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Wednesday 13 December 2017

Like all those jilted exes, our former bigwigs and leaders never really seem to go away

Kate Shanahan on the rise and fall of Ireland's political comeback kids

Alan Shatter on the Restaurant
Alan Shatter on the Restaurant
Bertie Ahern

In Washington they talk about being inside the beltway. In Ireland the less glamorous version might be termed the Merrion Street Mile, that circle of streets and offices around the Dail where politicians dine, drink and whisper with journalists, lobbyists, senior public servants and the odd industrialist or two.

Medusa-like predictions abound - who's in, who's out, whose seat is in danger. If your life has been lived at what you believe to be the centre of things, then it is hard to believe that that world can continue without you.

Thus, like jilted exes, Ireland's former bigwigs never really seem to go away. They lie waiting in the political long-grass for their one-time loves, be they the electorate or the party they once embraced, to give them one more chance.

The addictive nature of politics and power is such that being asked to comment on particular issues or giving an interview may become the substitute for the power they once wielded.

So when one-time Fine Gael adviser Frank Flannery gives his opinion on what the party should be doing, or ex-Taoiseach Bertie Ahern throws in his tuppence-worth about the economy, it's fair to assume that this is their way of remaining relevant.

Some former politicos turn up on chat shows, others take part in reality TV or, for the favoured few, there's always a place on a quango or advisory board.

As ex-MP and one-time British Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith admitted that: "Sometimes I wonder about going on the radio - is it that I'm not willing to let go of having a public voice?"

The truth is that for those used to living their lives in the fast lane, time often weighs heavily. Former Justice Minister Alan Shatter admitted in a recent interview that doing a 12-hour filming stint for his appearance on TV3's The Restaurant was no big deal.

"Compared to my normal working day and the engagements I had in the past years, 12 hours to me is easy," he said. His move from overseeing legislation to cooking duck a l'orange may seem a particular fall from grace, but Al, as his fellow chefs called him, looked positively sprightly as he joked with the kitchen team and fussed over his sauces. For others the steep decline into relative anonymity is a far more searing experience.

Take, for example, the moment in the aftermath of an election campaign when defeated high-profile candidates are brought into various TV and radio studios for interview.

The party handlers who had been ubiquitous in the previous weeks are starting to put a distance between themselves and the newly unseated.

They are suddenly less solicitous, busier with incoming calls, giving their charges the bronze as opposed to platinum service. But it is the physical change in the losers themselves that is most obvious.

The papery handshakes, the crumpled suits and weakened physical presence, the impression that all of the confidence and pomposity has been let out, like the air from an over-inflated balloon lingers long after they've done their on-air post- mortems.

In a sense, the closest analogy to what they are undergoing is a bereavement, but in their case not of a relative or friend but of the ego that lurks within all of us.

Anyone who has been knocked back in a professional sense, be it through a redundancy or failure to get promotion, knows how painful it can be. But at least it's only friends and family who know what has happened.

When the loss is more public, the heights achieved more dizzying, then the crash is inevitably worse. For those who have been in or had access to power, the sudden loss is almost unbearable - they may feel there is no road map for what they should do next.

The clever ones bide their time and, like French former president Nicolas Sarkozy, wait until their rivals hit an iceberg as inevitably they must.

Others go to pieces. Some years ago, anxious to secure an interview with a high-profile female politician who had just lost her seat, I phoned her at home as she had judiciously switched off her mobile.

Her husband answered. He listened to my honeyed spiel and then said wearily: "She hasn't stopped crying, she won't leave the house even to go to the shops. Do you think she's in any fit state to do an interview?"

Not sure how to respond, I countered with:"I'm sure you are getting lots of calls right now". "Actually no," he interrupted, "no one is phoning her or me, not even our families".

The awful thing was that he and I both knew that it would not be long before even the hacks would stop calling. And then the awful silence that accompanies a fall from grace would begin.

One former minister told me of how he kept checking his phone was on, days after he had lost his seat. The pause in its incessant ringing was so pronounced that he was sure he had inadvertently switched it off.

Australian politician Kevin Rudd once said that after he was defeated in an election back in the 1990s he was tempted to write a book entitled When the Phone Stops Ringing.

For many men, and some women, work and power become so all-consuming that it is easy to assume that the interest others show in you is genuine and not a product of your title. One of my favourite examples of this is a tale told to me by a high-profile journalist who had lost her job and one morning received a gilt-edged invitation to a posh soiree delivered by courier to her home. She put on her glad-rags and, braving what she thought was quite a public loss of face, went out to the star-studded event.

During the course of the evening she went up to thank the PR woman who had invited her, explaining how the night had got her out of the doldrums.

The puzzled look on the woman's face should have warned her. As she went on to explain how her recent career setback had been devastating, her PR buddy started to back away.

The penny finally dropped - she had only been invited because her job loss had escaped the PR agency's notice. It wouldn't happen again.

Perhaps the hardest part of letting go of a once-high profile is the feeling that all the work put in, all the insider knowledge accumulated, is now being wasted. Political advisers aren't just courted by their own people, their insights are welcomed beyond the party they are close to.

They are privy to secrets and decisions that those outside the loop would love to know, but will never be told. One leading handler confided to me about a candidate then being lauded by party chiefs and commentators: "He's so disliked even his own relatives won't vote for him."

Why did he want to spill the beans on his own party colleague? Who knows, but his words proved prophetic as the anointed one tanked at the polling-booths.

That sense of knowing better than the people you are supposedly serving is a toxic yet potent mix.

In a country like Ireland there is also no escaping the fallout when the axe falls on a once glorious career.

Having heard that one individual named in the charities debacle would not show their face in public, it was a surprise to see the self-same pariah in the bar of a salubrious Dublin hotel recently, laughing and joking with friends.

A hard neck, perhaps, but they must have also believed that whatever the effect of months and months of negative coverage, given time this too would pass.

The truth is that whatever the media furore, connections made on the way up can also be a buoyancy aid on the way down. How many times have we seen someone at the apex of politics, finance or the public service take a career hit and re-emerge with a better job, or even bigger title, some time later?

Rehabilitation and rebuilding your brand has become a big part of crisis management in the US, where any scandal can be overcome with a little tincture of judicious management.

Similarly in the UK, when Jacqui Smith was forced to resign over her expenses claims, including one for pornographic films watched by her husband, it looked like she would have little in the way of future career prospects.

Instead, she became a regular on the chat show circuit, much to the disgust of one political commentator who wrote: "If 'Jackboots' isn't reviewing the papers somewhere, she's sharing a sofa with the Tory reject Michael Portillo; fronting a documentary on pornography; or hosting a phone-in show." These days, in fact, she's to be found heading up one of the UK's biggest health trusts.

As that most famous of spin doctors Alastair Campbell once said: "Don't accept that you're in a crisis just because everyone else says you are."

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