IT WAS a kind of a War of the Worlds moment when the nation woke up to the familiar but strangely out-of-place theme tune to Morning Ireland last Sunday. For those of us who were still half asleep, it took a minute to figure out what was wrong about the picture. Morning Ireland? On a Sunday? Something terrible must have happened. Your mind works quickly in these situations.
So in the seconds that it took the Morning Ireland ditty to play, lots of things crossed our minds.
Someone was dead maybe? No, it was more than that. People die all the time and they don't have Morning Ireland on a Sunday.
Nuclear war? No, they would just deal with that in regular news presumably.
But, still, it had to be something fairly momentous. After all, there have been cataclysmic, historic, apocalyptic events practically every week for the last six months to a year and there hasn't been a Morning Ireland on a Sunday. In fact, I remember somewhere in the rush of thought thinking that I could never in my life remember there being a Morning Ireland on a Sunday.
And finally a voice. I think it was Aine Lawlor. All Irish pork products had been recalled. Cue anti-climax, relief, adrenaline comedown.
There is a long pedigree of pork in my family -- don't be smart now. My great uncle was head of what was known as the Pigs and Bacon Commission and the father was with the Foras Taluntais (though more on the cow side of things than the pig side). And even at that, even with pig's blood practically flowing through my veins, I was a bit disappointed at the lack of gravity of the situation.
There is no question that it was a serious situation, but there were actually many far more serious situations facing the nation last Sunday. Maybe, though, RTE felt that Sunday was a day when a lot of people would be eating fries, so they felt the need to go really strong on the pork story, to intercept the Sunday morning sausage on the way to people's mouths.
Morning Ireland would set the template for the whole week of Rashergate. People who weren't quite sure what they were talking about (journalists, mainly) talking to people who knew far too much about very specific areas of pork, and general confusion ensuing.
Even after a week of it, it is difficult to say whether or not the Government did the right thing. It's too early to say, as whoever it was said about the French revolution, in the statement that was the cliché du jour in this country before everyone started quoting Napoleon about generals and luck. What we can say for sure is that diverting the energy of the nation on to rashers for the week was a sublime act of sleight of hand by the Government.
From Sunday morning the nation -- the people, the media and the political establishment -- became obsessed with pork 'n' bacon.
On Sunday I found myself out for brunch and, suddenly, for the first time in months, I found myself craving a Full Irish. I had seen breakfasts with what looked like rashers coming out of the kitchen in the eating house, so I assumed they were serving full Irish complete with pork, at your own risk. I'd barely eat processed pork on a good day, but somehow I had to have it last Sunday. I was told I could have a fry with Dutch rasher, Bratwurst sausage and no black pudding. I turned my nose up at it, indignant that an Irish man could not get Irish pork in an Irish eating house.
All over the country people were panicking about missing out on their breakfast roll. People who hadn't had a sausage roll in years were proclaiming it an intrinsic part of the fabric of the country and demanding their right to have one. It was a small form of madness.
All around us the world was collapsing and out of control. All the institutions are crumbling -- the Church has lost its power already, the banks are losing theirs, and there is even talk of Dunnes Stores being sold to foreigners. Barry's Tea and Taytos are all we have left to cling to. Faced with all this, a world collapsing and out of control, we decided to focus and obsess about something manageable -- ham.
The Government decided to do the same. Brian Cowen is a man who has been running scared for months now from the reality that plagues the rest of us. While those of us in the real world fretted earlier in the year, he was assuring us that things were OK and singing on the backs of trucks. When he and the Government finally accepted that the fundamentals were not as sound as they might have thought, their response seemed to be to continually promise a new plan or a new body to come up with a new plan. There seemed to be a distinct lack of concrete, decisive action. There was of course the odd big event, like the early Budget -- which took a day to announce, is taking months to slowly and humiliatingly dismantle, and is also out of date now. There was the bank guarantee, too, another big event that seemed out of date before it was even passed into law. All in all, the general impression was that life was slipping through Brian Cowen's fingers, that he had no real grasp on things, that he was not in control, that he was overwhelmed.
And then along came something he could get his teeth into. Brian Cowen personally took charge of the bacon situation on Saturday. So there was a Taoiseach and half the Cabinet all staring into the pot wondering what to do with the ham. And they acted.
All that pent-up energy from the last six months, all those feelings of being unable to control things, all the humiliation of the failures since Cowen became leader -- it must have all ebbed away for a minute when they pushed that nuclear button last Saturday.
No lily-livered action here. This was big-sweep, big-picture, derring-do stuff. And it was a crisis; let no-one make any mistake about that. This was a crisis that was up there with the best of crises, this was a moment of national emergency, when the country was teetering on the edge -- and cometh the hour, cometh the men.
It's a form of displacement. You can't solve the actual crisis so you find something you think you can solve, a more manageable situation; you elevate this situation to the level of a crisis and then you solve it.
It's a variation on laming the duck, except this time they first lamed the pig and then looked for credit for getting it back on its feet. And you know what? It worked. For the whole week the country obsessed about ham. Everybody had their tuppence ha'penny worth about dioxins and the Belgians and what they feed pigs and the EU and whatnot to throw in. Yet 99 per cent of us didn't know what we were on about and the 1 per cent who possibly did weren't very good at communicating with actual human beings.
But it certainly provided a most welcome distraction for the Government. For example, bank share prices hit lower lows last week than when the Government had to step in with that infamous guarantee. And there was barely a word about it. Just people going on and on about the type of oil you should use when you are recycling confectionery into pig food.
Clearly deciding it was a good week for bad news, the Government even threw in towards the end of the week that the economy was actually going to collapse much more than it had thought. The press release should have been headlined, "Well, yes folks, the economy is far more f**ked than we said. In fact it's nearly as f**ked as all the rest of you said it was. But look what we did about the pork."
The beauty of the pork thing was that it sucked everyone else in, too. The Opposition sensed there had been a cock-up of some description -- though like everyone else they weren't 100 per cent sure what it was. But they knew the Government either shouldn't have recalled all pork, should have got it back on the shelves more quickly, or that the pork traceability system (whatever that was exactly) didn't seem to be quite working.
So they started vaguely attacking the Government about pork. The Government for its part didn't care what exactly the Opposition was saying about pork.
As far as the Government was concerned, as long as the Opposition was talking pork, they weren't talking about any of the real problems. As far as the Government was concerned, as long as it was safe in the universe of pork, none of the messy real-life issues could touch it.
So it was barely mentioned that the Government seems to be hell bent on continuing with the insanity of giving the public sector guaranteed pay rises over the next 18 months despite the fact that inflation in this country is now the lowest on record. No one was really asking why we are still giving the public sector pay rises when we were likely to see deflation in the economy next year.
Instead, people who had absolutely no clue about medicine at all were discussing the relative safety to human beings of different amounts of dioxins in pork, and now beef also. As the weekend came on, there was a danger that the Government was going to have to deal with reality again. Some people might even suggest that this is why we all suddenly found ourselves talking about Lisbon and Declan Ganley again as the week went on. Not that Lisbon has been an entirely successful issue for Brian Cowen. But it's certainly safer territory than dealing with the end of the world as we know it.
Of course, it might not be Lisbon that will see the Government through Christmas. In some ways I have great faith in this Government, so I won't be surprised if you all woke up this morning to the strains of Morning Ireland and Aine Lawlor announcing a major crisis -- a shortage of sprouts. Presumably the Government will act quickly and decisively in such a crisis and it will dominate the discourse for the 12 days of Christmas.