Gene Kerrigan: Forget the election, change really is afoot
The evisceration of Fianna Fail is just the first step in a delicate but important process, writes Gene Kerrigan
In the weeks after a General Election, things usually unfold as though written in a script. And the politicians and the media follow it faithfully. Last week, they encouraged us to fret over tiresome details.
"Will Fine Gael and Labour be able to agree on the pace of deficit reduction?" And, "Who will be the new Minister for Finance?" In this script, there's always a will-they-won't-they moment, when a "stand-off" over some negotiating point allegedly threatens to upset the deal. There's also a tradition of incoming politicians telling us the figures are shockingly worse than the outgoing politicians admitted.
This time, even the politicians seem half-hearted about the script, though the media continues hyping the drama. No need, folks. I can exclusively reveal that the incoming Government will be an EU/IMF/FG coalition. The attachment of Labour or someone else was always about taking the bare look off it.
The de facto Minister for Finance will be a taciturn bureaucrat from the European Central Bank. This individual will have no formal title -- but will have the power to approve or reject all measures dreamed up by whoever gets the nominal title of "Minister for Finance". Of indeterminate nationality, the ECB functionary will speak far better English than some recent incumbents in Finance (Cowen, Ahern, McCreevy). He or she will be quiet, unassuming and utterly ruthless.
"All Is Changed", proclaimed the front page of the Irish Independent, reflecting a mantra heard throughout the media when Fianna Fail was devastated. And yes, there's change, but it has little to do with the arrival of Enda and his chums. There are two major changes.
First, for the foreseeable future, this country will be governed in the interests of the wider EU, the euro and the European banking system, regardless of how this affects us. It's a change from having the country run in the interests of Irish bankers and builders. But I was brought up to believe that a country should be governed in the interests of its citizens.
The second change was referred to with laudable clarity on the night of the election, when poet Theo Dorgan appeared on RTE. Most comment on the election was in terms of constituency profiles, leader debates and speculation on the destination of late transfers. Dorgan saw the big picture -- the evisceration of Fianna Fail being one step in an historic development that will take some time to play out.
"I think we're going through a great change. The Irish people have dealt the first decisive blow to the old politics," he said.
I think that's true. And I think Fine Gael gained an inevitable victory -- by virtue of not being Fianna Fail, and for little other reason. Even with FF demolished by the people's ferocious anger, Fine Gael was unable to win an overall majority. (If not now, when?) And Labour's advances didn't come close to justifying their delusions ("Gilmore For Taoiseach", Lord help us).
"I think Fianna Fail is a dead piece of roadkill at the moment," Dorgan said. "There's going to be, I think, a decimation of Fine Gael the next time out. People are going through a strange, slow-motion crash of the State. They've dealt with one of the great monoliths. They're now scrupulously giving the other monolith, in the old politics, its shot."
Dorgan reckoned that when Fine Gael proves itself -- as it absolutely will, I'm completely certain of this -- a busted flush, then the new politics will happen. So it seems to me this is an interim moment in a long, unfolding process of change.
Let's pause here to consider that Dorgan may be wrong. Is it possible that, unknown to us all, Fine Gael has transmogrified into something capable of dealing with the greatest economic disaster in the history of the State?
Okay, Enda Kenny arrived in the Dail in 1975 and has since risen without trace. But, isn't he surrounded by young tigers, bulging with brains? People like -- oh, you know, Leo Varadkar and Dr James Reilly.
During the election, Reilly appeared on Vincent Browne's TV3 show. Browne asked if FG was serious, saying in its manifesto that it would "unilaterally" force bondholders to bear some of the cost of the banking disaster? The toughness of the approach to the problem hinges on whether or not the government acts unilaterally.
Reilly replied: "You used the word unilaterally. Show me in the manifesto where it says unilaterally." Oh, says I to myself, Browne got it wrong. There's no "unilaterally" in the manifesto.
So, Browne read from page 16, a promise to "unilaterally" force bondholders to pay. "Don't say it's not in the manifesto."
My impression of this was that Reilly was less than familiar with that passage -- even though it dealt with a central aspect of the economic disaster that threatens to totally swamp us. "You denied it said unilaterally," Browne said.
Guess what Reilly said? "I didn't deny it. I asked you to show it to me in the manifesto."
Here was the old politics at work, even in the face of economic catastrophe. The manifesto contained any old junk that might make FG appear tough -- and a man who seems destined for a Cabinet position seemed less than wholly familiar with a crucially important pledge.
Dorgan: "Nothing in this election has persuaded me that Fianna Fail, Fine Gael or a great chunk of Labour understands just exactly truly: a) How desperate the situation is; b) How powerless the old politics is to deal with it."
Now, despite this, Dorgan remains hopeful, seeing new opportunities in fresh voices. "A new way of thinking is struggling to be born. And it's not ready yet to be cut off at the neck and co-opted by the spinmeisters and by the image makers."
And, yes, the incoming Dail has a new range of left-wing opinion, and even right-wing opinion that isn't blind to the realities of our plight. And, yes, there's a variety of independents who make the Dail look a little bit more like the rest of the country -- instead of a place dominated by dull men in suits, growing fat on expenses.
But the supporters of the right-wing politics that created the chaos, and which made it much worse over the past two years, dominate the Dail in overwhelming numbers. And the sponsors of the old politics, the "only game in town" brigade, are braced for a fight.
Dorgan: "You now have an alignment between senior managers in the public service, senior managers in the private sector, senior politicians, senior civil servants and senior media figures." And they are confident, in Dorgan's words, that, "We, between us, know what's going on -- and you are the little people".
They will warn us of the dangers of radical thinking. And do so with straight faces, standing in the wasteland they have made.
The "new way of thinking", a new politics, that Dorgan -- accurately, I think -- sees struggling to be born, is a fragile thing. It can be snuffed out by fear, or smothered by the enablers of the old politics. It may even be deliberately diverted down dark avenues of nationalist fervour or racist small-mindedness.
It needs careful tending.