but the fact is the functioning of Leinster House is designed to keep power in the hands of a few and that few is the governing cabinet. This can lead to extreme frustration for anybody who wants to see change operating within the current system. Power outside the cabinet is jealously guarded - so, for instance, there is a required number of TDs before a party can partake in ‘Leaders’ questions’, one of the most important sections of Dáil business. This number is seven - a number aimed at keeping smaller parties and independents at bay. This is also the criterion for partaking of the Private Members’ Business privilege, which allows a party to nominate a specific topic for debate on alternating weeks.
In general, the system operates with a government majority, so while bills are debated and opposition parties are allowed to submit amendments, without the government admitting its own bills need amending the process can be futile and infuriating. It happens occasionally that amendments get taken and an opposition party can have an influence on legislation - but it’s rare and it requires a real concerted effort from all the opposition parties. And when it does, more often than not the government claims it was planning to make that amendment all along and the TD proposing the change gets no credit for it.
If George Lee was under the impression that the Dáil was some kind of Athenian-like floor for discussion and bouncing around informed ideas until the right decision is made, he must have been sorely disappointed. For opposition parties, the Dáil is a battle a day. Fighting government legislation, let alone getting proposals of your own adopted and passed, is a mountain to climb and that is how the government (which has been in power for 12 years steadily eroding the powers of the Dáil) likes it.
Lee must have also been shocked (and it’s difficult to believe that he wasn’t aware of this culture to begin with) at the loyalty to the system from the establishment TDs. Most of them are career politicians. Most of them are second-, third- and fourth-generation politicians. Their job, as they see it, is to get re-elected, not represent and advance the interests of the country, particularly if those interests are unpalatable to many voters and the lobbyists TDs rely on. Lee’s celebrity status meant nothing to most of these ‘insiders’.
The other issue of hot debate is the reflection of Lee’s departure on Kenny’s leadership. For a man who tries so badly to come across as charismatic, Kenny’s performance at the helm of the Fine Gael party can only be described as limp.
The fact that they may be part of the next government says more about Fianna Fáil’s dismal performance than Kenny’s sterling powers of public persuasion. In fact, if he had been anything more than a plank, Fine Gael might have taken power at the last election, as many of the party’s TDs have probably speculated on more than one occasion.
His ability to capture Lee as a candidate gave Kenny a boost for a moment - his complete and utter failure to build any momentum from the successful by-election for the party, during which time Fianna Fáil took a hammering in the local elections and the Green Party were annihilated, left the mild-mannered Mayo man back at square one.
Lee’s knife-twisting may have made the front bench of Fine Gael join forces and jump on the defence bandwagon for a week or so, but there’s no way the wider party will be happy with the loss of such a high profile and popular figure. Questions about Kenny’s judgment that may have abated will be back in force before the month is out.
So, what now for George Lee? Well if the comments by his former colleagues at RTÉ are anything to go by, he might get his job back at the broadcaster but it looks as though they’ll have to station him somewhere off the edge of Siberia. He shouldn’t worry though. He might be joined any day in the wilderness by his former party leader, and that will make for an interesting re-acquaintance.
So what now for George Lee – A book?