News Eoghan Harris

Saturday 30 August 2014

What use is a huge majority if you just won't use it?

Published 21/04/2013 | 05:00

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LAST Wednesday, Terri Kearney of the Skibbereen Heritage Centre saw the first swallows of summer flitting up the River Ilen, presumably showing a lot of wannabe wing as they passed the properties of Jeremy Irons and Lord Puttnam. Alas, that's all the nice news I have today.

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The rest of this column consists of reality checks for Enda Kenny, Eamon Gilmore and President Michael D Higgins. But first, a final salute to the radical depicted in Martin Durkin's documentary, Margaret Thatcher, Portrait of a Revolutionary, on Channel 4. All of his insights apply to Ireland.

Durkin believes that the upper-class socialists of the British Labour Party see workers as ideological abstractions and "wants the working class living in state housing, travelling on state transport, working in state-controlled jobs, receiving a state education".

Margaret Thatcher sensibly believed that working-class people wanted the same things she wanted. Like living in a house in a leafy suburb rather than a socialist-realist tower block with communal entrances, designed by a lefty architect who lived in a Tudor villa.

What made Thatcher a revolutionary, hated by Tory and Labour toffs alike, was her belief that working people wanted exactly the same things as the upper class: "To leave money to their children, to own a few shares, maybe start a little company, go on foreign holidays, own a car."

As Durkin demonstrated, Thatcher touched a profound chord with the British working class. She confirmed what it had always suspected: that socialism was a ploy whereby the tax producers of the private sector subsidised the tax consumers of the state sector.

The same is true in Ireland. Alas, we have no political truth-teller like Thatcher. Just combinations of the hapless political pantomine horse of Eamon Kenny and Enda Gilmore whose only policy is to blame Fianna Fail. Meanwhile, they mind the minority public sector.

That is why the Government is in shock about the rejection of Croke Park II. Why, they wonder, would public sector unions reject such a generous deal? A deal which meant the majority private sector would continue to carry a minority well-paid, permanent and pensionable public sector?

The answer is as old as human nature. If you spoil children and then take away even one of their toys, you get a much bigger tantrum than from children reared to play in a frugal fashion. In fact, the spoiled ones are likely to throw all their toys out of the pram.

The public sector unions have been spoiled by years of social partnership. What they now need is proper parenting. That means not reinforcing bad behaviour by rewarding it. In sum, the Government should cut pay or pensions.

But of course, the Government will dodge doing anything of the sort. In spite of its massive majority, Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore lack the guts to govern with authority. So much for their spoofing about needing a massive majority to carry out unpopular reforms.

The chief reform needed was to cut the public pay and pensions bill. Kenny and Gilmore should have done so within a few days of taking power. Any consequent strikes would have collapsed within weeks in the face of an angry private sector suffering real rather than marginal financial pressure.

But instead of using its majority to tackle the private sector, the Kenny-Gilmore coalition has used it to crush dissent within their parties. A prime example is Enda Kenny's peculiarly persistent efforts to keep the lid on the political can containing the Lowry tapes, even if that means disrespecting decent deputies.

A growing number of Fine Gael TDs, however, agree with the public in wanting Kenny to open the can without delay. They rightly reason that it would be easier to deal with any political worms now rather than having them wriggle around on the eve of the next general election.

Like Lowry, the public sector problem will not go away. So why is Kenny, in spite of his huge majority, not likely to take a tough line with the public sector unions? Part of the answer is that he himself is a spoiled child of the state sector.

Kenny has spent his political life living off the public purse. Naturally he thinks it natural for everybody else to live like that too. Furthermore, although he is Fine Gael by family inheritance, he seems to lack two of its major traditional instincts: seeking the jugular of Sinn Fein and protecting the productive private sector.

Ireland is now a lot like pre-Thatcher Britain. The public sector elite supports Labour. That leaves the private sector majority looking around for a party that can speak for them, the workers of hand and brain who produce the bulk of the nation's wealth.

Fine Gael under Enda Kenny is losing the confidence of the majority private sector. At the same time, Fianna Fail under Micheal Martin senses the coping class is looking for an Irish Thatcher, or at least a party which is prepared to look after those who have no security of employment.

Maybe that is why Micheal Martin and former Minister Gerry Collins did not dance on Thatcher's grave as so many stupid public figures did. Their measured tributes were mirrored by the party's recent challenges to political and media cliches about its alleged responsibility for the recession.

Last week, in a letter to the Irish Times, Cllr Malcolm Byrne of Gorey landed some heavy punches on Labour's solar plexus. Far from dodging Fianna Fail's responsibility, Byrne hung a large lantern on Fianna Fail's mistakes, knowing that a lot of light would fall on the Labour Party too.

Byrne wrote: "The narrowing of our tax base was a disaster and Fianna Fail must take blame for that, but for others to wash their hands and say they disagreed is a rewriting of recent history. Labour supported the broad thrust of Fianna Fail policies from 1997 to 2007. It favoured more public spending and cutting taxes."

So let's have less hypocrisy from Labour. Less hero worship too, of the likes of Sean MacBride to whom President Michael D Higgins paid tribute in his speech to the European Parliament. Has the President forgotten MacBride's long record of right-wing republicanism? He opposed both the progressive Republican Congress and shafted Noel Browne.

As producer of Feach in the late 1960s (when MacBride was a frequent contributor because he was a favourite of the late Proinsias Mac Aonghusa), I saw far too much of his Death's Head face, perfectly caught by Conor Cruise O'Brien in the following appropriately deathless piece of prose.

"When he laughs, which he does often, his skin, of very good quality parchment, crackles into a complex system of fine folds; the remarkable eyes, prominent and yet recessed, like those of some mad monk of romance, flicker with the persuasions of gaiety; the chuckle of that exotic uvula conspires, with the bandit eyebrows, giving a touch of diablèrie to what you may be very sure is a most harmless witticism."

Irish Independent

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