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Analysis/Comment Last Updated: Sep 12, 2010 - 10:28:00 AM


George Lee and the job he hated
By Michael Hennigan, Founder and Editor of Finfacts
Feb 10, 2010 - 7:56:03 AM

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Campaigning for George Lee in Chuchtown, Dublin, in May 2009, were (l-r) Fine Gael Leader Enda Kenny TD, George Lee, Olivia Mitchell TD and Michael D'Arcy TD.

George Lee must have hated his job as a TD and the explanation for his dramatic resignation announcement from Dáil Éireann on Monday, is surely not the full story.

We at Finfacts have for years highlighted the broken governance system with limited accountability where the buck stops nowhere; the dyed-in-the-wool conservatism of the political class; an Oireachtas largely comprising people who have been promoted beyond their abilities and a system where the culture of Victorian secrecy puts the interest of insiders far above the public interest. Most economic problems and the avoidable destruction of the lives of tens of thousands of fellow citizens while the policymakers are guaranteed a high income for life, can be traced back to these key failings of the Irish State. We are therefore deeply disappointed with George Lee's decision to hoist the white flag without a fight and return to a cushy high earning public sector post at the State broadcaster RTÉ.

There is seldom one simple explanation for a career move and so it is here. To resign so soon after being elected in the first count in an election, suggests that Lee hated his new job and he was lucky to have the option of going back to a public sector organisation where he can stay as long as he wishes. He could have made a difference if he had the passion for it. In many countries, politicians take serious risks every day in helping people in adversity and challenging powerful vested interests. Lee didn't even wait to try.

It is not uncommon for people to find that soon after taking up a new job, they have made a big mistake. If you join a company or organisation where you have foolishly not had your role defined beforehand, it is difficult to do so later.

We don’t know what interest George Lee had in new ideas/policymaking as he surprisingly did not put forward significant proposals and where he made contributions, he was tripped up a number of times.

Returning to a role as a media commentator apparently seeking to appeal to popular opinion, Lee has told the Irish Independent, according to the newspaper today, that he was completely opposed to his party's economic policy because it was designed to "crucify the economy."

He said he published no policies of his own because he had gone into the party to influence Fine Gael policy.

Surely, setting out detailed proposals beyond soundbites, would have aided this purpose? So he didn't want to be the originator of any policy?

As a media insider, Lee had a platform which no other backbencher had to push his own ideas.

It seems that nothing has changed since Bertie Ahern's era of fantasy economics.

David McWilliams styles himself a  "high-profile economist" along with Lee in the Irish Independent today and not surprisingly supports his media colleague. He writes: "I have huge respect for his talents and know that he has "living room" appeal. Ordinary people believe him because he has been both right and honest in his work over the years. What the insiders don't understand is that he has done his time, just not in the Dail. He has done his time where it really matters, in people's living rooms."

This is the fantasy world where being on television gives people more credibility than experience in the real world of business or whatever.

"Living room" appeal is an interesting concept. I assume Charles Haughey and Bertie Ahern could be included in that exclusive club and there are of course no insiders in RTÉ!!

Last May, George Lee told RTÉ Radio’s News at One that it was a "very good time for people like me to play a different role."

“It is now time for me to move on . . . to participate and help put the country back together,” Lee told the programme.

Later that day, Lee told a press conference that he wanted to be able to "look my children in the face when they ask me, 'What did you do when the country was on its knees in the greatest economic challenge in the history of the State? When you were in the position to do something, did you do anything?' Well, I will be able to look them in the eye and say, 'Yes I did'," he explained.

Maybe or tell them, you just walked away. 

Fine Gael leaders Enda Kenny and Richard Bruton may deserve some blame for not giving enough attention to Lee's needs but he has the greatest responsibility for this debacle. Maybe, given Lee's apparent perception of himself as a "star," the non-pompous Kenny and Bruton could never satisfy the need for attention.

Charlie Bird's decision to leave his position in Washington DC and George Lee's resignation, with both of them returning to RTÉ, suggests that the high earning staff of the principal Irish media organisation, live in a comfortable cocoon, far removed from the challenges and hard slog faced by many others.

The country needs entrepreneurs; people who will take risks without safety nets like Bird and Lee.

We hear that we need to export more, usually from people in comfortable positions.

Last week, Minister for Foreign Affairs and schoolteacher, Micháel Martin, told Irish business leaders in London, many Irish-based companies need to improve their performance if they are to grow their operations abroad.

“Some of the people who advise our companies say that they lack ambition. That is interesting feedback that we have received in the US," he said. "Secondly, their marketing and sales is particularly lacking. People don’t have a strong sense of what will take us on a sustained basis to develop markets. It isn’t just locating one person abroad, or making occasional trips abroad. It takes a far more sustained effort.”

Weneedpeople who can handle a hard slog and deal with the inevitable ups and down in business and in public life, people who are willing to challenge conventional  wisdom with conviction, not pack it all in without a struggle.

Some Finfacts articles on reform:

Feb 2010: Cowen makes another “rallying cry”; Court appointed examiner seeks €425-an-hour; 18 State agencies fund 4,000 non-staff flights in 2 years

Jan 2010: Ireland's Choice: Reform or risking status as a failed rich State

Dec 2009: "Et tu brute": Betrayal of trust; Administering last rites to Catholic Church authority in 2009; Little other change in Ireland

Sep 2009: Political and economic reform in conservative Ireland and the promise of an "everlasting boom"

Jul 2009: The Waste Land - - Bord Snip, Irish Public Spending Transparency and the motto"Never do anything for the first time"

Apr 2009: New approach needed to fix broken Irish political system 

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