News Eoghan Harris

Saturday 23 August 2014

Irish 'Serpicos' feel full force of sullenness from Coalition

Eoghan Harris

Published 02/02/2014 | 02:30

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Illustration by Jim Cogan

LAST week, in a perfect example of the Pathetic Fallacy, the mood of most people, reflecting the weeks of wind and rain, was sombre. Naturally there was no gloom in the golden circle of government ministers, civil service, charity and quango chiefs, all sheltering under their umbrella of high pay and pensions. But two rays of light did get through the grey.

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The first ray came from Raftery's poem Cill Aodain saluting the arrival of Spring. So on St Brigid's Day I celebrated by going for an early morning walk, defiantly reciting Raftery's poem and daring the weather to do its worst, while secretly hoping it would hold off for Brian O'Driscoll & Co today.

Mind you, I have mixed feelings about Raftery (1779-1835) who, to put it politely, was not a pluralist.

Indeed, he relished the prophecy of Pastorini: that there would be a final solution for Irish Protestants in 1825. Douglas Hyde, the decent Protestant founder of the Gaelic League, doctored some of the more sectarian lines.

Hyde was not personally offended. He wanted to spare his Roman Catholic fellow countrymen facing the reality behind their republican rhetoric.

An early example of the kind of southern Protestant who thinks it ecumenical to write letters to the Irish Times taking Patsy McGarry to task for daring to suggest the Ne Temere decree put a dampener on mixed marriages.

* * *

But the best antidote against the rain turned out to be Mark C Nolan's brief and brilliant new book, Keynes in Dublin, Exploring the 1933 Finlay Lecture, which came late in the week. At first sight it seemed a dry title, but the first pages open to an Aladdin's Cave of anecdote and analysis, served up in 160 scintillating pages of elegant storytelling, plus the lecture as actually delivered.

Keynes came on a mission to end the Economic War. All the luminaries of the new State turned out to listen. Former Free State comrades of Michael Collins, like WT Cosgrave and General Richard Mulcahy, rubbed shoulders with republican diehards like Eamon De Valera and Sean Lemass at the event in Earlsfort Terrace.

For most of my political life I have tried to follow the implications of Keynes's famous question: "When the facts change, I change my mind – what do you do, sir?" Alas, I lack the space here to do Mark Nolan's book full justice. However, I hope our heavyweight historians and expert economists will delve deeper, because this book is a mine of pure gold.

* * *

But not even St Brigid and Mark Nolan's book could completely block the constant stream of bad news. Instead, that blocking function was performed by RTE and the political and crime commentariat in the media. In fact, our media establishment is more in thrall to this Government than in the bad old days when Charles Haughey would ring RTE. Nowadays, no call is needed.

As a result the Coalition is getting away with murder. Remember this allegedly reforming Government claimed it would make a complete break with the old culture of Fianna Fail. That being so, the main duty of the media is to monitor whether the Coalition is keeping its promises.

Instead of investigation, we get an Irish media form of the Stockholm syndrome. With RTE leading from the rear, most of the media has failed to address the gaping abyss between Coalition promise and Coalition practice. Because far from breaking with Fianna Fail, the Coalition has followed the same benchmarking and backslapping pattern as Bertie Ahern – and padding bodies like Irish Water.

Unlike Keynes, the Irish liberal-left media establishment does not change its mind when the facts change. Hence it hangs on to stereotypes which are no longer true. Like treating Fine Gael as if it had higher standards than Fianna Fail, when it only has a sense of entitlement, where Fianna Fail is furtive. Or thinking that Pat Rabbitte can still be relied on to rip into freeloaders.

But nowadays Rabbitte is really only energised when defending Enda Kenny. Last week, as a succession of Fine Gael-linked problems (Rehab, penalty points, pylons, the Louise O'Keeffe case) replaced Fianna Fail- linked scandals (the CRC), Rabbitte, helped by Gilmore and Howlin, acted like a cop covering for Kenny at a political accident scene, persuading the media to move on when there was so much to see.

But the lowest point last week was when Alan Shatter, backing up a Garda Commissioner who had found it "disgusting" that decent gardai should blow public whistles on wrongdoing, attacked Shane Ross's role on the Public Accounts Committee.

Ross was a proxy for Shatter's real target – the Sunday Independent, with which Shatter and Rabbitte are obsessed because it reports stuff the Coalition would rather it didn't.

Far from standing up to Shatter and supporting the PAC's and Sunday Independent's probings, most of the media commentariat formed a single choir to assure us that whistleblowers would not now appear before the PAC – and that this was as it should be. So they were shocked when the PAC showed bottle and went ahead anyway.

Now I am certain that among the favourite films of the media choir which supported Shatter are All The President's Men and the Sidney Lumet classic Serpico, in which Al Pacino played NY cop Frank Serpico. What both movies have in common is heroic whistleblowers who are forced to call in a courageous media to get a wrong righted.

But faced with actual Irish whistleblowers (or 'lamplighters' as Frank Serpico, who is still alive, calls them) the Irish media establishment did not back the Irish Serpicos who wanted to be heard by the Public Accounts Committee. Instead, they cravenly supported the minister and the Garda Commissioner's attempt to block this.

The media establishment was so busy backing Shatter it could only find time to publicise, but not critique, the complaint of three gardai who issued a long statement critical of the Smithwick tribunal. Having read their statement, I find a huge hole at its centre. Basically, the three gardai are asking me to believe the Provos rather than the PSNI. Fat chance.

* * *

The late Ted Nealon was not just a legend, but a loveable legend. Back in the late 1960s, when I worked with him on 7 Days, he was happy to take a callow young man under his wing and show him the ways of the constituency machines.

What made him loveable was his lack of ego. Unlike many presenters, he did not preen but kept a firm focus on the facts of a story. Fundamentally a Fine Gaeler, he had no petty prejudices about Fianna Fail. And was amused rather than annoyed by my radical passions.

OBITUARY: JOSEPH O'MALLEY PAYS TRIBUTE TO TED NEALON PAGE 33

On one trip to cover a controversial new multi-national factory in the far West, we couldn't persuade anybody to balance the story by publicly criticising the project. Finally Ted stopped by a phone box at a crossroads, and gave me his deadpan gaze: "Well Eoghan, I'm sure a call to the comrades in Dublin will help us dig up a die-hard republican around here."

Which it did.

Ar dheis De go raibh a anam.

Irish Independent

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