The next leader of Fine Gael, whoever that may be, will be expected to fulfill not one but three jobs in their new position.
Just what are these three jobs that the next leader of Fine Gael will need to be ready to undertake from the moment they are elected, you may ask. Well, even if you didn’t I’m going to tell you anyways.
The obvious first is Taoiseach, being Taoiseach in the modern political age is a 24/7 undertaking, the role spans party politics and quite apart from the title of head of government, it involves ensuring that the ministers of the day from all parties and none that are represented in cabinet and the concerns and motivations of those on whose support the government relies from day to day are taken into consideration. The Taoiseach much like the British notion of a Prime Minister, on which most of our parliamentary infrastructure is modeled, is the chief arbiter of the competing interests of the cabinet members, the First among Equals. While in practice the holder of the office may be able to make their writ run long and quick, it is not so clear cut in legal terms and clearly not always so in reality when the Taoiseach of the day is not the leader of a single party government.
The second is that of leader of the Parliamentary party, this role is clearly much more party political and involves leading the most senior elected elements of the entire party. This role has some overlap and similarity with the role of Taoiseach, given as it does the requirement to balance the competition ambitions and skills of the members of the parliamentary whose long term goals and interests coincide much more than their short term interests might. The short term necessity of someone seeking high office to get elected first in order to contribute and realise any longer term achievement of party policies can never be far from the minds of the members of the parliamentary party. Their closest colleagues are also typically their closest competitors, those in their constituency they will want to do well so that the party as a whole has sufficient strength to be in government but not so well as to deprive them of their own elected positions. As for those within their generational band, they will want them to do well and contribute to the overall performance and standing of the party in the public mind but not so well as to supplant them in the league table that influences opportunities to serve in executive office. This role is quite often as demanding as the role of Taoiseach even if much more of the workload is taking place out of the public eye. A new party leader will have to assuage both the individuals who have lost in the contest just passed, including reaching out to their many backers and to maneuver those nearing the end of their careers towards a soft landing while also identifying those most suitable for promotion, at all levels within the parliamentary party.
The third job and the role of least likely interest to the wider public and the media is that Leader of the wider Fine Gael family as President of Fine Gael. This job is naturally seen as the poor relation to the other two roles. Yet it is one that needs particular attention as the party seeks to demonstrate that it can renew itself in vision and purpose while still being effective in government. Much like the manner in which the state is organised with a permanent government in the public service that provides continuity beyond the personnel who can change from Dail to Dail, there needs to be a strand in the party organisation that is neither directly beholding to the leader of the day nor a separate power base but which provides a longer term perspective on what the principles, and broad goals for the party are to be and how they are to be achieved.
The President of the party needs to have as their first focus the health and well being of the full party organisation, from the newly joined up members who is fired up wit enthusiasm and ideas, to the long standing members who may no longer be be able to contribute to the door to door canvasses at election time, from the person thinking about taking the first steps to being an elected public representative to the person who wants to play a role internally whether bringing organisational skills to bear or to contribute to areas of policy formulation that touch on areas of their own personal or professional experience. Frankly it is an area in which all Irish parties currently exhibit some varying degree of weakness, though none will dare admit so in public, as manifested by the increasing usage of focus groups and increased access granted to lobbying NGOs and think-tanks of various guises. Fine Gael’s structures and events are too staid and too stage managed, with the Ard Fheis no longer an event for members but rather a series of photo ops and set pieces with the members acting the role of hundreds of extras in a battle scene from Game of Thrones. Indeed the smallfolk of FineGaelos are frequently deemed an inconvenience what some would see as a successful Ard Fheis, one that is absent of gaffes but also of incident. Much like the well run Hospital in Yes Minister that has no patients. Parties that can’t allow robust, rigour internal debate are doomed to neuter their own ability to generate ideas from within. Debate does not mean divisiveness, contests do not mean conflict, criticism is not failure. And we have to consider if branches that are solely geographically based is the best fit for an age when people self organise around topics and ideas. Why not a virtual branch on the environment or overlapping memberships of campaign teams tasked with specific duties, such as leaflet drops or social media engagement?
As a totem for the changes that need to be investigated and implemented I would strongly recommend that it is time to consider if this role of Party President is really best served by being undertaken by the same person who is Taoiseach and leader of the parliamentary party. Before the last Ard Fheis I proposed that consideration be given to the role of Party President being mutually exclusive to being :Leader of the Parliamentary Party. I would still commend that as a significant first step in the internal reforms that are long overdue. We have for too long always had some reason to hold off on anything too contentious: in case it got in the way of an upcoming local, European or General Election, or there was an upcoming referendum. We need to be able to reform and remake the party while in government, otherwise we could well find ourselves with all the time in the world to look at reform alone while others govern and take the country back on the same merry go round of easy answers and saying yes to everyone that has twice led the country to economic collapse.