Longevity is no barrier to pop-stars or priests but fatal to Labour politicians. Brendan Hoban
Before the politicians go on their long, well-deserved break for the summer holidays, there was that small matter of a cabinet reshuffle. Out with the old guard and in with the new. Sort of. Though some of the old stagers (most of them my contemporaries) were cast adrift without much ceremony what mattered was not how old anyone was but whether someone somewhere who had the political clout deemed them surplus to requirements.
Eamon Gilmore had to go because the wisdom is that if things go belly up in politics, the leader takes the hit – unlike the Church where the last one to go, like the captain of a sinking ship, is the leader. Ruairí Quinn had to go because he seemed to be around since God was a gasúr and possibly because he insisted on wearing a series of psychedelic ties. Pat Rabbitte had to go because his new leaderette wanted room for some of the young thrusting lions, waiting to sink their teeth into the body politic.
However, Michael Noonan, the Daddy of the House by some distance, didn’t have to move his slippers because, the wisdom is, that his benign, wistful, re-assuring and grandfatherly presence is a necessary part of the fragile fabric of economic recovery, like a film star of yore whose name escapes me, often lauded but rarely seen.
And Joan Burton, our new Tanáiste, didn’t have to go, even though (if it’s politically correct to refer to a woman’s age) she’s ready to apply for the old-age pension and the free travel is practically in the post. Or is it that if you’re giving the orders you don’t have to do what you tell others to do?
What matters, essentially, is perception. Not how young or old you are, but how you look. Our new Tanáiste has had an extraordinary make-over and to my unpracticed eye doesn’t look a day over 40. Her hair looks even more extraordinary than Alan Shatter’s. Her clothes, with the colour red a constant feature, gives her a modern, youthful look. If she was a man, the word ‘dapper’might apply.
Would a make-over, a bit of make-up, a crown topper, a few visits to the gym have saved Eamon, Ruairí and Pat? Probably not. But you get the drift.
For months it was clear that the three amigos were for the chop. The long run-in to the re-shuffle had softened them up and it was clear that the game was up when Ruairí Quinn threw in the towel by announcing his retirement. To continue the metaphorical confusion, like an ageing footballer announcing his retirement while there was space to receive the kudos for his long career, Ruairí saw the writing on the wall, cute strategist that he is and jumped before he got the final push.
Pat Rabbitte didn’t fare so well. Politics is a cruel business. Joan, who’s actually four months older than Pat, gave him 20 seconds to get lost. ‘Age and chemistry’ was Pat’s accurate diagnosis.
It isn’t just that he’s a Mayoman, but I regret very much that Rabbitte now seems to be sidelined permanently and is, it seems, considering retirement come the next election. It must be difficult to make way for an unproven youngster when the odds – from common sense to competency – are stacked in your own favour.
While Pat had a grumpy, though not curmudgeonly side (it sometimes appeared almost as an affectation), the cabinet has lost one of its great personalities, with a great way for words and an ability to leave a telling phrase hanging in the mind. Humour, wit and the ability to bluntly state an obvious truth are qualities not always evident in public life and Rabbitte has them in abundance. It’s hard to imagine him languishing on the back benches, sighing audibly as lesser lights stumble. Since the late John Kelly graced the star chamber with his droll and under-stated style, Rabbitte has been the star performer in the star chamber. His memoirs will be worth reading.
Peculiarly politics is one of the few areas where age seems to matter. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are in their 70s and people are still waiting for the next Rolling Stones Tour. Englebert Humperdinck is 78, slightly deaf and a bit short-sighted, and still crooning along 34 years after Please Release Me topped the British charts. Leonard Cohen will be 80 in September, and no doubt planning another tour. And Garth Brooks, a little-known country and western singer, who apparently loves Irish people so much that he wants as many of them as possible to buy tickets to his concerts, is all of 52. Where would they all be if they were Labour deputies? Out the door.
They’d have no problem with age at all if they happened to be parish priests. The only thing Catholic priests and pop singers have in common is that age doesn’t seem to wither them. If they were Catholic clergy, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards would be still parish priests; Englebert Humperdinck and Leonard Cohen would be suppling Masses on the weekend; and Garth Brooks would be a young priest, complaining about everything, as he is.
Ageism, it seems, is a moveable feast, depending on whether someone, somewhere is perceived as surplus to requirements. If you can hold a tune at all, or even a half-tune like Leonard Cohen, there’s still an audience there to hang on every note. And if a priest is still able to say Mass, people may not be hanging on his every word, particularly if he doesn’t know when to stop talking, but they seem happy enough that he’s able to get though Mass. For ageing singers and ageing clergy, the only difference is in the stipend.
Now if Pat Rabbitte had embraced religion instead of politics he could now be the parish priest of, say, Islandeady or if he played his cards right, Aughalosheen. Wouldn’t I love to hear his response to that!