Wednesday 17 December 2014

Back Chat: Time not on the Coalition's side

Liam Fay

Published 13/07/2014 | 02:30

Senator John Crown.
Senator John Crown.
Singer Garth Brooks

Parliamentary democracy is supposed to involve an urgent battle of ideas – face-to-face and toe-to-toe – between passionately engaged antagonists. In the political playpen that is Seanad Eireann, however, some of the most sterling public service is performed by politicians who fail to turn up on time. On Wednesday, the Government suffered the latest in a succession of embarrassing defeats in the Upper House, following another outbreak of no-shows and belated arrivals by some of its senatorial footsoldiers.

An amendment to the free GP care legislation, proposed by independent senator Prof John Crown, was passed by 27 votes to 26 when a walk-through headcount was requested by Crown. The amendment – overturning a government attempt to 'gag' doctors who speak out against the HSE – is good news for the citizenry but wouldn't have squeaked through were it not for scheduling confusion on the coalition benches.

'Timeserver' is a term of abuse regularly flung at senators. In the case of government senators at least, it is an unfounded allegation. The frequency with which the coalition side has either been defeated or has narrowly prevailed in Seanad votes is striking, and timetabling mix-ups are regularly cited as the primary cause. Following the election of Fine Gael's Deirdre Clune to the European Parliament in May, the government's senate position is even more precarious and the stage seems set for further embarrassments.

The timekeeping problems which have gripped some coalition supporters in the second chamber are richly ironic. Only a few months ago Fine Gael and Labour senators were among campaigners against plans to give all senators the ultimate retirement gift. Had they accepted the gold watches, however, their punctuality might have improved.

Dail's debate over gigs fiasco had echoes of an old Western

Politics may not be showbusiness for ugly people but it's fast becoming a profession with an ugly fondness for show-trials. Almost nobody involved in the slapstick saga of Garth Brooks' Croke Park gigs emerges with much dignity intact. However, the melodramatic mood-swings with which many politicians have reacted to every pratfall and U-turn has been especially unedifying. Every aspect of the Brooks debacle – from the hubris of the original plan to the histrionics that greeted its abandonment – has been marked by a chronic loss of proportion. TDs and senators are not the only blameworthy figures, but there was something downright scary about the speed with which many of them resorted to talk of "emergency legislation" in response to a concert-scheduling screw-up. Country music has always exuded a faint whiff of gunsmoke but never before has it been cited as a rationale for the introduction of martial law.

Political interventions in the dispute have come at a considerable political cost: the further erosion of what's left of the distinction between civic administration and showbiz. The prospect of a Brooks-shaped hole at Croker created a gap in the summer entertainment calendar and, for a while, some politicians seemed disconcertingly eager to fill that space with a crowd-pleasing extravaganza of their own devising.

Within moments of the (first) formal cancellation of the concerts on Tuesday, politicians of varying degrees of authority were demanding Dail hearings. The ostensible purpose of these parliamentary inquiries was public enlightenment: all the key players in the fiasco would be required to account for their actions before an investigating panel of Oireachtas members. But, amidst the bluster, it was clear that the brand of illumination envisioned would involve the manufacture of sparks as much as the shedding of light. Ass-kicking retribution was called for, and the politicians were donning their steel-capped cowboy boots.

At first, there was ostentatious amusement in Dail circles at the suggestion by Nial Ring, an independent councillor from Ballybough, near Croke Park, that Brooks himself be summoned before an Oireachtas committee. "He should be flown over and asked (if) he loves the Irish fans so much why he decided to cancel these concerts," insisted Cllr. Ring.

In truth, however, political chuckling at the local politician's emotive outburst was only half-hearted, as a confrontation between the country music megastar and the Irish political establishment was precisely what many parliamentarians seemed to be contemplating. The Dail's tourism committee was assigned the task of investigating the concert cancellations, and was eager to quickly establish its credentials as a serious body. The notion that Brooks would be "flown over" to face TDs and senators was, of course, a bit silly. According to John O'Mahony, the committee chairman, he and his colleagues were "looking into" the possibility of Brooks answering questions via video link.

Somewhere along the line, it seems, the inhabitants of Leinster House have started to view themselves as inquisitors rather than legislators. Much of the newfound enthusiasm for Dail hearings stems from the kudos garnered by the Public Accounts Committee in its attempts to confront scandals in the charity sector among other matters. Some of the PAC's activities have been impressive. However, there has also been a great deal of grandstanding by several committee members, much of it conducted with an eye on making news headlines rather than serving the long-term public interest. Before venturing any further down this road, we need to draw clear distinctions between show-trials and carefully-coordinated, forensically-focused inquiries.

Whatever about his other talents, Brooks is not what you'd call an astute reader of Irish affairs. There have been several junctures throughout the controversy when the whiny, self-aggrandising tone of his contributions has simply made matters worse. However, he struck an undeniably resonant note, in that letter to promoter Peter Aiken, when he referred to the 'powers that be' in Ireland, with a conspicuous set of inverted commas around the phrase.

Brooks' uncertainty about how seriously he should treat our political leaders is understandable. As an accomplished ham himself, he no doubt recognises grandiose self-promotion when he encounters it.

Liam Fay's PS

Rory McIlroy has plenty of highly-paid advisers but he is also inundated with, what amounts to, worthless advice. Even in a week when the media's cup overfloweth with the twin silly-season jackpots of Garth Brooks' interminable gyrations and Enda Kenny's protracted reshuffle, so-called friends of the Northern Irish golfer managed the highly dubious trick of keeping his love life in the headlines.

It's just over a month since McIlroy called off his wedding to Caroline Wozniacki, very publicly ending a courtship that often seemed to revel in the public glare. The latest flurry of stories involves speculation about the nature of his friendship with Dublin model Nadia Forde.

Most of the news reports seem well-sourced in terms of chronicling his movements. They are almost invariably accompanied by worried quotes from anonymous friends asserting concern that he's rushing into a "rebound relationship". The wisdom or otherwise of such counsel is irrelevant. What's noteworthy is the fact that someone in McIlroy's camp or its periphery believes that further publicity about his romantic endeavours is a good move.

Of all the indignities of fame, this is surely among the worst: pious lectures from the 'friends' who are selling you out.

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