Gene Kerrigan: Going gets tough, politicians get going
While Fianna Failers prepare to jump ship, has anything changed in the past two years? Gene Kerrigan asks
Published 19/12/2010 | 05:00
On Thursday, Noel Dempsey (the Minister for Very Expensive E-voting Machines That Were Never Used) made an announcement. He announced that he would "very, very soon" make another announcement. Talk about excitement. As the hours passed, the nation spoke of little else.
I looked up the polls -- and, sure enough, it seemed like Noel's chances of re-election in Meath weren't as strong as in previous years. It seems, in fact, that Noel's chances of holding onto the seat are slightly less than my chances of winning three Olympic golds in 2012.
Imagine my surprise, next day, when Noel made his second announcement and revealed that the poll figures had nothing to do with it -- Noel just plain wants to explore the delights of retirement, at 58, on a e130,000 pension (and that, it must be said, truly is a grand pension).
Even if Noel won the seat, he had at least five years on the backbenches to look forward to. On a wage of about thirty grand less than his pension will be. So, the five years of powerlessness would cost him about e150,000. He'll be that much better off just growing roses, watching Judge Judy and making the odd phone call to Liveline.
He'll probably miss being driven around by gardai. But even if Fianna Fail get back into power (when Enda has spent five years making as much of a balls of it as the two Brians), Noel will be 63, a relic of the disastrous Cowen regime, with no guarantee of a Ministerial Merc.
Which of us, given such a choice, would opt for five more years of attending funerals, buying raffle tickets and all the other gruelling activities that backbench politicians refer to as 'work' (it involves a lot of shaking constituents' sweaty hands and murmuring "Leave it with me")?
I've always thought of Noel Dempsey as 'promising'. One day, I thought, that chap will make something of himself. In the same way, I still think of Tom Kitt TD as 'that Kitt youngfella' -- and suddenly the youngfella is 58, and he, too, is retiring. As is MJ Nolan, a TD of whom I've often thought -- well, to be honest, I had to remind myself who MJ Nolan is. I went to his website, which seems to have been last updated in the run-up to the 2007 General Election.
Anyway, neither Tom nor MJ will get pensions as big as Noel's, but they'll be getting a fair few shillings more than the rest of us -- and they don't have to wait until they're pension age. Beverley Flynn also copped out last week. Her fellow Fianna Failer, Councillor Jimmy Moloney, told the Mayo Advertiser he rejected any suggestion that she's quitting "because she is going to lose her seat". Jimmy says Bev was under terrible pressure, "trying to get someone to mind the kids". It's hell out there.
A mournful Jimmy reminds us that Bev was, within the party hierarchy, considered "ministerial material", and so she was. I don't know why, but it's true. Sean Ardagh -- also considered by many to be ministerial material -- is also taking the pension, as is ex-minister and notorious drunk driver Jim McDaid.
Watching the outflow from Fianna Fail -- and looking at those who hang on -- it's striking that the material from which cabinets are formed is not terribly impressive. It's not just that they pay themselves salaries as outrageous as their pensions. It's not just the cars and the drivers and the expenses. We might sullenly tolerate that rip-off if the political class was delivering a service anywhere close to the level of competence needed.
Yes, the builders were stupid, the banks were criminal and the regulators were careless -- but the politicians idolised the builders, deferred to the bankers and set the agenda for the regulators.
Leave aside the economic lunacy -- look at Dermot Ahern, Minister for Foreign Affairs. Dermot is seen as a tough guy, Mr Hard Man -- which is fine on the level of constituency shin-kicking. Last week, WikiLeaks published a December 2007 cable to Washington, from the American Ambassador, on a meeting with Ahern, this day three years ago. We got to see the impression that Mr Hard Man made on Mr Ambassador.
For years, serious worries have been voiced that Shannon Airport is being used as a tool in the "extraordinary rendition" torture programme operated by the CIA. In December 2007, the Irish Human Rights Commission compiled a report concluding that the Government was not meeting its human rights obligations. It called for inspections of suspect flights using Shannon. The WikiLeaks cable records: "Ambassador Foley thanked Ahern for his staunch rejection" of that demand.
The Government has always publicly denied that any rendition flights have used Shannon. The Ambassador declared Ahern's public stance to be "rock solid", yet recorded that, privately, Ahern "seemed quite convinced that at least three flights involving renditions had refuelled at Shannon". In short, the Ambassador seems to suggest that Ahern shared the concerns of the IHRC report he had so staunchly rejected.
The Ambassador recorded Ahern as saying he had "put his neck on the chopping block" and would pay a severe political price if it ever turned out that Shannon was used for rendition. Far from telling the Ambassador that he would act to ensure our facilities were not used for torture flights, Ahern -- according to the Ambassador -- was "musing that it might not be a bad idea to allow the random inspection of a few planes to proceed, which would provide cover if a rendition flight ever surfaced".
Even typing these words, my toes are curling. Mr Hard Man "mused" to the Ambassador. As in, perhaps, "Eh, is there any oul chance ye might let us throw an eye over the odd flight, like, just for the optics, y'know, God Bless ye, sir".
If the Ambassador's cable is accurate, this was about covering Mr Hard Man's ass, in case the truth got out -- rather than dealing with Ahern's own apparent belief that Shannon was part of the torture programme.
Mr Ahern is, of course, "ministerial material" of long standing. Mr Cowen was repeatedly described in the media as having a superior intellect. Brian Lenihan displayed the intelligence required to pass the Bar exam, and this seems to have solidified his reputation as "ministerial material".
From the end of September 2008, Mr Lenihan's inadequacy for the job of Minister for Finance seemed beyond doubt. Mr Lenihan's blanket guarantee of bank debt was, however, embraced by the media. On the surface, it was an incredibly foolish move -- made on information largely supplied by senior civil servants and bankers. So foolish did it appear to be that the chattering classes appear to have assumed that it simply couldn't be as foolish as it seemed. The cute lads, the two Brians, after all, were brains incarnate. As were their hugely-paid advisers.
And over the two years that followed, through the deliberate deflation of the economy, the soaring unemployment, the creation of Nama ("the only game in town"), the incessant 're-capitalisation' of dead banks and the destabilisation of the State -- the cheerleaders couldn't believe these guys were as thick as they seemed to be. So, they were allowed to keep trying outmoded solutions that were inadequate responses to problems they never quite understood.
Just over a year ago, this column quoted some lines from an old Pete Seeger song: "We're waist deep in the Big Muddy/And the big fool says to push on." Last week, a Dail heavy with blowhards voted to give Brian Lenihan unprecedented powers. It's as though the past two years of snowballing disaster never happened.