Eoghan Harris

Wednesday 20 August 2014

Eoghan Harris: Sacrifice of sacred cows is how to earn our respect

Eoghan Harris

Published 05/02/2012 | 05:00

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A weak government is bad. A weak opposition is worse. Because no change will be for the better. That's us now. And it's Fianna Fail's fault.

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The mavericks and Trots in the Dail opposition are merely court jesters. Capitalism in crisis did not throw up an Irish Lenin. It just threw up.

Right now Sinn Fein rules the opposition roost. Like a rooster it makes a lot of noise. Fianna Fail has failed to point out it neither lays policy hens or economic eggs.

Given these two gormless groups and a grim recession, Fianna Fail should be flying. But rather than rise to the challenge of change it is following Sinn Fein into a nationalist cul-de-sac. Mostly this is Micheal Martin's fault.

After the 2011 Armageddon, Martin should have worked out what had to be done, and done it, no matter how many sacred cows he had to slaughter. And it's all about slaying sacred cows. As I learned in the Workers Party.

Back in the 1970s Official Sinn Fein had no TDs, was lumbered by nationalism, anti- EU policies, and hostility to foreign investment. Eamon Smullen set out to kill all these sacred cows. By the 1980s the Workers Party had dumped naff nationalism, supported the EU, fully backed the IDA -- and won six seats in Dublin.

Looking at the link between radical change and radical success I wrote: "If there is one iron law in Irish politics it is this. The more sacred cows you slay, the more somersaults you perform, the higher your standing with the general public. As Sinn Fein found out when it gave up the gun. As the GAA found out when it opened up Croke Park."

Fianna Fail's fall from grace gave it a golden opportunity to change. Because it hit rock bottom. As with alcoholism, rock bottom gives you a reality check.

Fianna Fail has long been a stranger to reality. It lived on two myths: the myths of an ever-expanding State sector and the myth of a united Ireland. It claims to have changed. But it still seems tempted to drink from the poisoned chalices.

Lord Birkenhead said Michael Collins's great strength was that he was loyal to the facts. As soon as the smoke cleared after the last General Election, Micheal Martin should have studied the facts. The four facts demanding his loyalty were the following.

First, there was only one space left on the political shelf. Fine Gael had a grip on the middle class. Labour had a grip on the professional and public sector class. But no party was looking after the coping class, which mostly works in the private sector.

Second, Fianna Fail should have finished off Sinn Fein nationalism. The success of the Queen's visit and the failure of Martin McGuinness's presidential bid showed that middle Ireland has no time for tribal tom-toms. Fianna Fail failed to cash that cheque.

Third, Fianna Fail should have carved out a new constituency in the coping class by (a) challenging the Croke Park Agreement (b) pledging to protect the pay of the two-thirds of public sector workers earning €60,000 or less (c) waging all-out war on the fat cats in the padded parts of the public sector -- starting with the exorbitant expenses of TDs and senators. Finally, it should have slain the sacred cow of blanket opposition in favour of selective opposition. Oppose the Government on Croke Park. Support the Government on the European Fiscal Treaty. And so on.

None of this would be acceptable to the O Cuiv camp. All the better. Nothing convinces the public a party is serious about change so much as a split. Contrary to conventional wisdom, splits about principles are a source of energy -- provided the majority of the party prevails.

An internal battle about dumping deadbeat policies is the fastest way to convince the public and the media that Fianna Fail wants to change. That is why Martin is making a major mistake in mirroring Sinn Fein. Far better for Fianna Fail to take up a PD- type position on Croke Park, ESB bonuses and wasteful referenda.

Mirroring Sinn Fein also has no attraction for the media. Why would a mawkish Martin be more interesting than a full-blooded Mary Lou McDonald? Why feature Fianna Fail's version of Sinn Fein Lite when you can get the full red bull from Pearse Doherty? Go figure.

But instead of separating from Sinn Fein, Martin moves closer every day. Last week he was drooling in the Dail about the "moral imperative" of giving the people a say in the European Treaty. This populist faffing signals a party ready to be rolled up by Sinn Fein.

Fianna Fail will fade away unless it does three things the O Cuiv camp does not want to do. First, call for an end to the Croke Park Agreement. With one stroke Fianna Fail would break with Sinn Fein policy and make itself instantly more acceptable to middle Ireland.

Second, it should separate itself further by hammering Sinn Fein's naff nationalism and nonsense economics. It lost a chance to scorch Sinn Fein for sulking about the Queen's visit and made it clear that it did not welcome McGuinness's brazen bid to be President. Every day in the Dail it should point out the only place the State could find the money for Sinn Fein's policies is in the taxpayers' pockets.

Finally, Fianna Fail should slaughter the sacred cow of opposition for opposition's sake. It should support the Government on matters such as the Financial Insolvency Bill -- but also support Stephen Donnelly's attempts to improve it. Such positive stances are a sign of strength, not weakness.

Fianna Fail has no future unless it dumps public sectorism and tribal nationalism. Right now it is mindlessly following Sinn Fein around the republican roundabout. Given that appalling alternative we must continue to support Enda Kenny's Government.

* * * * *

Eoghan Ó hAnluain, who died on Saint Brigid's Day, promoted a pluralist and inclusive approach to being Irish and Irish-speaking. As senior lecturer in Irish in UCD, he wore his learning lightly, spiced with a gritty sense of humour. I hope his gentle ghost will relish the following tribute -- which reverses the normal cupla focal mode -- and forgive me any grammatical errors.

Bhain Eoghan an iliomad duaiseanna acadúla amach, ach ba chuma leis fé stádas, ná ardú céime. Labhair an Direánach tráth mar gheall ar 'shlogadh na bhfocal', agus b'shin príomh-éacht Eoghan le linn a shaoil. Dearadh na bhfocal, seachas mórtas an dhuine an rud ab ansa leis ina shaol poiblí.

Chaith Eoghan an formhór dá shaoil acadúil ag iomrascáil le filíocht Sheán ó Ríordáin. Rinne an Ríordánach idirdhealú dólásach idir an Gaeilge agus an Béarla, idir muintir na tuaithe agus na cathrach, idir an dúchas agus an domhan. Níor ghlac Eoghan leis an rogha borb sin.

Choinnigh Eoghan an dúchas ina bhrollach cinnte, ach thug sé aghaidh ar an domhan mór ina shaol agus ina scríbhínní, domhan seachtarach an chomhmhuintiris agus an ghráidh, ach go h-áirithe dá bhean chéile Bernie agus dá chlann Éilis, Máire, Clíodhna, Colm agus Billy.

Cailleadh an fear inniu, ach ní múchfar lena ghuth géarrchúiseach, bríomhar riamh.

Sunday Independent

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