George Lee – our part in his downfall, his part in ours

I am massively disappointed by this, and there is plenty of blame to go around here and I think people should avoid the chance to gloat and more than Fine Gael have lost out today. I would suggest that George Lee is massively naive to leave like this as he should have known that politics is a long term project. Yet, someone in the party should have noticed long before now that he was feeling ill at ease with his role, if FG were a private company that had hired in someone like him they would have assigned someone to act as his ‘buddy’ to ensure that he made a smooth transition to political life. Yet the fact that George Lee, with all the access that comes with being part of RTÉ, should have been so unaware of how Irish political parties actually work is also astounding. Politics is a lonely, solitary exercise, they might be called political parties but they are anything but parties. They are a collection of individuals for that is how we elect them, individually.

I believe that he genuinely means this is about policy formation when he says it, but he simply appears not to have realised there are no formal structures in politics in Ireland for that occurring. I can understand the feeling of frustration of not having any proper input into what policies the party even considers, not to mind adopts. Irish political parties, by in large, don’t have any internal structures for policy discussion. I was FG constituency policy officer for a number of years as well as a local election candidate, and the position was meaningless with no role in even informing people about policy not to mind having a hand in creating it. Being interested in policy in Ireland marks you as a crank and don’t tell me FF, SF or Labour are any different. Just look at cllr Killian Forde’s departure from SF for the lack of openness about internal policy discussion there.

People forget that unlike football teams we choose to be members of a political party because of a combination of a coinciding of underlying principles, policies and the personnel to carry them through. I think the Labour party is full of decent, sensible, honourable people but I’m not a member because I don’t believe in their approach and political worldview. I’m not married to FG and I’m not going to be a member if the party decides to adopt policies I can’t identify with. I’m not saying that is the case at present but it shows that policies are important. More generally we should have, as a party, spent the last two and half years investigating what it is that underpins our policies. Instead we had an announcement about 4 policy areas in 2007 and then nothing, until last year with the report from Alan Dukes on health policy which is quite good but had no involvement of the members at any stage. So what is the point of being a member? But the other 3 areas…nada.

I had suggested here and on long before now that FG should have changed the front bench to allow Leo, George and Richard tag team on Mary Coughlan and Lenihan. And it would seem that this was what was in prospect but there was a failure to signal this to George. That is a failure of man management, and were this the UK, someone would be roasting the whips office right now.

I think the party has to have a cold hard look at itself, this is part of the reason that it is so hard for younger people to get involved in party politics in Ireland where there is no formal structures for policy or idea based politics. It’s all about getting X elected instead of getting Y done.

I’m sure that the initial focus in media commentary will be that this raises questions for Enda Kenny as leader, I don’t think this really the key concern as how Enda has lead the party or his own qualities as leader have worked out well. For me it raises questions of how Irish politics is organised more generally and more specifically how FG chooses how it does its business. We need to involve more people and have the structures in place to do so transparent and honestly.

Just to give one example, over the weekend I was making some last notes to a doc I received about providing input into the structure of the upcoming national conference that is to take place on March 19/20th. Every member got one from what I’m aware. These have to be returned by tomorrow Feb 9th. Now given the planning that goes into a conference does anyone really think that these contributions will all be read and processed in time to allow any changes of substance to the conference format? No…neither do I. It’s about appearing to involve people but not really involving them. I had tried prior to the national conference in Wexford to make suggests about how we might modify the conference format, but again they got lost in the system and I never heard anything back. I made, along with another person, a presentation to the national exec about new methods of campaigning in 2005 but it again elicited no decision on any action before it was raised with us again out of the blue a few years later, before foundered again for odd reasons of internal process and control. Frankly speaking, political parties make the public service seem speedy and nimble.

FG isn’t unique, in Irish politics, in having these problems but it is to FG’s own benefit that it would address those problems. That must start right now.

In essence I believe he is doing the wrong thing for what it seems are the right reasons. But it would also seem that by standing for election, he was doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. I have to ask what was his plan when he went in? and I mean a detailed plan not merely his general intentions that ‘something must be done’. I am not suggesting the system isn’t broken, merely that you don’t fix it from the outside and of all the people in the Oireachtas he could have taken the initiative himself and reached out to the public over the heads of party structures or lack of them to present new ideas.

Fine Gael and Irish politics have failed George Lee by not being able to integrate him but George Lee has failed Irish politics and himself by resigning in the way he has done and by not taking up the fight in public.

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4 Responses to George Lee – our part in his downfall, his part in ours

  1. Eoin says:

    Thoughtful stuff as usual Dan. But if I can bang my partisan drum for a moment..

    The Green Party with its frequent “member conferences”, etc, seem to have more structures in place for bottom-up policy making. There is nothing stopping FF and FG adopting these ideas, except that those 2 parties are of a conservative nature; meaning they are slow to change, not open to new ideas.

    The world has changed. Technology has changed it. The web and citizen journalism has made public discourse more democratic. And our main political parties have yet to catch up.

  2. Des Groome says:

    Hi Daniel,
    your opinion piece here is interesting and frank in its discussion of FG internal processes. I am member of FF. Our internals probably have a different dynamic but we see the same lack of interface with rank and file. In fact when the going gets tough the interface probably lessens rather than increasing.
    George’s behaviour is unnecessarily disrespectful to all in politics.
    The attitudes the media are playing up that “he was dead right-i dont blame him” – a sort of everyman vote of sympathy- are a poor reflectionon the hyped soap opera discourse we have now in Ireland.
    Yes, serious reforms and changes of faces are needed on both sides but George’s behaviour is reckless and negative as I think Veronica wrote.

  3. dsullivan says:

    Eoin, I will agree with you about the Green party’s approach to getting the endorsement of the membership via those conferences so members are involved in approving or rejecting policy decisions or very major ones at least like the program for government but it’s not entirely clear to me what the structure is within the Green party for an ordinary member to involve themselves in formulation of policy prior to the adoption/rejection point. And I mean formal in a way that means that member X is seen to have suggested idea Y to spokesperson Z instead of the more common Irish political situation of member X buttonholed spokesperson Y who then ran with it or even presented it as their own idea.

  4. Leveller on the Liffey says:

    Re Sinn Féin, Killian Forde and alleged lack of openness about internal policy discussion:

    There’s plenty of space in Sinn Féin to voice dissent. You may not get your own way (how many people agree 100% with all policies?) but that’s how parties operate.

    If you don’t like it, become an Independent or join another party, like Killian did (but will he be dissenting publicly on Lisbon and his other previous differences?).

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