It’s a fascinating subject, the balance between strong leadership and responsiveness to grassroots concerns. People like to mock de Valera’s belief that when he needed to know what the Irish people were thinking, he went off and looked into his own heart; but sometimes the people dismissive of Dev are equally critical of politicians (early New Labour comes to mind) who are forever referring to focus groups and opinion polls, and who shape their policies and even principles in response to them.
All politics is local and at the moment I’m experiencing a similar leadership-responsiveness tug. Later this month, Wed 22 September, in Lumen Christi College, Derry, I’ll be launching a book – ‘Tales Out of School: St Columb’s College Derry in the 1950s'. It’s a collection of interviews I’ve done with former classmates of mine in St Columb’s College. That’s the only school in the world, you probably don’t need reminding, that’s produced two Nobel Prize winners, John Hume and Seamus Heaney. The book, however, has twenty-six interviews, mostly with, how shall I put it, the non-glitterati, the less-famous, the foot-soldiers who left St Columb's circa 1960.
My leadership-responsiveness tug-of-war comes from the fact that over the weekend, two or three of my former class-mates have asked to know what other old boys are coming to the launch. One the one hand, it seems eminently reasonable that I should provide them with a list. On the other, I’m convinced that the occasion will lose some of its emotional edge, its expectation, if I send them a list. And of course if I sent two or three requestees a list, I’ll to have to do the other 20+ involved.
Responsiveness: do what the two or three requestees have asked. Leadership: do what you think will make for a successful event.
Politicians must face this kind of dilemma all the time. Not easy – except you’re Dev, that is.
What would you do?