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Tough, lucky and clever (but not too clever): what makes a good taoiseach?

It’s like no other job in the country. If you think anyone can do it, you have no idea what’s involved

What will he do about housing? Will he kill the Hate Speech Bill? Will he start to soft-pedal on climate measures to shore up Fine Gael’s creaking farming vote? Will he do a summer package of assistance for small businesses? When will he call the election (some Government insiders still think October-November is likely)? What will be his attitude to the unity question – gung-ho green like Leo Varadkar, or cautious and incremental like Micheál Martin? What will he do about RTÉ? Can he persuade some of his party’s defectors to stay on? And so on.

You can come with your own “what will Simon-Harris do” question; the list will be a pretty long one. But the ultimate success or failure of Harris as taoiseach will depend perhaps more fundamentally on whether he displays certain personal qualities which the observation of previous holders of the office – and other similar offices – tells us are essential.

So what are they? First, temperament.

The great American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes once said of Franklin D Roosevelt that he had a second class intellect but a first class temperament. The British Labour and Liberal politician and writer Roy Jenkins repeated the line about Tony Blair. It speaks to a truth about political leadership: character outranks brains.


Of course, a taoiseach needs to be clever: to be able assimilate briefs quickly and juggle a mass of sometimes contradictory information, to grasp complex issues efficiently and see the decision that needs to be made. But he or she doesn’t need to be a Nobel Prize winner. Barack Obama, the most cerebral of recent US presidents, left a mixed legacy. Brian Cowen, whose intellect was praised by practically every senior official who worked with him, was crushed by the job of taoiseach, in the same way that Gordon Brown was as British prime minister. The ability not to be overwhelmed by decisions and issues, many of which can have the most profound effect on the lives of fellow citizens, is essential.

That takes an even temperament, allied to strength of character and strong self-belief. And the courage to take on problems, not avoid them. Because in the taoiseach’s office, the problems will come and find you.

Second, stamina.

... politics must be the only job where it is routinely assumed that people with no experience can do better than those for whom it is their life’s work. This is the ‘we should make Michael O’Leary taoiseach’ school of political analysis

The job of being taoiseach is gruelling, physically and mentally. You’re never not taoiseach; it invades every hour of your day, every day of the week. “People actually own you in a very different way than you might ever imagine,” Enda Kenny said as he departed. “He’s exhausted,” a Cabinet colleague said of Leo Varadkar last week, and those who saw the outgoing taoiseach up close could see it plainly.

Here’s a randomly picked date from the taoiseach’s published diary, January 24th last year. His day started with a media doorstep at Government Buildings at 8.45am. Then it was into Government Buildings for the pre-Cabinet meeting of Fine Gael ministers, and then straight into the full Cabinet meeting, due to last until 1pm. After that, it was prep time for Leaders’ Questions, presumably while having a sandwich. Into the Dáil at 2pm for the Leaders’ Questions bear pit, followed by the Order of Business and taoiseach’s questions. Then there was a Dáil statement by Paschal Donohoe (assailed by an overblown controversy over election posters) to attend. An engagement between 4.15pm and 5.30pm is blacked out – suggesting it is either party political, security related, or personal. At 5.30pm, he received the US ambassador Clare Cronin. An hour and a quarter later, he left for the Irish Farm Centre where he was due to deliver the keynote speech to the AGM and annual dinner of the Irish Farmers’ Association. That was due to finish at 10pm.

Bear three things in mind about this. Firstly, it wasn’t an especially busy day. Secondly, it omits the several quick chats/words in his ear/requests for intervention that the taoiseach would routinely receive from colleagues and officials in the course of the day. And thirdly, at every one of these events the taoiseach is the centre of attention, expected to be on top of his game.

Third, judgment. Any taoiseach has a range of policy and political expertise available, from his civil servants, political advisers, colleagues and the informal sounding board than most successful politicians have accumulated by the time they reach high office. But he will make the decisions, and upon his head will be the outcome.

How will his decisions appear to the outside world? Is he doing the right thing? Will people accept it? Is he behaving in a way that people would be happy for a taoiseach to behave? But it’s also beyond the personal: is this the right thing for Ireland in the long-term? Successful judgment requires not just a knowledge of the subject, but an almost intuitive sense of what’s required.

Finally, something over which the new taoiseach will have no control: luck. Napoleon wanted to have lucky generals. Sheer bad luck can ruin a premiership – or at least make it much harder. Weather, international events, old scandals – all can suddenly pitch an administration into crisis. Most people will wish the new Taoiseach good luck. He will need it.

The point has been made hereabouts and elsewhere before that politics must be the only job where it is routinely assumed that people with no experience can do better than those for whom it is their life’s work. This is the “we should make Michael O’Leary taoiseach” school of political analysis. You don’t see Ryanair shareholders clamouring for someone with no idea how to run an airline – Simon Harris, say – to be made their CEO. Why do you think that is? Being taoiseach is like no other job in the country. If you think anyone can do it, you’ve no idea what’s involved.

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