By Jennifer O’Connell
It was a fertile week in politics.
First, there was the news that Samantha Cameron, wife of the British Conservative party leader, David, is to give birth again in September - a neat piece of timing which offers British voters the enticing prospect of another Downing Street baby. (Cue the Sun headline: ‘Wham, Bam, Sam Cam to be Mam’.)
Just 24 hours later, we took much-anticipated delivery of our healthy, bouncing, new cabinet. All right, so perhaps it wasn’t all that healthy, or new. But the freshly-minted Minister for Education’s schoolgirl bob certainly did a lot of approving bouncing, as she listened to her Taoiseach deliver his rousing speech on the need to make ‘‘reassignments’’ in order to ‘‘reconfigure’’ the country.
Whatever you might have thought of the appointments, you had to admire Brian Cowen’s valiant efforts to keep the indigenous stationery industry afloat by spawning a whole lot of new departmental titles in the reshuffle - which, as it turned out, wasn’t so much a reshuffle as the kind of embarrassed, foot-slide and hip-wiggle usually performed by elderly uncles on the dancefloor at weddings.
The Department of Social and Family Affairs became the distinctly anti-Catholic-sounding Department of Social Protection. The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment became the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Innovation, which may have been a cunning, if not entirely subtle, ploy to detract from the department’s less than spectacular track record in the employment area.
The Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs became the Department of Miscellaneous Things No One Else wants, or something; and Education and Science became Education and Skills.
Given that the new education minister, Mary Coughlan, is someone who thinks that Einstein came up with the theory of evolution, removing the science bit from her remit was perhaps the only truly ingenious thing Cowen did all week.
Of course, it remains to be seen whether having Coughlan in charge will do much to allay the fears of Google and Intel, representatives of which were only a few weeks ago bemoaning the falling standards in our education system. But sure, she’ll show them a bit of craic anyway.
The contrast between British and Irish politics has never been more acute, or more painful.
In the left corner, they have Gordon Brown, and his attractive, polished wife, PR consultant Sarah. She tears up obligingly while watching him describe to Piers Morgan on live television how he proposed to her on a beach in Scotland, and divulges in interviews how he loves kittens.
In the right corner, they’ve got Dave Cameron, and the glamorous Samantha, who as the creative director of stationery brand Smythson earns considerably more than her husband, exudes that kind of icy sophistication excelled in by posh English girls, and apparently still fancies him enough to procreate with him.
With what the British pundits have dubbed the ‘Mumsnet election’ (a reflection of the suspicion that this election will be won at the school gate) looming, the promise of another baby in Number 10 was a canny move - certainly cannier than anything Cowen came up with to woo the electorate last week.
Not that anyone is suggesting beautiful, smart Sam Cam is proposing to go through labour and spend the next 18 years being responsible for another child exclusively to help her husband’s election prospects, but it’s a happy coincidence of timing nonetheless.
Whatever Cowen’s qualities - and he must have a few - I think it’s safe to say there’s no great appetite on the part of the public to know the circumstances of his proposal to his wife, or what he does with her when the lights go out.
This isn’t necessarily a reflection on Cowen or his wife, who has done an admirable job of keeping herself and her daughters out of the public eye; rather it’s a factor of the dull, dreary, resolutely glamour-free zone that is Irish politics. (Okay, maybe it’s a tiny bit of a reflection on him.)
Since they’re not making much of a stab at their actual job namely running the country the least our politicians could do is inject a modicum of glamour into our lives.
It’s hard to avoid feeling slightly cheated when you look around. Britain has Dave and Sam, Gordon and Sarah, Nick Clegg and his gorgeous Spanish wife, the lawyer Miriam Gonzalez Durantez.
France has the Sarko and Carla show. The US has Barack and Michelle. Italy has Berlusconi, his imminent divorce, and his legion of attractive former model ministers.
We, in contrast, have a Taoiseach who always looks like he got out of bed at some ungodly hour and didn’t have time to shower.
We have an education minister affectionately known as ‘Sweary Mary’, who at least is not entirely devoid of personality, but who is probably destined to be remembered for her earthy tongue, surprising pronouncements on the origins of the species, and award robe that looks as though it was inspired by a packet of Chewy Fruits.
We have the resolutely grim-faced Mary Harney. We have the competent but head-girlish Mary Hanafin.
And otherwise, we have a cabinet made up of interchangeable, dull, grey-faced men in suits.
I bet if half of them swapped their name tags around for a day and pretended to be each other, no one would even notice. Come to think of it, that’s more or less what Cowen did last week and, sure enough, no one really noticed.
We seem to be the last country in the world still clinging bravely to the notion that politics is not a beauty contest; that our politicians are above being judged on qualities as trivial as personality, or the ability to engage with anyone other than each other.
You know things are bad when you start feeling nostalgic for the glory days of Bertie and Celia.
But what I wouldn’t give for a glimpse of that canary yellow suit.
This column first appeared in The Sunday Business Post on March 28, 2010