Alan Dukes: puts the country first

Generally speaking, politicians like convention. They live by a code of behaviour alien to most of us. They argue for the sake of argument and for fear that not to do so would be seen as a sign of weakness.

Alan Dukes, in a more dramatic manner than any Irish politician in modern times, broke that mould. In 1987 he made an extraordinary political judgement which he articulated in a speech in Tallaght. As the then leader of Fine Gael, he said that while he abhorred much of what the leadership of Fianna Fáil stood for, he would not oppose the policies of the Fianna Fáil-led government just for the sake of it.

It was a sensational intervention and one which many commentators believe began the process that led to his ultimate demise as leader of Fine Gael.

It was, however, without doubt the right approach and was axiomatic to the economic healing which was rooted in establishing competitiveness and control of the public finances.

While much of the political hand-bagging of today is just that and is played out through the media for our benefit, there is a serious side to the political jousting that has become more pronounced in recent months. This column has talked before about the potential of national government, and while that appears to be completely unacceptable all round, much of what passes for political debate is unhelpful and potentially quite damaging to the national interest at a time of such acute difficulty.

It was interesting in that context to observe Alan Dukes' performance in recent weeks. He is now a director of Anglo Irish Bank, appointed by the government last September when the state guarantee was put in place.

Ten days ago, with the executive chairman, Donal O'Connor, he was before the joint Oireachtas committee and gave an assured performance. The meeting gave the opposition the opportunity to undermine government policy on the banks generally but particularly on Anglo. While this might appear to be fair game the issues are too serious to be dealt with in that manner. Dukes' media performances reinforced that view.

Last Monday on RTE's Questions and Answers banking was the first topic for debate – or more specifically the Anglo question. Dukes commanded the show. He was clear about his mandate as a director of the bank and he was strong in his defence of the government's approach in dealing with the Anglo problem and the general banking dilemma. What was refreshing was that he was speaking from a position of knowledge and he was addressing the banking crisis from one perspective only – the national interest.

Why is it that our political heroes find it so difficult to lay aside their party allegiances in pursuit of what is best for Ireland? Why were there mutterings in Fine Gael when Garret FitzGerald, a great European, came out in support of Fianna Fáil's Eoin Ryan in the recent European elections? Was it not in the interests of Fine Gael's wider commitment to Europe that a true European would be elected to the parliament rather than anti-Lisbon campaigner Joe Higgins? As a businessman I may be missing the point but this matter is of concern to many.

Never has this country had a greater need for politicians to put aside their differences to serve the needs of the people. The complete absence of this spirit is a shocking reflection on those whom we have chosen to serve our interests. The term "a plague on all their houses" comes to mind.

The contribution of Alan Dukes to public life should be seen in this context. He is an unusual political animal in that it appears he has been prepared to advance the interests of Ireland ahead of his own interests or those of his party. This is the basis on which his agreement to serve on the board of Anglo Irish Bank should be seen. It was a thankless job and one that he could easily have forgone. It is also one that he could have resigned from with no personal or professional embarrassment any time since.

Not only has he stuck to the task, he has done so with vigour and intelligence. This is reinforced by his recent public appearances where it has fallen to him to explain the rationale behind what the Department of Finance is trying to achieve by continuing to support a deeply troubled institution.

What makes this interesting is that Dukes is not just a former senior politician, but a former Minister for Finance, who has found his independent voice since he retired from active politics.

The Alan Dukes of today is the Alan Dukes of the 1980s, who believed as strongly then as he clearly does now that the interests of the country are paramount and that party-political fighting should be put aside when Ireland's needs demand it.

In his time as leader of Fine Gael, Dukes' detractors argued he was too arrogant to fulfil the role. We were told that this was the principal reason he was removed. Arrogance manifests itself in many different ways. Right now, drunk on a modicum of success, the current Fine Gael leader, with his apparatchiks, Hayes, Lee et al, is determined to wind up the nation in the pursuit of power. Much of the criticism is valid but it is largely unbalanced, and with the frenzy that the opposition is fomenting, the danger to Ireland is growing apace. Choosing the targets and weighing carefully the line of attack would better serve the country.