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Dublin: 12 °C Monday 22 December, 2014

Damien Kiberd: The real reason why Frank Flannery’s head was served up on a plate

‘Spin doctors? But who the hell is sick?’ To paraphrase the TV drama Borgen, Frank Flannery’s dismissal uncovers some uncomfortable truths about ‘access all areas’ PR in politics.

Damien Kiberd

TWO CENTRAL POINTS seem to have been lost in the controversy over Rehab and Frank Flannery.

The first is that the argument was sparked quite gratuitously by a Fine Gael minister and thereafter made much more serious than it need have been by mishandling at the centre of Fine Gael.

The second is that it is all about really big money. The money paid to Flannery in consultancy and lobbying fees, and in pensions, is important but is only of secondary importance.

It was Justice Minister Alan Shatter who set Rehab up for a fall on 21 January last when he told Dail Eireann that an audit of Rehab’s bizarre scratch card lottery showed that it yielded a surplus of €10,000 a year for Rehab on sales of €4m, a net return of 1%.

Six weeks later the head of Flannery, former CEO of Rehab, appeared on a plate like that of St John the Baptist.

Shatter said that night that he intended to wind down the Charitable Lotteries Fund which had paid top-up revenue of €120m since 1997 in respect of lotteries operated by charities. These games operated without any profit incentive and could be largely impervious to considerations of cost control.

Bizarre

Politically, the timing of Shatter’s intervention was bizarre.

Fianna Fail, that very day and for some days previously, was on the ropes. Micheal Martin’s attempts to reinvent FF as an alternative government were being slowly destroyed by the rolling crisis at the Central Remedial Clinic.

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Former Central Remedial Clinic CEO Paul Kiely, left, leaving a Public Accounts Committee meeting in December 2013 with acting CEO Jim Nugent. Pic: Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland.

There, some old friends of Bertie Ahern were under damaging scrutiny. The worst memories of the Ahern era were being revived before a shocked public.

But in an instant Shatter took the CRC off the agenda.

For good measure it was revealed that Rehab was also suing that State for an estimated €1.5bn in damages arising from its problems in competing against the National Lottery since the latter’s inception.

Just why did Shatter shift the focus to Rehab?

In the world of PR there is an old theory which advocates what’s called primary definition. This most innocent explanation is that Shatter saw the havoc caused by the CRC affair and realised that Rehab was like an unexploded bomb sitting on his own doorstep.

Classic public relations theory suggests that instead of waiting for that bomb to explode in an uncontrolled way, you simply get in first with your own version of events, define the terms of the ensuing debate and limit the damage. Rehab does not appear to accept that Shatter’s motivation arose from this simple desire.

For thirty or more years Flannery has been the conduit in the mutually beneficial relationship between Rehab and central government. A Rehab lifer, he became CEO in 1981.

Who wrote that Rehab reply to Shatter?

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Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Justice Minister Alan Shatter on 30 January this year. Pic: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland.

Nobody knows who penned Rehab’s reply to Shatter on 21/22 January though the rabid tone of it seems wholly at odds with Flannery’s public persona which is always urbane, thoughtful and courteous. The result of the contumelious bombast has proven professionally fatal for Flannery and may yet inflict massive damage on Rehab.

Rehab said that Shatter’s speech was simply outrageous, that he should withdraw it and apologise.

Shatter was engaged in “an abuse of his position”, he said. The cabinet’s foremost legal expert was accused of “undermining the judicial process”.

And in a very odd and ominous parting shot Rehab said of the Minister’s conduct that “this was no accident”.

What did this phrase mean?

Was Flannery, or someone else in Rehab, accusing Shatter of operating to some hidden agenda?

In PR terms, to launch such an abrasive attack on Shatter seems pointless, but the idiocy of the attack is compounded by Rehab’s complete reliance on the State for money. It is kept alive on an annual intravenous drip of public cash running to more than €80m.

This is not an unusual situation in Ireland.  The State has offloaded its social obligations to third parties which have an altruistic mission and which purport to serve a public interest.

The HSE pays €3.4bn a year to what are known as ‘Section 38 and Section 39 organisations.’

But why did Rehab launch such a blistering attack on Shatter, the most senior minister with responsibility in its area? How could such overblown rhetoric serve its objective interests?

Bad corporate PR and bad political PR

The fallout must rank as a case study in bad corporate PR and bad political PR, two subjects in which Flannery is one of the country’s acknowledged experts.

Certainly the public behaviour of Rehab in recent times has been marked by an element of unproductive arrogance.

European diplomats used to say that if you are not seated firmly at the (negotiating) table you may become part of the menu.

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Frank Flannery and Angela Kerins at the time of the Nice referendum in 2002. Pic: Gareth Chaney/Photocall Ireland.

Rehab’s current CEO Angela Kerins, who is paid more than Barack Obama, does not subscribe to such brutal logic. She shuns the table entirely.

Angela Kerins’s splendid isolation

Confronted by legitimate enquiries from parliament she sits in splendid isolation in Rehab HQ, revealing information to the Public Accounts Committee only at the last possible moment. Not surprisingly she may be about to be served up as a fairly substantial entrée, on a menu which now includes Flannery as one of the hors d’oeuvres.

The latter apparently had, until very recently,  an ‘access all areas’ pass to Leinster House, having masterminded numerous famous electoral victories for Fine Gael since he became a backroom advisor to Garret FitzGerald in the three elections of 1981/2.

At least one of the very few voices within FG which had the grace to thank him for his distinguished service last week suggested that all of his work for the party was ‘pro bono’, that he had never received a ‘red cent’ for delivering a stellar performance in areas like campaign management, candidate selection and political direction.

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Frank Flannery, right, then director of elections for Fine Gael is pictured with Enda Kenny at a FG think-in in 2008. Flannery began advising FG in the 1980s. Pic: Eamonn Farrell/Photocall Ireland.

This itself, assuming it is true, is remarkable and raises a further question. Is such an arrangement sensible? Should a political party permit itself to become dependent on a gifted individual like Flannery who moves seamlessly from one generation of politicians to another without ever contesting the elections in which he is an acknowledged expert?

Flannery has arguably had more effect on the history of Fine Gael, and by extension on his country, than many of the most senior politicians of the post-Garret FitzGerald era.

Yet he was at all relevant times no more than a consigliere, a handler.

Ironically the Fine Gael that he leaves behind seems now composed of a network of highly resourced PR machines that do not intersect fully with each other and that – in some cases – are out of control.

The Taoiseach’s life is now run according to the diktats of some elaborate PR circus. Last week alone saw that bizarre choreographed audible love-in with David Cameron at Downing Street, later broadcast on prime time news. It saw the literally incredible ‘please ring me’ speech in Washington, which followed the cringe-making self-serving double act with Bono at the EPP shindig in the Convention Centre. Meanwhile the real economy continues to contract. How much worse can this get?

In Danish TV’s  political drama Borgen the moderate prime minister’s chief handler Kasper Juul is confronted by an elderly politician called Svend Aage Saltum who runs the rival Freedom Party.

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The Borgen characters Kasper Juul and Svend Aage Saltum. Still via Borgen/DR

Svend, a bit like an old FG stalwart, is rather conservative and reveres strong farmers and pig processors.

He asks Juul what he actually does for a living. The slick young man hesitates, unable to explain his role in government precisely.

Eventually he stutters an answer. He serves as a “spin doctor”.

“Spin doctor?” says Svend Age querulously, before adding: “but who the hell is sick?”

Who is Frank Flannery and why is everyone talking about him?>
Damien Kiberd: Why are the Irish not more critical of the EU?>

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