Sunday 20 August 2017

'I'd feel safer with Captain Mainwaring in charge...'

Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern Picture: Frank McGrath
Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern Picture: Frank McGrath

It was the best of times, and it shockingly turned into the worst of times in the space of an Irish lunchtime.

The country was booming in September 2001. The buzz-phrase was "feel-good factor". The Celtic Tiger was roaring. Jason McAteer had just scored the winner against the Dutch at Lansdowne Road to put us through to the World Cup Finals in Japan and Korea. Pierce Brosnan was James Bond.

In the space of a few startling minutes the world changed.

Sky TV had rolled out its "rolling news" service and thousands of Irish viewers lolling over their lunch were stunned at the mayhem wreaked on Manhattan's Twin Towers as it played out unbelievably and horribly before their eyes.

Just days later, with the stumps of the skyscrapers still smouldering, US armed forces began landing at Shannon Airport on their way to take out the Taliban.

Ireland's act of hospitality brought people on to the streets and took on a threatening slant when the World Health Organisation put all Western states on red alert against chemical or biological attack by the agents of Osama bin Laden.

Ireland was flung into panic as people contemplated slaughter on their doorsteps. Marian Finucane stepped into the breech with her morning show on Radio 1.

On behalf of a deeply scared public, the presenter and her team attempted to find out what security measures were in place to cope with a chemical assault. After being shunted around seven government departments, the show's researchers drew a blank.

Fear gripped the nation. Fianna Fáil's Taoiseach Bertie Ahern sent out Joe Jacob, junior minister at the Department of Public Enterprise, as the man with the plan. One of the Minister's opening remarks was that he was "very qualified to talk to you on nuclear issues".

The government said they had a plan, but when Marian Finucane sprung her own simulated emergency on the Minister, she uncorked the devil in the detail.

"Let's pretend", she said, "that Ireland had come under attack eight minutes ago, just as the show was going on air."

"Erm," said the Minister.

As the bruising encounter wound to a close, with the Minister on the ropes, the nation was quaking. The howls of public outcry bore echoes of Orson Welles when he spooked his United States wireless audience with his wickedly realistic War of the Worlds.

Ireland was simply not prepared for the shocking new reality. Nor was Minister Joe Jacob.

"What", shouted a furious radio caller, "should the Irish public be doing about contamination and food?"

The Minister assured the public the country was well stocked with emergency antitoxin iodine pills. This worked until the health boards countered that their stocks were all out of date.

One caller remarked: "I'd feel safer with Captain Mainwaring of Dad's Army in charge."

An upset mother said her little ones were in tears because they'd gleaned from the Minister's performance that his plan was to distribute suicide pills to be taken in an emergency.

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