Irish Independent
Tuesday January 24 2012

The Taoiseach hit a few headlines last week. And so did the Finance Minister, not to mention the Tanaiste. The Education Minister also grabbed a bit of attention for himself, as did (and not for the first time) the Transport Minister. And then there were the yards of print generated by the Social Protection Minister last year.

Unfortunately for the Fine Gael-Labour coalition, none of these particular headlines were in praise of a new policy initiative or a fine speech or a ground-breaking piece of legislation.

Enda Kenny

They were all highlighting yet another outbreak of foot-in-mouth, another governmental gaffe, another totally unnecessary slip-up on a verbal banana-skin.

Last week alone it appeared as if a series of senior ministers opened their traps with the sole intention of inserting their feet.

Michael Noonan, an experienced and articulate politician usually adept at avoiding dropping clangers, found himself in the midst of a storm last week after making remarks at a press conference which appeared to suggest that emigration was “a lifestyle choice” for young people.

“It’s a small island. A lot of people want to get off the island,” he also said.

As a hub-bub of protest rose from opposition politicians and the public alike, the minister protested that his quotes had been taken “out of context”. But his claim is irrelevant. At a time when approximately 1,000 people a week are quitting Ireland in search of work, his comments were insensitive and provocative.

Moreover, they also took the gloss off the positive spin of the press conference — which was that the so-called troika was satisfied the Government was adhering to the terms of the bailout agreement.

Nor was Michael Noonan the first minister to provoke a furore by careless usage of the word “lifestyle” — he should’ve heeded the cautionary tale of Social Protection Minister Joan Burton who caused a furore last year when she declared that social welfare has become “a lifestyle choice” for some school-leavers.

Equally, Transport Minister Leo Varadkar did not see the wisdom of using judicious and careful language when it comes to the controversial issue of paying back or burning Anglo bondholders.

Instead, he dramatically declared on RTE’s ‘The Week in Politics’ on Sunday night that what the troika last week “said really, is that: ‘It’s on your head. We don’t want you to default on these payments. It is your decision ultimately. But a bomb will go off, and the bomb will go off in Dublin, not in Frankfurt.'”

It turned out afterwards that this somewhat incendiary statement was the minister’s own interpretation of the troika’s language rather than a direct quote.

And speaking of Anglo, the Tanaiste unwisely invoked unwelcome memories of certain inter-bank skullduggery when he revived the infamous “green jersey” phrase used by Anglo Irish Bank to explain some of their transactions.

During an exchange with Sinn Fein’s Mary Lou McDonald in the Dail last week, Eamon Gilmore scolded the Sinn Fein deputy for not “putting on the green jersey” while the troika negotiations were under way.

And then there was the Taoiseach’s own gaffe on Friday. Having delivered a well-received speech at a conference in Dublin Castle on how to attract more women into politics, he concluded with a jokey reference to junior minister Kathleen Lynch’s “flaming red hair”.

Silly, rather than insulting, but why did the Taoiseach risk irritating Mna na hEireann, when the political landscape is littered with casualties who fell before him? Just ask Albert “there’s women for you” Reynolds.

Could all these gaffes be down to the fact — as Education Minister Ruairi Quinn jaw-droppingly admitted on radio earlier this month — that, like himself, the Government is “out of practice” at the business of governing after spending so long in opposition?

Well, tough. It’s almost a year since the election and unless the Taoiseach wants FG to stand for Frequent Gaffes, his government needs to shape up fast and stop behaving as if it is still in opposition, where playing fast and loose with language has few consequences.

Furthermore, the lamentations from the Social Protection Minister on Radio One on Sunday regarding the lack of information coming from NAMA simply invoked the spirit of Bertie Ahern who was wont as Taoiseach to bemoan some shortcoming in Irish life and declare that “someone should do something about that”.

Eh yes, he, as Taoiseach, was in a position to do precisely that. Just as Joan Burton as a government minister is in a position to suggest changes in legislation if a system is found wanting.

And perhaps Labour and Fine Gael should remember they’re on the same side of the Dail chamber now; it’s unlikely anybody in Fine Gael thanked Labour senator John Kelly, who remarked of an appearance by junior minister John Perry in the Seanad that: “We would nearly have been better having an empty seat there than John Perry. It would not have made any difference.”

In fact this remark could apply to John Perry, full stop. The Sligo-North Leitrim TD has maintained a remarkably low-key profile as Minister for Small Business, despite this Government’s repeated insistence that SME’s are the country’s best hope of escaping recession.

But it was helpful of Mr Kelly to draw everyone’s attention to this fact.

Under no circumstances does anyone wish to see a return to the attitude of the former administration in which non-communication was brought to a fine art and where an attitude of “whatever you say, say nothing” prevailed when it came to almost every interaction between the Taoiseach and the media.

However, this Government needs to steer a more considered verbal course through the current turbulent waters.

Loose lips can sink ships of state too.

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