Friday 19 December 2014

Eoghan Harris: Angela's ashes bury Kenny's illusion

Published 21/10/2012 | 05:00

Last Friday night,RTE's Six-One News gave Sharon Ni Bheolain a script which began as follows: "The German chancellor Angela Merkel appears to have created confusion around Irish hopes for a deal on bank debt." But of course, it was Enda Kenny and not Angela Merkel who had created the confusion.

RTE News helped Kenny spread that confusion for the past five months. Every second bulletin seemed to begin with gung-ho stories about the bank debt deal from Sean Whelan, Paul Cunningham, and somewhat more restrained reports from Tony Connolly. Even even after Merkel dropped her bombshell on Friday afternoon, RTE News failed to come to terms with the fall-out.

Friday's bulletin was full of fudge. We were told the Taoiseach felt it was "better not to be fixated on dates". Sean Whelan asked rhetorically how concerned should we be -- apparently not that much. Paul Cunningham said he'd been told (presumably by the Taoiseach's staff) that Merkel's statement merely concerned Spain.

To give him his due, Tony Connolly courageously pulled the plug on that one. He told Sharon Ni Bheolain that Merkel was not just talking about Spain. And to give Sharon her due, she believed Tony and took no nonsense from Noonan in a follow-up interview.

RTE was not alone in falling for the Kenny spin. Even the normally shrewd Irish Examiner told us on Friday morning that "EU leaders bicker but debt deal moves closer". And all day Friday no print political correspondent told any radio show that the Taoiseach's five-month campaign for a bank debt deal was as dead as the dodo.

The pundits had no excuse for this evasion. Because Derek Scally had burst the balloon on Kenny's bank debt bluster the previous day (Thursday) in the Irish Times. The hammer-blow heading on what was clearly a well-sourced story said it all: "Germans say no deal agreed on Irish debt."

Scally, who is totally trustworthy on all things German, got the goods from one of Dr Merkel's senior officials. He told Scally that

last June's meeting of the European council of EU leaders "did not involve a deadline for Irish debt relief or even the nature of any possible relief". And while Merkel's mouthpiece delicately did not mention the Taoiseach by name, he said anyone who thought differently was suffering from an "illusion".

Last Thursday morning anyone with a political antenna knew that Scally's story would stand up. But still Thursday and Friday passed in a kind of media blackout about the bad news from Europe. None of the pundits on RTE's or Newstalk's shows came out cleanly to say the bank debt deal was dead.

But on Friday afternoon, Angela Merkel gave the political correspondents a reality check they could no longer ignore. She told a press conference that the European Stability Mechanism fund would not be used to take over liability from member states such as Spain for past bank rescues. It was all over.

But not for RTE News. As we have seen, they tried to keep the five-month fudge from melting up to the last minute. Admittedly, even if RTE had called in the print political correspondents it is doubtful that cheerleading crew would have been willing to reverse their credulous coverage over the past five months.

Credulous hardly covers it. Last June, Enda Kenny began a personal PR campaign, promising bank debt relief on the basis of nothing more than verbals from a few EU ministers. At the same time he ignored consistently negative signals from the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, who faces an election next year.

Eamon Gilmore, the leader of the Labour Party, backed the Taoiseach to the hilt in selling the vapoury verbals of a few EU ministers. Last June, Gilmore described the deal that never was as a "gamechanger". Last Thursday, Gamechanger Gilmore was still telling a still credulous media that any talk to the contrary was so much "noise".

The political correspondents' lack of scepticism about the bank debt deal over the past five months was shameful. It was caused by two factors: groupthink and a reluctance to challenge the RTE News agenda. Common sense should have told the political pundits that Merkel could not deliver without going down at home.

Led by what I call RTE Rabbitte, most of the media let Kenny and Gilmore get away with murder.

Giving Gilmore an easy ride is now second nature to RTE. That is why, two weeks ago, it buried our front-page story which proved that James Reilly had kept Gilmore in the loop leading up to the shafting of Roisin Shortall.

Since he became Taoiseach, each major move made by Enda Kenny has been a fresh mistake. He should not have gone into government with Labour without laying down the law on the public sector unions. He should not have wasted his massive majority but used it forcefully to challenge the degrading Croke Park deal. He should not have become a prisoner of a personal PR machine. Time the political correspondents took off the rose-tinted spectacles.

* * *

Politically, Gene Kerrigan and myself hardly agree on the time of day. But we have one thing in common: crime fiction. He writes it and I read it. A lot of it.

Six years ago when I read his The Midnight Choir I knew the Crime Writers' Association would soon have to give him at least a silver dagger, like George Pelecanos (The Way Home), Peter Hoeg (Miss Smillas Feeling for Snow) and Scott Turow's (Presumed Innocent).

But last Thursday the CWA gave Gene the coveted Gold Dagger for The Rage. This puts him in a pantheon of authors whose classics line my shelves. Eric Ambler's Passage of Arms, John Le Carre's The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, James Lee Burke's Sunset Limited.

Madeleine Keane, our books editor, can confirm I had a premonition. Last Wednesday, the day before the CWA announcement, I emailed her asking if I could do a crime round-up to plug Gene Kerrigan. Pity I didn't call Paddy Power too.

But I'm glad Gene is not giving up the day job. At my age I need all the aggravation I can get to keep me sharp. As you can see from what follows. * * *

Last week, demented by love of Posy and Dolly, my two terriers, and in a ham-fisted attempt at humour, I stupidly wrote that councillor Richard Humphreys had described remarks by councillor Victor Boyhan, during a debate on the new Dun Laoghaire beach laws, as "Stalinist". Naturally Humphreys said nothing of the sort.

Although he has not asked me to apologise, I am anxious to do so. Not least because when he is not talking about dogs, Richard Humphreys is one of the people in public life I most admire. He has been particularly prescient on Northern Ireland.

That is why I helped launch his book Countdown to Unity: Debating Irish Reunification, one of the few works on modern Irish politics worth reading as we come up to the commemorations. And that's why I hope he's in the Dail by 2016.

Sunday Independent

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