Juvenile move by an incidental Taoiseach
With Enda Kenny, everything is about promoting his party's electoral interests
Yes, Niall Collins is a bit of a pillock, but in recent days the conduct of others has made the Fianna Fail frontbencher seem in comparison like a thoughtful, public-spirited individual. Fine Gael tried hard to falsely depict this bog-standard Fianna Fail hack as some kind of warped political super-villain.
Under the pretence of protecting the independence of the judiciary, the leader of Fine Gael cynically tried to turn a case involving four grieving children into a political opportunity.
It was juvenile. It was debasing. And it was personally led by the leader of Fine Gael. And not one of his ministers – in Fine Gael or in Labour – had the guts to stand up to his petty political opportunism.
The Niall Collins episode is not an isolated case, it's rooted in the same cynical behaviour that resulted in the medical card scandal and the Government's subversion of the Oireachtas Banking Inquiry.
What did Collins do wrong? He was told of tragic circumstances in a criminal case and was asked to write a note for the defence file, to be given to the judge. He did so, with no benefit to himself.
He shouldn't have. The tragic circumstances could have been brought to the attention of the judge in other ways – there was no need for Collins to get involved in a case of which he had no specialised knowledge.
How might a Taoiseach respond? Perhaps like this: "We've had an unfortunate history of politicians making representations in criminal cases, including from my own party – and in recent years we've sought to end this. Mr Collins seems to have been motivated by compassion, but it's best if politicians keep out of these things. Beyond that, it would be wrong of me to comment. Let's leave it to the judge."
Instead, Mr Kenny sought to create a scandal about alleged political interference with the judiciary. "This is an issue where not just a public representative but a shadow minister for justice has written directly to a judge seeking to influence his
decision in the administration of justice."
Mr Kenny's aggression was unmistakable. He didn't just attack Collins, he sought to make the matter an issue for Micheal Martin. The attack had nothing to do with defending judicial independence; it was about doing down Fianna Fail.
First, Collins didn't write directly to the judge. He provided the defence with a statement of information, to be used openly in court.
The scandal of TDs and others contacting judges arose from the routine churning out of letters by politicians making "representations" for constituents – rape, drugs, murder, it didn't matter – it was all about getting votes at the next election. This is not what Collins did. He did not try to wrongly influence the judge. Given the plight of the children, he wanted to ensure that the judge was not unaware of relevant facts. His concern was unnecessary, I believe, but that's neither here nor there.
The leader of Fine Gael can be as opportunist as he wishes. But not the Taoiseach. The Taoiseach has responsibilities. The Taoiseach should not publicly, aggressively inform the judiciary of his interest in a case. He should not use the troubles of others as material for political advantage. He should not seek, for party political purposes, to create a scandal where none exists.
But this column has long argued that Enda Kenny does not see himself primarily as Taoiseach. He's leader of Fine Gael, and then – only incidentally – Taoiseach. And everything is about promoting his party's electoral interests. Everything – the Collins episode; the medical cards scandal; the proposed Oireachtas Banking Inquiry.
On Morning Ireland on Friday, Richard Bruton wasn't comfortable with being party to an orchestrated political mugging. You could hear the unease in his voice. Perhaps because he knew it was just plain wrong to use such a tragic matter for political advantage, he went easy on Collins. Rather than seeking to demonise the Fianna Failer, he said weakly that Collins should "sort it out" and "deal with it".
Pushed, he revealed the petty political basis to Fine Gael's condemnations: "If the boot was on the other foot," he said, "I know what Fianna Fail would do." Yeah, I think we all know what Fianna Fail would do, Richard. But you'd know it was wrong. And you knew this was wrong. But you half-heartedly joined in because your party leader is a spoiled child, and if you don't play the game his way he'll remember that.
Noted across Europe for his subservience to the ECB and his deference to EU bureaucrats, Mr Kenny proudly makes "tough decisions" at home – kicking supports out from under the autistic, the disabled and cancer patients, those least able to strike back.
He was deaf to cries of distress. Pleas from carers, from professionals who know how these cuts are savaging people's lives, were ignored. Then, his troops went knocking on doors, asking for votes – and the anger of those he's kicked when they're down was loud and unforgiving.
The abuse of the medical card system, to siphon money away from the sick and the needy, was the most immediate and blatant series of cruelties. Suddenly, the "tough decisions" needed to be adjusted – just enough to tone down the anger. Nothing to do with distress, need, illness – just a cynical attempt to plug the holes through which political support was leaking.
James Reilly was left twisting in the wind. He'll be kept on – lauded as a humanitarian reformer, if they can get away with it. Dispensed with as an inept bungler, if the going gets too rough.
A couple of weeks ago the Government made a mess of setting up an Oireachtas Banking Inquiry. Immediately, the Fine Gael leader in the Seanad, Maurice Cummins, made an allegation across the floor. Marc MacSharry, a Fianna Fail member of the inquiry panel, had an unspecified "conflict of interest".
Fianna Fail. Banks. Conflict of interest. Enough said, Maurice, we hear ya talking (nudge-nudge, wink-wink). Thanks for the warning. Let's make chopped liver of this MacSharry guy's reputation.
But Maurice wouldn't tell us what the conflict of interest was. And he withdrew the allegation. Just like that.
It was as if, when Fine Gael made a mess of stitching up the banking inquiry, Maurice tried to retrieve matters by making a vague and unsustained allegation against MacSharry.
Make a serious allegation, let it dangle there, then – when pushed – withdraw it.
Let me try that: Maurice Cummins is a shoplifter who dresses up as the Lone Ranger and sings slightly obscene Wagnerian opera lyrics in a basso profundo.
I withdraw those allegations. Maurice never lifted a shop in his life. In fact, he dresses up as Tonto and the obscene lyrics are delivered in a warm baritone. No, I withdraw that, too.
These are adults, in the Oireachtas, setting up an inquiry into the banking collapse – six years after the event. Behaving like spiteful, panicky juveniles.
Casually traduce your opponents. Exploit a TD's ineptly expressed concern for grieving children. Savage the sick, and manipulate the medical card system in line with your own electoral interests. And make no secret of the fact that the purpose of the banking inquiry is to trash Fianna Fail.
Remember when Biffo wasn't hungover on Morning Ireland? And when his ministers grabbed their pensions and ran? And – we thought standards couldn't get any lower.