Let's not get too hung up on age. William Hague was the youngest Tory Leader since William Pitt the Younger. And much has been made of David Cameron’s youth. Alan Dukes was in his early 40s when he became Fine Gael leader. But which of them ever set the world alight?
On the other side of the coin, Garret Fitzgerald was in his mid fifties when he became Taoiseach; so was Haughey; Lemass was 59; and Dev (though getting in early) was clearly getting on very late when he was Taoiseach at the age of 76.
Sure Bertie Ahern was youngish (45) when he became Taoiseach. But he was unusual in that he had served a political apprenticeship of almost 20 years to get to where he was. And Dick Spring was very young, only 33, when he was (reluctantly) thrust into the role of Labour leader. But it took him a long time, over five years, before he had racked up enough experience, beefed up enough authority, to be a credible leader.
Too much has been made of the age of the parliamentary party of Labour. To be sure, it was an issue for the party during the last Dáil and it will be more of an issue for it during this Dáil (when the average age of its TDs will creep up over the 60 mark). But it’s not the only issue. Rabbitte is 58 now but is more or less of an age with Bertie Ahern and Enda Kenny.
And there will be no meaningful challenge to Kenny’s second term as Fine Gael leader, although it will take him into his sixties.
But it seems to me that we have all become a little too hung up on age. Just like there was a vogue for over a decade that you couldn’t be President of Ireland unless you were a woman, we have begun to equate renewal with youth. That, if you think about it for a couple of seconds, is only part of the story.
Leadership is about a lot of things. If you divide the necessary traits into three broad strands. The first groups together vigour and passion and energy and enthusiasm. The next concerns itself with authority and wisdom and experience and nous. And finally, there are ideas, policies and strategies – what American political wonks describe as the ‘vision thing’. And in only the first of those groupings is age a real issue.
Whatever, at 58, Pat Rabbitte decided that he did not have an appetite for another five years of it. Fianna Fail is one of the most successful, wily, instinctually survivalist political entities in the world (only in Sweden and in Mexico can we find similar specimens). No matter how irresistible your force is, FF is without doubt the immovable object of Irish politics. Whoever succeeds Rabbitte will have a daunting task.
Labour could learn a couple of lessons from Fine Gael on that score. For the first year after being elected leader, Enda Kenny stayed in the trenches. He spent most of the year criss-crossing the country, meeting the local constituency organisations and cumainn. As a strategy, it had danger written all over it. Kenny had possibly the most anonymous profile of any political leader in the history of the State. A year after being elected leader, his name and face recognition was still dismally low.
In hindsight, the strategy was correct. The party was mauled in 2002 and needed urgent resuscitative surgery. Fine Gael shored up its flagging structures, recruited new members, appointed full-time officers throughout the country, got fresh faces they to adorn the party posters, threw every bob it had into its shallow and superficial campaign for the 2004 local and European elections and… it worked. They were able to get a bit of hype going about progress, and begin to build Enda Kenny up as the next great thing. And that almost worked too… the margin of defeat was the seven minutes he was put on the backfoot by Bertie in the TV debate.
It will be a hard ask for the new leader. Rabbitte did a lot of things right. His Fair Society visions was as good as it gets in modern politics. I always like the slogan, If you think Labour, vote Labour. But nowadays being a social democrat is as out there and radical as you are allowed to be and it’s hard to be a distinctive voice when everyone’s policies are overlapping.
The new leader will have to overhaul party structures, beef it up and extend its appeal beyond the traditional Labour catchment areas. The name of the game will be reinvigoration – of the organisation, its policies, the way it describes itself to the electorate, and of personnel.
It seems to me that Fianna Fail face bigger problems when it comes to renewal. Like the Kerry team of the 1970s, they’ve been at the top of the heap for a long time. But politics is a cyclical cynical business. The moment of your greatest triumph is merely the prelude to your most humiliating downfall. And that’s why we shouldn’t get too hung up on age.