News Eoghan Harris

Friday 29 August 2014

Eoghan Harris: Labour's lack of moral fibre suits Sinn Fein

Published 05/08/2012 | 05:00

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SEAN Quinn, Pat Rabbitte, the much-mourned Maeve Binchy. Three names that made the front pages last week. Although they had nothing else in common, all three were adept at creating fictions.

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But while Binchy conjured her captivating characters from her fertile imagination, Rabbitte and Quinn base their frayed fictional characters on shadows of their former selves. Back when they were real socialists and real capitalists.

In recent days, both Rabbitte and Quinn revealed that when fake autobiography meets real arrogance, the result is not good for Irish democracy.

* * * * *

Last week, Pat Rabbitte smugly told Deaglan De Breadun of The Irish Times that the Coalition was the only show in town. "There is no alternative in Leinster House," he said.

It would be hard to beat that for brazenness. Of course, there is no alternative in Leinster House; no opposition, nobody asking any awkward questions, nothing that looks like a normal parliamentary democracy.

But who is responsible for that? Who but Pat Rabbitte and the Labour Party? It was they who selfishly settled for the perks of office in exchange for that moral emptiness that now presents itself as Labour policy.

Pat Rabbitte was one of the chief architects of Coalition. He and Phil Hogan became such good buddies that at one point I suggested they rent a room. Instead, they checked into a luxury hotel.

In the long term, this liaison will do almost as much damage to Fine Gael as to Labour. Because Labour's lock on Fine Gael is preventing that party from carrying out the only policy that justifies a massive majority: real reform of pay, pensions and performance in the public sector, as part of a dynamic policy to save a dying private sector -- which, even as it dies, is being plundered to pay for the public sector.

Why does Fine Gael believe Pat Rabbitte is their best friend? The sychophantic smiles on Fine Gael faces when Rabbitte speaks calls to mind Elizabeth Bowen's remark about Aldous Huxley: that he was the stupid person's idea of an intelligent person.

Rabbitte is the stupid Fine Gaeler's idea of what an ideal minister or even Taoiseach should be. That's true if 'great Taoiseach' means someone who spends most of his time sighing at the stupidity of others, dreaming up wisecracks and dodging hard decisions.

Pat Rabbitte would make a rotten Taoiseach. He lacks the political fibre to slay sacred cows. As leader of the Labour Party, he left no political legacy. And he will leave nothing as a minister.

As Minister of Communications, he has dodged dealing with media monopoly. He has also refrained from bothering RTE as long as it looks after the public sector fat cats -- which it is happy to do, as these fat cats include RTE presenters.

Rabbitte knows that large tracts of the public sector are putting down the day. He knows that thousands of overpaid and over-pensioned public servants could well afford to contribute to the carers, the disabled and the demented private sector workers who make up the mass of the Irish working class.

But Rabbitte mentally resigned from real politics a long time ago. All his body language shows he is bored to bits. Putting down the time before he cashes in his Rolls Royce public sector pension, he breaks his boredom by showing Fine Gael how cute he can be.

That is not to say he does not have beliefs. He believes in sniping at the Sunday Independent because it reminds him of what a real opposition could be.

He believes in not asking awkward questions of billionaires who are no friends of a free press.

He believes that glib cracks are a substitute for social democracy. But the rest is silence.

* * * * *

The Sean Quinn saga has many subtexts. But most commentators missed the important one: that Sinn Fein broke its silence to distance itself from Quinn.

Silence on Quinn would have branded Sinn Fein as a rural redneck party. It is an image that Sinn Fein is intent on shedding as part of its strategy to shaft the Labour Party. Given that Labour has abandoned the private sector workers, that should not be difficult.

The Kevin Cardiff affair showed that Labour now has no policy except to support the fattest cats of the public sector. This may work in a few leafy constituencies in South Dublin. But it is not the foundation of a mass party of social democracy.

Apart from showing that Sinn Fein is a serious threat to Labour's urban base, the Sean Quinn saga continues to shed light on the Irish political psyche. Particularly the nexus of land, religion and nationality that inspires his supporters.

But that alone would not fully account for the border counties' -- and indeed the country's -- fascination with the delusional and sometimes sad figure we saw in Vincent Browne's intriguing interview for TV3.

The bad and good sides of Quinn were also brilliantly bookended at the beginning and end of last week by Fintan O'Toole and Michael Harding in The Irish Times. But Karl Marx too saw capitalism as both progressive and regressive and can also shed light on this brilliant but finally flawed capitalist.

In Marx's dialectic, Sean Quinn is both a figure of admiration and admonition. And no amount of regulation will remove that contradiction because it is built into capitalism.

Like Danny Boyle's brilliant pageant on Isambard Kingdom Brunel for the London Olympics, the Sean Quinn saga reminds us that capitalism is not a sedate profession carried out by saints, but a risky affair carried out by courageous but flawed visionaries.

Politics, among other things, is about keeping an eye on them.

* * * * *

Among the many tributes to Maeve Binchy, two of the most illuminating were those of Mary Kenny in the Irish Independent and Liz Ryan in the Irish Daily Mail.

Like Kenny, I knew Maeve back in the late 1960s when we hung out in the old Pearl Bar. And I agree with Kenny about two of the main forces which shaped this wonderful woman.

First, Maeve Binchy was always worried about her weight -- but she used that wound to bend her writer's bow. Like other big women, she worried too much.

She could talk away her size in a few seconds and you forgot everything except the luminous eyes and laughing lips.

Second, she was successful in her search for a marriage of true minds. Every time I saw her with Gordon Snell, I felt she would have been fully content to spend her life tending a cottage garden and talking to him through the window.

Luckily, Gordon was a writer too. He supported her fully when she finally found what she wanted to do: write cracking stories and show other women how to do it too.

Binchy respected the craft of writing as well as the art. That made her a wonderful mentor. Like Bowen, she believed a good novelist should know how the story is going to end before setting forth.

Finally, let me give wider circulation to a revelation by her friend Liz Ryan which tells us much about Maeve Binchy's moral fibre. She could have availed of the writers' exemption but did not do so. She always paid her taxes.

Sunday Independent

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