Monday 24 October 2016

Both civility and courage are needed in Irish politics

Published 26/07/2015 | 02:30

‘Rabbitte produced an irrelevant anecdote about a builder to which he attached a cheap personal jibe, much as a bad builder attaches a gimcrack extension to a house’
‘Rabbitte produced an irrelevant anecdote about a builder to which he attached a cheap personal jibe, much as a bad builder attaches a gimcrack extension to a house’
'Luckily for Irish politics, Ciaran Lynch, the chairman of the Banking Inquiry, was determined the inquiry would not descend to a show trial'

Ciaran Lynch and Barack Obama have a common concern. Both want to preserve civility in democratic discourse.

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In private life civility means respect for others. But what might it mean in politics?

A clue can be found in the etymology it shares with words like civilised. Basically it means to be "a member of the household".

All households have house rules. And not just to protect the peace. These rules also regulate necessary rows about the conflicting rights of family members.

Politics is all about necessary rows. Civility is only one side of the political coin. The other side is the obligation to speak truth to power.

The pendulum has swung too far away from civility in the Irish Republic. EL Doctorow, the novelist who died last week, helps us work out why.

Doctorow said the decline of civility in America was because "the emotional fever needed for fighting a war cannot be turned off like a water tap. Enemies must continue to be found".

The Civil War destroyed civility in Irish politics for 70 years. But from 1997 onwards Bertie Ahern began a more benign discourse, born of the boom and the Belfast Agreement

Seven years ago this civility crashed into the bank guarantee. Since then Enda Kenny and Fine Gael have tried to nail down a narrative that Bertie Ahern and Fianna Fail were solely to blame.

Deep down, however, most Irish people know that if Fine Gael and Labour were in power, they would have acted no differently to Fianna Fail.

Common sense tells them that what Doctorow said about writing also applies to the practice of politics.

"It's like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way."

Alas, Bertie Ahern's administration could not see the cowboys of Irish banking around the corner. And neither the Central Bank nor the Financial Regulator alerted it.

True, the crash happened on Ahern's watch. But it would also have happened on any other taoiseach's watch.

So it is sickening to listen to the lemmings in the media lashing the broken body of Bertie Ahern. And I would feel the same if Kenny were tied to the pillar.

Like most Irish people I loathe a media mob. And the anoraks who are carrying on a constant campaign of abuse against Ahern are damaging political civility to the detriment of all politicians.

Their bad faith is shown by the way they never factor in the Belfast Agreement. But in a hundred years time the only holograph of Ahern will be of him shaking hands with Ian Paisley.

Last weekend the anti-Ahern anoraks raised a cry of rage against any attempt to rehabilitate him. Do they really believe they can airbrush away an architect of the Belfast Agreement?

But the Irish media anorkaks are not just against rehabilitating Ahern. They also seem determined to put down anyone else in Fianna Fail who looks like a fighter.

Significantly, the same anti-Ahern media anoraks are now mocking Senator Marc MacSharry for asking hard questions at the Banking Inquiry.

Let me pause briefly here to consider the role of civility in that inquiry. Some observers believe that Enda Kenny set it up to finish off Fianna Fail.

Now I hope that's not true for two reasons. First, because finishing off Fianna Fail suits Sinn Fein's aim of forming the government after the 2020 General Election.

Second, because civility demanded that Kenny not set up a show trial for his beaten political foes. Instead he should be saying "there but for the grace of God go I".

Luckily for Irish politics, Ciaran Lynch, the chairman of the Banking Inquiry, was determined the inquiry would not descend to a show trial.

Lynch has conducted the hearings with constant civility. It is not his fault if the standard of questioning has been feeble and far below his own lucid observations.

But there was little Lynch could do last Thursday when Enda Kenny tried to turn the inquiry into a tribunal by telling us a fairytale of good Fine Gael fighting bad Fianna Fail.

Kenny politicised the inquiry for the first time by issuing what was effectively a General Election manifesto. And he would have got away with it only for Marc MacSharry.

Strikingly, Pearse Doherty did not try to lay a hard glove on Kenny. Clearly Sinn Fein did not want to do anything to assist Fianna Fail.

Why? Because Sinn Fein strongly supports the dangerous strategy of the Fine Gael spin doctors, which is to boil down Irish politics to a binary choice between Fine Gael and Sinn Fein.

Marc MacSharry spotted straight away that Kenny was treating the inquiry as a platform for a petty political attack on Fianna Fail.

Petty because Bertie Ahern had been magnanimous about Kenny's achievements.

So MacSharry looked for a political weak spot. Given Fine Gael's focus on the Galway tent it was perfectly legitimate for him to focus on possible Fine Gael contact with developers.

Like his father, Marc MacSharry has no time for hypocrisy. He thinks that if Fine Gael can talk about the Galway tent he can talk about Fine Gael and golf clubs.

MacSharry was perfectly entitled to ask Enda Kenny to put it on the record that he had not accepted hospitality from developers down the years.

All Kenny had to do was to cleanly, clearly and categorically deny taking any limo, helicopter or private jet trips with developers

But get a transcript from the Oireachtas website and you will be left with a cloudy impression of drawn out dancing before denials.

Clearly this cloud bothered Pat Rabbitte, the self-appointed Praetorian of Fine Gael.

Most likely he spent his lunch break coining what he hoped would be a witty crack at MacSharry.

Actually it didn't have to be that witty. Long ago his loyal lemmings in the media collectively agreed that he's a witty character.

After lunch MacSharry asked Rabbitte would he condemn cosy contacts between politicians and developers in other parties? Rabbitte passed up the opportunity. Why?

Possibly he wanted to show solidarity with Kenny by not giving MacSharry's questions any credibility.

Rabbitte produced an irrelevant anecdote about a builder to which he attached a cheap personal jibe, much as a bad builder attaches a gimcrack extension to a house.

Rabbitte's juvenile jibe struck another blow against civility. And the political pundits should have said so.

It wasn't witty either. But the easily pleased pundits collectively agreed that this tawdry taunt was "the put-down of the day".

Sean O'Rourke recently repeatedly asked Rabbitte if he would be running a radio show after his retirement. Rabbitte avoided answering that as well.

But just in case he does a radio show let me suggest a title: Nothing Left.

Now that's witty.

Sunday Independent

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