Saturday 22 October 2016

Budget bribes now won't buy any votes in six months

Published 27/09/2015 | 02:30

Illustration by Jim Cogan
Illustration by Jim Cogan

For months I have argued that Fine Gael should go to the country as early as possible. I still believe that.

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Yes, I have read the results of the recent Irish Times poll, which shows that Fine Gael and Labour are short of the numbers needed to form a government.

Yes, I know that all of the political pundits have retreated from the notion of a November election.

I prefer to back my own predictions. I have not been doing badly in recent months.

Recently, when pundits were predicting the collapse of Stormont, I said a move to monitor IRA crime would get the unionists back to the talks table.

And when Syriza's Irish cheerleaders fell silent after his alleged 'sell-out', I predicted that Alexis Tsipras would win the Greek election.

To me, these were not predictions. They were certainties that came from a lifetime of looking at the dialectical dynamics of politics.

By that I mean that the past is a poor guide, that politics proceeds by contradictions, that the future can be plucked from the flux of today.

I have no time for polls. This has nothing to do with the cliché about them being just snapshots.

My problem is that polls are always a snapshots of a party in the past, so two things are always missing from the frame.

First, polls make no provision for what a party might do to change a public perception.

Second, they make no provision for what punters will do when finally faced with a ballot paper after a fighting campaign that forces them to face their fantasies.

The chief current fantasy is the flirtation with Independents, who are vulnerable to a vibrant campaign stressing their selfish individualism.

A fighting campaign can change all the figures. But Fine Gael spin doctors seem to prefer polling to fighting.

Furthermore, they are making a fundamental mistake in believing that things will be better when the Budget sinks in.

Some of the more foolish Fine Gael spin doctors talk about waiting until "people have begun to feel the money in their pocket".

Are these spin doctors from another country? Do they have the slightest feel for the Irish psyche?

Let me give them a free lesson. Irish people are not Germans. They discount faster.

That means they will not go around for the next nine months gratefully counting the few bob given them by the Government.

That's because, when it comes to benefits, the Irish people have the lowest gratitude threshold in the world.

Give them money in October and the gratitude is gone in October. In fact, if you pushed me I would argue it's gone before the Budget.

Any spin doctor who believes that the benefits of the Budget have an afterlife of six months is not fit for purpose.

Fine Gael does not need faint hearts, hiding out behind the polls, hoping for better times, rather than creating them.

It needs fighters who say go now, go hard, go for broke and we will do far better than we will do in the cold and dark of next February or March.

Fine Gael should also take comfort from public indifference to the furore following the Fennelly Report.

In spite of a sceptical media and a powerful Dail performance by Micheal Martin, the Callinan case has not damaged Kenny.

Most likely the public feel that Kenny sent Brian Purcell to do a dirty job that had to be done.

In short, while people might think Kenny ruthless, they do not rate him as incompetent.

But the Attorney General has no such cover. The Fennelly Report should have resulted in her resignation.

Thanks to the Labour Party, she hangs onto her job. And she is not the only senior public official hanging on to a job.

Commissioner Noirin O'Sullivan's handling of the hot potato of IRA involvement in crime was incoherent from start to finish.

It began when Sinn Fein TD Padraig Mac Lochlainn complained to the Commissioner about Jim Cusack's coverage, in the Sunday Independent, of IRA criminality in Border areas.

In her reply of February 19, the Commissioner said: "An Garda Siochana hold no information or intelligence to support the assertion of Mr Cusack that 'the Provisional IRA still maintains its military structure and confines its criminal activities to fuel laundering, cigarette smuggling and counterfeiting'."

Sinn Fein gleefully published this extraordinary response online within minutes of receiving it. I can still recall the sense of foreboding I felt.

First, I knew it was nonsense. Any correspondent or columnist writing about Northern Ireland develops solid sources among senior gardai dealing with IRA criminality in border areas.

Did Garda Commissioner Noirin O'Sullivan consult with senior border gardai before giving Sinn Fein that letter of comfort?

She certainly did not consult with the families of comparatively recent IRA victims, like Robert McCartney, Paul Quinn and Joseph Rafferty.

Second, I knew it was a major propaganda coup for Sinn Fein. From then on, the party would use it a stick to beat up on security correspondents.

Naturally, I assumed the Justice Minister would call the Commissioner to her senses. But nothing happened.

A month later, at the Oireachtas Justice Committee, Senator James Heffernan repeatedly asked the Garda Commissioner if the IRA was still in existence but got no anwer.

The Government let that go, too. And it even failed to act when the PSNI response to the murder of Kevin McGuigan clearly contradicted the Commissioner's reply to Sinn Fein.

Why has the Government not challenged the Garda Commissioner about her stance on the IRA - a stance shared neither by border gardai nor by the public?

Why is a Garda Commissioner, who subscribes to such a naive view about the existence of the IRA, still holding her post?

The short answer can be found by adapting the famous rebuke of Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest.

"To lose one Commissioner may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness."

Now I am a not a Trot. So I accept that the Government cannot be seen to be on a collision course with a new Garda Commissioner soon after it has effectively removed her predecessor.

At the same time, the Government has a duty to protect both security correspondents and the security of the State.

Accordingly, it should signal its support for both by appointing a new Assistant Commissioner, with extensive experience in combating subversion.

This AC should head up a new and well-resourced section with sole responsibility for tackling IRA crime.

Such a move would do something to protect those who have what is the most difficult job in Irish journalism: security correspondents.

Sunday Independent

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