Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

Lee made an ass of himself by opting for wrong party

IT is difficult not to form the opinion that George Lee has made a complete ass of himself. He joined the wrong political party, brought to it limited economic ideas, and failed to explain them adequately and get them accepted. All this was exalted aspiration on his part. He had exaggerated views of his own importance, and when all of this fell apart he left in a huff.

After a week of blanket coverage we still do not know what he had to offer, what his policies were and why he failed to grasp the basic essentials that confront any new member of Dail Eireann. Despite the week expended on this story, Lee's departure is of less significance than Deirdre de Burca's resignation. The huge hyping of the story was in part the product of RTE's own exaggerated view of his importance. Olivia O'Leary has been a cheer leader for him, regretting his departure, calling for his return to the RTE fold and then welcoming him back.

It is difficult to see how he can return to what he did before without invoking serious questions about his objectivity, balance and fairness. On Monday night Pat Kenny abandoned his planned 'Frontline' programme in favour of an hour with Lee. The programme was structured in a way that protected Lee from direct questioning. Instead, Kenny acted as go-between. But there wasn't much going between. Early in the programme a member of the audience raised a question all of us wanted answered: what were the George Lee policies he had brought with him from broadcast comment and analysis to the harsh realities of the Dail?

Kenny swept this aside, with a promise -- not kept -- to return to it later and instead indulged in laments from constituents who had been deprived of the representative they had elected.

We all knew Lee's voice of doom about the Celtic Tiger. He expressed what everyone was worrying about privately as the Irish economy spiralled out of control under Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen and the Tiger faltered and died. What mattered was what came after.

Lee made a major point, in explaining his walk-out to the press, that he came in to politics and joined Fine Gael in order to mend the economy. If this was true, then it was clear he had to be there for the full period up to the next election. Otherwise, he had joined the wrong party. He should have been the Fianna Fail candidate, with a deal calibrated on media performance. If, as in fact happened, he won the by-election -- but for Fianna Fail instead of Fine Gael -- then his economic capabilities would have been recognised and used straight away.

This would have answered his first intention -- to mend the economy. It was impossible for him to achieve this with Fine Gael, and he and the party knew this. The party, understandably perhaps, held him in lesser esteem than he held himself and reacted accordingly. But he was involved -- and in the teasing out of how and why and for what he might have been employed, in the difficult grind of opposing those who hold the power, his own account has more petulance in it than balance and assurance. On top of what he did do, Enda Kenny might wisely have considered Lee preparing an economic development programme for the frontbench where he would be free to discuss and argue its merits and defects. This would have kept Lee on board, avoiding the embarrassment of his extraordinary departure. It would also have tested his abilities in the real world where legislation and hard facts are respected more than mere opinions.

Lee's mode of departure -- eccentric and, in my opinion, focused on self-interest -- was seen as damaging to Fine Gael. This may be the case, temporarily. But the reality is that Lee's departure has been a wake-up call to Kenny and the Fine Gael frontbench.

Kenny is now more firmly in place than he was before. He handled things well during the past week but still faces problems. In thinking about my own criticisms of a week ago I did a quick analysis of where the weaknesses lie, best done in the context of issues. For example, both Kenny and Eamon Gilmore are light compared with the relevant Fianna Fail ministers on Northern Ireland. The breakdown in the partnership deal was a real issue, hopefully resolved. Both Cowen and Martin showed authority and political skill in handling the Republic's position. I find it difficult to envisage a similar authority in Kenny, and incidentally in Gilmore, though the reasons are different.

Fine Gael has had two leaders -- Garret FitzGerald and John Bruton -- who were impressive on the North. For Kenny to match this he has some way to go. On the economy, on health, on justice, on Church-State relations, there are parallel difficulties that Kenny needs to address as matters of urgency.

Astonishingly, having been at the heart of Fine Gael politics since winning his seat in 1975, he should have much greater authority. Given the circumstances, he should also have carried his party far higher in the opinion polls than is currently the case. He faces a formidable opponent in Fianna Fail, a party so used to power that it habitually abuses that power with impunity.

Kenny has been given breathing space, but not much. He is the unfortunate victim of a public set of judgements that place a disproportionate emphasis on the current celebrity culture. Kevin Rafter's new book, 'Fine Gael: Party at the Crossroads', has a cover photograph of Kenny holding up Lee's hand after the Dublin South by-election -- a cover that will now have to be changed. In the book, Lee is quoted as saying: "The reason I joined their party was simply their vision for a new Ireland and the way we should run the country. They were neither an extreme Right or Left party and have a pragmatic approach dealing with problems. Their leadership style is that they are open to suggestions and willing to listen and understand people, which is so important in today's politics."

A lot more people will have to see that this is still true -- adopting that approach, in support of the Fine Gael Party, in spite of the vision turning sour for George Lee.