News Eoghan Harris

Sunday 31 August 2014

Not everyone has access to the Coalition Noah's Ark

Eoghan Harris

Published 09/02/2014 | 02:30

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The biblical deluges of recent days do not dampen all equally. The nomenklatura can shelter in the Noah's Ark of benchmarking. First built by Bertie Ahern to look after the public sector, Fine Gael and Labour are still adding extensions to it, with such ploys as paying civil service increments by raiding private pensions.

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Last week, I remarked that Fine Gael had a sense of entitlement to public emoluments whereas Fianna Fail were furtive about it. Although it was a throwaway remark it seemed to touch a nerve. Especially among disgruntled Coalition voters whose only complaint was that I let Labour off the hook.

Later I hope to remedy that. But Fine Gael is still in first place in expressing that sense of entitlement. Last week Leo Varadkar, who has appointed 120 persons to state boards, complained about the "negative" portrayal of appointees with political connections.

Varadker told the gobsmacked Fianna Fail benches that "it would be demonstrably wrong to appoint someone whose sole qualification is a party or personal connection. But where a person is qualified and can make a good contribution, their political or personal connections should not bar them".

Pity Fine Gael critics did not accept Varadkar's argument when Bertie Ahern appointed me to the Seanad. Because while I was there I made a "good contribution" by becoming the most consistent critic of Bertie Ahern's beloved benchmarking and strongly supporting civil partnership and gay marriage. This gives me the right to raise an issue with Jerry Buttimer, who made a moving speech in defence of gay rights in the Dail last week.

Buttimer's speech would have carried even more conviction, had he followed the example of John Lyons, his gay Labour colleague, who called on the Taoiseach and Tanaiste not to take part in the New York St Patrick's Day parade. But can Buttimer stay silent after Ursula Halligan's report on TV3 last Thursday?

In a brilliant bit of broadcasting, Halligan stripped away the hugger mugger about the New York march. Turning up at a jobs forum she asked Kenny and Gilmore some hard questions about their participation. Kenny put Gilmore on the spot by referring to a go-ahead Gilmore allegedly got from gay rights activists in 2011.

Gilmore gave his own version: "I have already consulted with the LGBT organisations in New York about our participation in the parade, and what they told me is that they wish the Irish Government to participate in the parade." But when Halligan phoned Brendan Fay, the founder of the LGBT group which the Tanaiste had consulted in 2011, she got a different story.

Brendan Fay said: "I have heard the remarks of the Taoiseach and Tanaiste and I'm actually shocked at their statement. We absolutely did not give our blessing for Irish Government leaders' participation in the Fifth Avenue parade – quite the opposite." So who is telling porkies?

Let's move on. Accepting for the moment Vardakar's argument about appointing well-qualified people, even if they were politically linked I still had mixed feelings when I heard that Seamus Martin, whom I recall from Workers Party days as a strong Rabbitte supporter, was to replace John Waters who recently resigned from the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland.

Seamus Martin has a solid track record as a journalist and is likely to be sceptical of nuisance complaints to the BAI. But judging by his memoir Good Times and Bad he is not a fan of my critique of socialism. And I doubt we would see eye to eye on Section 31, which I strongly supported in RTE, in defiance of Rabbitte and the student princes of the Workers Party – the only party to vote against the annual renewal of Section 31.

Still I hope this hinterland will not prevent Martin and the BAI casting a cold eye over blatant breaches of balance. One of the worst was the recent RTE radio programme on Section 31. As Eilis O'Hanlon pointed out last week, this polemic allowed Gerry Adams and other critics to attack Section 31 without asking anybody to put the argument from the other side.

But RTE is not the only institution inimical to critics. Last week the Public Accounts Committee disgraced itself by ganging up on Shane Ross. His crime was to call for garda whistleblower Sgt Maurice McCabe – who had made no allegations against any individual – to be given the transcript of his private evidence to the PAC, which he had requested.

But the Coalition was anxious to bury the penalty points scandal. So Fine Gael and Labour lemmings got in line to rear up on Ross. In a remarkable contribution, John Deasy of Fine Gael said that by providing the transcript of a private meeting, the committee would be crossing over into "the political paranormal".

He then gave an example of the "politically paranormal" by telling the PAC that they needn't take Sergeant McCabe's evidence that seriously because Comptroller and Auditor General Seamus McCarthy had "debunked quite a bit of it as regards the number of penalty points that were written off".

Simon Harris dutifully supported Deasy. In passing he observed: "If we start publishing private meetings why didn't we have the private meeting in public." Which of course is what Ross and the public wanted the first day.

The Labour members of the PAC then joined the Fine Gael choir. Kicking for touch, Robert Dowds and Gerald Nash said legal advice should be sought. Nash described Ross's remarks as a "slur on members of the committee" From the public's point of view, however, most of the slurring was being done by the PAC majority.

But the bit that caused my already bulging eyes to try to eject their sockets was when John Deasy accused Shane Ross of having an "insatiable thirst for publicity" Let me ask you to read that again. Because it is a prize specimen of the inanities politicians produce under pressure.

Basically Deasy is demanding that TDs should shun publicity. In doing so he reminds me of the common complaint that the Dail is only "a talking shop". But in a democracy, short of civil war, what else can the Dail be except a talking shop?

That being so what would be the point of a TD who did not have "a thirst for publicity"? Surely the first purpose of any professional politician is to publicise his beliefs and share them with the public? From which it follows that a thirst for publicity is a prime virtue when a politician has something to say.

Shane Ross has something to say. This clearly poses a problem for Deasy, who hasn't got that much to say. Except of course when he is sniping at Shane Ross for being too articulate, this being his second attack in that area.

Naturally, I refuse to believe that Deasy's barbs are simply the products of petty political jealousy. No, they must come from some deep belief of Deasy's that democracy is best served by political Poor Clares who have have taken vows of silence.

That may be fine for Poor Clares. But it may not be that good for the citizens of Waterford, who must sometimes wish that Deasy had an insatiable thirst for publicising that county's many problems.

Irish Independent

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