Dorcha Lee: ‘Mother of all parliaments can’t handle problem child’

Dorcha Lee: ‘Mother of all parliaments can’t handle problem child’

Leadership: British Prime Minister Theresa May speaks in the House of Commons during a Brexit debate yesterday. Photo: PA
Leadership: British Prime Minister Theresa May speaks in the House of Commons during a Brexit debate yesterday. Photo: PA

Many years ago, a famous Irish tycoon gave a memorable after-dinner speech to shareholders. During a rocky period, when many in his audience were in fear of the future, he announced progress. “Last year,” he said, “things were really bad, we stood at the very edge of the precipice. This year, I am very happy to say, we have taken a giant step forward…”

Great leaders know the value of humour, and in times of crisis, humour can truly be the safety valve of a nation. People also need hope. They look to their leader to sustain that hope, to calm their fears.

A leader who can retain their sense of humour in times of crisis inspires confidence. Churchill had it in spades, when all he could promise his people were “blood, sweat and tears”. Margaret Thatcher also had a delicious sense of humour. When praising her deputy Willie Whitelaw and mentioning how she depended on his good advice, she added, “every prime minister should have a willie”!

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Theresa May is not that kind of leader. Her recent TV address to the British people was totally devoid of humour. There was no empathy, no sense of connection, no appeal to the sterling qualities of her people. Viewed on TV, her ‘perp walk’ to the rostrum in No 10 was surreal. The backdrop of two flags gave a two-dimensional illusion that she would just step behind the rostrum. The six to eight steps she had to take to get there shattered that illusion. It was a brief moment of awkwardness, edited out in later viewings.

The absence of an audience heightened the sense of total isolation around the embattled prime minister. There were none of the usual pleasantries which normally apply on such an occasion. No “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen”, or no, “My fellow Americans” moment.

What followed next could best be described as a peevish rant, a petulant performance, an abject abdication of her own responsibility for Brexit. Shifting the blame onto parliament for handling Brexit, in such a public manner, diminished her, both as a leader and as a person. No true commander on the eve of battle blames his or her generals. Doing so is an admission of defeat.

Theresa May has not only lost the game, she has lost the plot.

Future historians will study Brexit with the benefit of hindsight. In the meantime, without hindsight, we watch the drama unfolding in Westminster with both fascination and trepidation. The ‘Mother of Parliaments’ is clearly faced with the ‘mother’ of political problems.

The blame game has well and truly started. Last month, the creator of Brexit, former prime minister David Cameron, briefly re-emerged from the political wilderness for a Laurel and Hardy moment, to say he is sorry for the Brexit mess. He would be well advised to return to oblivion until his successors put the Humpty Dumpty of the British political order together again.

On this side of the Irish Sea, the Dáil and Government have responded well to Brexit with a remarkable absence of political point-scoring. Opposition leaders’ criticism actually helps the Government resist pressure from the UK. Just imagine where we would be if Micheál Martin and Mary Lou McDonald had called on the Government to drop the backstop.

The only jarring notes are the claims from some commentators that the Government has not done enough to plan and prepare for Brexit. Not true. As far back as February 2017, at a presentation in the Mansion House Round Room, then-Taoiseach Enda Kenny briefed the audience on the extraordinary extent of Government planning. His speech outlined how the Government had mobilised all its resources to confront the Brexit problem.

That was almost two years ago. Since then, the best and brightest people in our public service have been working flat-out to cover all Brexit eventualities.

Retired civil servants and diplomats have also contributed their ideas and suggestions through the assorted institutes that have taken on the challenge of Brexit and in the media.

Now is not the time for self-flagellation. It is the time for cool heads.

Of course, if we suffer severe consequences as a result of a hard or no-deal Brexit, the current political consensus may well fall apart.

As the Bogeyman Brexit rattles the cages and shakes the foundations of Westminster Parliament, Leinster House is bracing itself for the fallout. In the coming months and years, the resilience of our economy will be tested. I believe our political leadership will not be found wanting. The ship of State will successfully run the rapids of Brexit and return to calmer waters.

However, we must keep our sense of humour. When the Lotto winner bought an island, he was asked by the TV reporter what he was going to do with it. His reply will always brighten our day; “Ah, sure! We’ll think of something!”

In Ireland, Brexit or no Brexit, the glass should always be half full.

Irish Independent

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