Saturday 25 October 2014

Let's give the Silver Scott Medal to the two gardai

Published 16/03/2014 | 02:30

Illustration by Jim Cogan

President Higgins should publicly thank the two garda whistleblowers. Enda Kenny should say sorry on behalf of the State. The Garda Commissioner should give them the Silver Scott Medal for moral courage – the gold being reserved for recipients who actually risked death.

Back in the 1970s such a call would have been backed by a big minority in Fine Gael, and a big majority in the Labour Party. But this Coalition has seen a sea change in both parties that is profoundly damaging to Irish democracy.

Back in the 1960s, although an ardent socialist, I became friendly with two great conservative Fine Gaelers: John M Kelly and Alexis Fitzgerald. Both set high standards for their party and always spoke their minds.

The new regime in Fine Gael has rejected that self-critical tradition in favour of real-politik. The cult of Michael Collins has morphed into the cult of the political hard man. The role model of the new Fine Gael is the old Fianna Fail.

The rise of real-politik in Fine Gael would not matter if the current Labour Party leadership was loyal to its liberal-Left traditions. Because neither Brendan Corish, Frank Cluskey nor Dick Spring would have backed Enda Kenny's regime as rigorously as the Gilmore-Rabbitte group have done in recent months.

Last Monday we got a flicker of the old liberal spirit when Kathleen Lynch told Morning Ireland that in her view Frank Flannery's position was "no longer tenable". But, predictably, she was soon contradicted by Pat Rabbitte.

The word "predictably" does not imply that I believe Pat Rabbitte's partisan intervention was for personal reasons – he was best man at Frank Flannery's wedding – but because defending Kenny's regime has become Rabbitte's reflex response.

Rabbitte saw nothing remarkable about the Lowry tapes. He sat supportively beside Shatter during the latter's most languidly insolent Dail displays. So it was predictable that he would find it "unusual" for Flannery to be called into the Public Accounts Committee.

Rabbitte is now only nominally a member of the Labour Party. But he lacks the moral courage of the late Michael O'Leary, who, on coming to the conclusion he was in the wrong party, courageously crossed over to Fine Gael.

We must hope the sense of decency is not dead but dormant in the coalition parties. If so it must soon find a voice. Because both parties, as well as Irish democracy, are at risk from the current absence of a credible political alternative.

Naturally the Coalition cannot see how its huge majority puts Irish democracy in danger. But the polls prove that the risk of future rejection by a desperate electorate is very real. Nature abhors a vacuum.

So does politics. The sheer size of the Coalition's majority is creating a public demand, both for countervailing criticism by the media and for electable political alternatives. Neither demand is being met.

Take the media. Most journalists correctly felt the Coalition should be given a fair wind. But this honeymoon has been prolonged to a ridiculous degree. More and more the coverage of coalition problems lacks a proper probing edge.

That caution could be seen in RTE News's response to Shattergate. Like most security correspondents, RTE's Paul Reynolds has been rightly careful to give the Commissioner's side. But last Wednesday he seemed to go that bit too far.

Reynolds first reported on his scoop in the form of a leaked report from the Garda Inspectorate. Returning to him later in the bulletin, Eileen Whelan asked a simple question: "So Paul, does this report finally vindicate the garda whistleblowers?" Reynolds did not reply to that question, but merely repeated the main points of the report.

To be fair, Bryan Dobson asked Alan Shatter the same question repeatedly in the course of a robust grilling of the minister. But to no avail. And Shatter still steadfastly refused to say sorry.

Presumably Enda Kenny was watching. If so he should have stepped in and said sorry himself. Instead he propped up the Garda Commissioner. Which brings me to the second reason I believe the Coalition's big majority is damaging Irish democracy.

Right now there is a huge hole in Dail Eireann where the opposition used to be. Fianna Fail, still fearful of having the past thrown in its face, is far too timid in challenging the Coalition's arrogance. That leaves Sinn Fein in the driving seat.

Sinn Fein is now coming to a crossroads. It must soon choose between returning to a reactionary past in Northern Ireland or turning its back on the fantasy of a united Ireland on republican terms, and facing a reformist future in the Republic.

But if Sinn Fein takes the wrong road, and still draws support from a disaffected rising generation, then we should be clear about who bears responsibility. Nothing has helped the rise of Sinn Fein so much as the arrogance of the current Coalition.

Neither Kenny nor Gilmore is convincing when challenging Sinn Fein. Kenny could not remember what was wrong with Sinn Fein on The Late Late Show and sat out the Martin McGuinness presidential campaign, leaving the hard lifting to Charlie Flanagan.

Likewise, it is too late for the Labour Party to impose any form of purdah on Sinn Fein. Pat Rabbitte was happy to do a deal with Sinn Fein to put Alex White in the 2007 Seanad. A cynical public expects more of the same in the future.

So it would be the height of hypocrisy and head-burying for dormant decent elements in Fine Gael and Labour not to face the fact that the Callinan- Shatter-Flannery controversies are the real source of the rise of Sinn Fein.

Furthermore, Fine Gael's cult of Michael Collins, which will be further cultivated as we come closer to 2016, will be warmly welcomed by Sinn Fein as proof that all political parties subscribe to the physical force tradition.

* * *

The cult of Collins – and the corresponding lack of any cult of Daniel O'Connell – was criticised by Fr Iggy O'Donovan at a packed seminar on the poet Francis Ledwidge and the First World War held at Slane last Saturday afternoon.

Given that Brian O'Driscoll was playing his last game at home I expected only a handful to turn up at the Conyngham Arms Hotel. Instead its largest reception room was packed to the rafters with a receptive audience.

Sean Collins of the Drogheda Historical Society shrewdly selected speakers from a wide range of viewpoints; Rosemary Yore, Fr Iggy, Kevin Myers and myself. But the most moving contribution came from Frank Ledwidge, grand-nephew of the poet, himself a former British Army officer.

This pietas of the people of Slane, and the close attention they paid to the contributions was another welcome sign of the sea-change in Irish sentiment in favour of honouring Irish soldiers who fought in the First World War.

* * *

A word of warning to Cheltenham punters. It comes courtesy of the Sage of Seapoint, who has passed on the advice he himself was given long ago by a wise old Jewish friend in London.

"A man who backs favourites ends up with no laces in his shoes. A man who backs outsiders ends up with no shoes."

Sunday Independent

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