Wednesday 26 October 2016

In, out, in, out, shaking Lowry all about

You surely didn't expect our leaders to give a straight answer to a straight question? asks Gene Kerrigan

Published 31/01/2016 | 02:30

'To fully appreciate the subtlety of Irish political language, you have to accept something that your experience and your common sense suggest is nonsense: you have to accept that Irish politicians prefer not to tell lies'
'To fully appreciate the subtlety of Irish political language, you have to accept something that your experience and your common sense suggest is nonsense: you have to accept that Irish politicians prefer not to tell lies'

This week, at no extra cost, we bring you the Soapbox Political Translation Service. Without it, you won't understand half of what the politicians say in the weeks ahead.

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To fully appreciate the subtlety of Irish political language, you have to accept something that your experience and your common sense suggest is nonsense: you have to accept that Irish politicians prefer not to tell lies.

It's true, though. No kidding. Cross my heart.

This preference for the appearance of truth isn't a result of idealism, it's because there's no need to risk being caught deliberately lying when you can use a version of the truth that misleads.

The most prevalent form of misleading language is the fake apology. Let's say you're caught saying something offensive or embarrassing and your enemies demand an apology.

If you admit you were wrong and apologise, your enemies will demand that you resign, which takes the problem to a new level.

You could tell them to bugger off, you don't regret a word of it - which is the truth. However, if you do so, they can portray you as a bit of a brute.

You need some misleading words that admit nothing but give the appearance of an apology.

You don't have to convince your enemies, let alone the public. You merely have to convince the officer class of the media, principally the political correspondents. You need to come up with a fake apology that allows them accept that you've done your penance. If the apology amuses them sufficiently in its ingenuity, they will declare that the story no longer "has legs", and you're off the hook.

This should be along the lines of: "I very much regret if anyone took offence at what I said."

Note, you're not admitting anything. Your "apology" merely regrets that other people did wrong by taking offence from the utterly inoffensive words you said.

If the issue is raised again, you say you've already dealt with the matter. Refer them to your statement and say you've nothing to add.

A classic example from 2014 - the McNulty Seanad scandal, when Enda Kenny was caught stroking. Under pressure, he ended the problem by saying: "I take responsibility for this having evolved to what people might imagine it is."

Enda thereby manfully took responsibility for the sins of others, who merely imagined he had done something wrong.

A master at work.

Such sleights of tongue can be used to ease one out of all sorts of tight corners.

Happily, the evasive techniques that have become standard were in wide use last week, so we don't have to look far for an example. Last week was Lowry Week.

Don't worry, the Lowry issue is just something we're enjoying while we're waiting for the general election campaign to get into its stride. It will be replaced by a series of other controversies that will keep us amused until we have a new government. But the techniques used last week will be employed repeatedly in the weeks to come, even as the issues change.

Those of a younger persuasion will perhaps be unaware that once upon a time Michael Lowry was the future of Fine Gael. He was widely regarded - not least by himself - as a dynamic minister. More important, he was a whizz at fundraising.

Michael came to public prominence when he chaired the committee running Semple Stadium. He cleared the stadium's debt in no time. Then he started to do the same for Fine Gael.

It was widely understood in those days that if Fine Gael had a choice between Nelson Mandela and Michael Lowry they'd hand Nelson his hat, thank him for his interest and promise to keep his name on file.

I mean, Nelson had some laudable qualities, but how much did he ever raise for the party?

Unfortunately, Michael became embroiled in a number of controversies and tribunal appearances, culminating in his resignation from Cabinet and departure from Fine Gael.

Fianna Fail, of course, had no problem doing a deal with Michael in 2007, as long as it kept them in government. So it was inevitable that Enda Kenny and Joan Burton would be asked if they would do a deal with Michael if it meant clinging onto office.

Poor Joan.

Like a salmon with a hook in its mouth, she wriggled and dived and leapt.

"Let me be very clear," she said. And when a politician uses such a phrase you can be reasonably sure they're about to squirt some inky stuff into your eyes.

Joan said it "would certainly concern me deeply" to be in a government propped up by independents. Yeah, yeah, but no one asked that.

The Irish Independent was very, very cruel to Joan. It printed her answer. In full. All 336 words. All evasion.

Next day, Joan tried a fast one - and my colleagues deemed that she had ruled out Lowry.

Not so, folks.

Look at it: "The Tanaiste does not believe it appropriate that the individual in question would form part of a future government."

That left it open to do a deal with Lowry - and to point out he's not "part of" the government. Further pressure forced Joan to agree that Lowry's support would be unacceptable "in relation to" any government.

Which plugs that hole.

Enda Kenny is made of sterner stuff.

He does "not contemplate", he said, doing a deal with any Independents.

No one had asked him about contemplation, of course. Eleven times he was asked to rule out Lowry, eleven times he used his sleight of tongue.

If you run such verbiage through the Soapbox Political Translation Service it has only one plausible meaning: Yes.

A vote for Fine Gael is a vote for Michael Lowry.

The time for asking the Taoiseach to rule out Lowry is past. The question now is what he would pay for Michael's support. Usually, Michael is a modest man, requiring no more than goodies for his constituency that will help him get elected next time.

But he'll be 63 in March and he truly appeared to enjoy his period as a minister, what with being so dynamic and all that.

It's not out of the question.

Meanwhile, I'll stick with Joanie. Joanie took her time finding a form of words that doesn't seem to leave any loopholes through which Michael might squeeze through. I believe her.

Mind you, in 2011 I believed Labour's explicit promise not to raise car tax. Or Dirt tax. Or wine tax. Or to raise third-level fees. Or to raise Vat. Or to cut child benefit.

Most of all, I believed Labour's 2011 election manifesto when it said, on page 29: "Labour does not favour water charges."

Mind you, that merely said the party didn't "favour" a water tax. Never actually said they wouldn't impose one. Foiled again.

Sunday Independent

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