Monday, 29 September 2014

30 September 2014

The current debate over the future leadership of the Labour Party has given rise to much commentary about the ideal political leader.

For me, an outstanding political leader by any standard, whom I have always admired, was the great Irish nationalist Eamon de Valera. From the time of the Easter Uprising in 1916 until shortly before his death in 1975, de Valera was at the centre of Irish politics, either as Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition, or President of the Republic.

That physical longevity was remarkable enough, but de Valera’s political survival skills mark him out as one of the great leaders of the 20th century. Yet he was a grim, dour figure, possessing no charisma, and virtually blind for the last 20 years of his life.

What made de Valera was that he never lost his dream of what his country could be. Quaint and out-moded as it proved to be by the time he finally stood down as President in 1973, de Valera’s dream shaped and dominated Ireland’s destiny, probably through until the rise of the Celtic Tiger in the 1990s. He was extremely wily – his biographer Lord Longford paints vivid pictures of how he outwitted the English over the Abdication Crisis in 1936, and the Germans during the War over their wish to upgrade the status of their Legation in neutral Dublin to that of a full Embassy. To their surprise, de Valera not only was supportive but agreed that the Embassy should be opened by the German Head of State, provided, of course, he respected Ireland’s neutrality by travelling to Dublin for the occasion, by non-military means, which was of course completely impossible in the circumstances of the time, unless one was to travel via England. At that point, the proposal was quietly shelved.

I am not seeking to make allusions between de Valera’s extraordinary and arguably unique career and the current plight of the Labour Party, save for one point. De Valera knew instinctively what the narrative was that he wanted to present to the Irish people, and he stuck with it for over half a century in public life. There were times when it was unpopular; times when it was seen as slightly old-fashioned and romanticised; and, other times, especially towards the end of his career, when it was simply out of touch.
Yet he stuck to his line, and backed down for no-one, most notably in his rebuke to President Kennedy, after the latter’s powerful speech to the Dail during his successful 1963 visit, or when he spoke on the occasion of the 50th Anniversary of the Easter Uprising in 1966. Constancy was his byword.

To me, that highlights a critical quality of leadership – conviction and strong self-belief in the cause one is promoting. I do not mean conviction displayed superficially in the neo-Pentecostal sense we often confuse as charisma, but conviction in the sense of quiet, determined inner passion that drives one forward and which over time inspires its own sense of confidence. Grim determination in pursuit of a goal should always outshine flashiness or overt showmanship, in my view.

Interestingly, it was that same sense of grim determination that marked out one of our greatest Prime Ministers – Peter Fraser – and Helen Clark, in more recent times. So, maybe as Labour begins its now near-annual search for a new leader, it should take a leaf out of the Fraser and Clark books, and opt for the choice that has the determination, constancy, grit and stamina to settle in and knuckle down for the long haul.

The problem is finding such a person in the current Labour Caucus.     







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