Minister, whatever you say, say nothing
The strangled language of waffling politicians conceals truths they must avoid
Published 29/06/2014 | 00:00
Politicians talk a lot. In fact, it's most of what they do. They talk all day, all year, decade after decade. Words are to politicians what spanners are to mechanics - tools of the trade.
Given that talk is central to their jobs, you'd imagine they might be a bit better at it. Why is it that so much of what they say is evasive? Why so many rehashed sentences? Why so many words that fill a gap, but have no clear meaning?
Because, perhaps, clear statements of truth and fact are not an option, given our current circumstances.
When politicians say they will bring "clarity, light and direction to what will be a difficult journey to a better future ahead" they are uttering a sentence that contains words but no content. They do this all the time.
Last week, one of the leading politicians in the country was interviewed on Morning Ireland. Joan Burton is a minister, she entered the Dail 22 years ago. She has a staff, highly paid advisers, and limitless sound bites calculated to get her through any questions likely to be raised.
Ms Burton used to be a lecturer, she works the media very well, she's running for the job of Tanaiste and leader of the Labour Party.
She's been preparing for this for some time. You would imagine that at 65, she'd have a good idea of what she stands for, and that she'd readily have the words to articulate her beliefs.
Last week, in answer to a very, very simple question, Ms Burton managed to come up with a strong contender for the title of the most convoluted, meaningless and daft combination of words ever to emerge from the mouth of an Irish politician.
She's not short of competition. This is the country that produced Bertie Sterling Deposits, a professional word strangler of international renown. Not to mention Biffo, whom we'll not mention.
Any politician with the neck to run for anything knows they'll be asked the coalition question. The odds are against any one party getting an overall majority. So, the issue of who you will and won't get into bed with is central to the hunt for office.
And the truth is that the parties are politically promiscuous. There isn't anyone they won't throw the leg over if it means a chance to enter government.
Or isn't there?
Is Sinn Fein still beyond the pale? They are right now, for many - but things change. In 1992, John Bruton was leading Fine Gael and he refused to consider coalition with Democratic Left - led by Proinsias de Rossa, Pat Rabbitte and Eamon Gilmore - a party with a pedigree going back to Official Sinn Fein. It was a deal-breaker for him, so much so that he let go a chance to become Taoiseach.
Two years later, he was comfortably in government with them. Even what appears to be the most uncompromising political language has a sell-by date.
So, when Joan Burton was asked, "Could you see any possibility of agreeing to enter a coalition with Sinn Fein after the next election?" she knew the answer. But she dared not give it.
Instead, she said she has a problem regarding Sinn Fein's "unanswered questions". Yeah, but - speaking of unanswered questions, Joan - that wasn't the question you were asked. So, again: Is there a possibility of coalition with Sinn Fein, or do you rule it out? And to this simple question she said: "As far as I'm concerned it's almost completely . . ."
And she searched for another word that wouldn't say either yes or no: ". . . unlikely".
Almost. Completely. Unlikely.
She sandwiched an unambiguous word - "completely" - between two words that denote uncertainty. If you almost won, it means you lost. If something is complete, it's not almost. The addition of the word "unlikely" drains the sentence of meaning.
The reason Burton dared not answer the question without evasion is this: There are certain truths about how we live now that must not be mentioned. Those truths are too brutal to be admitted publicly. Instead, forms of verbal evasion are now standard - which is why so much of what politicians say is sound-bite chatter.
Take, for instance, one of Enda Kenny's points in his famous Five Point Plan. "Smaller, better government with the people's money spent wisely on vital public services." It means what you want it to mean, so it has no meaning. The parties produce reams of this stuff before, during and after elections.
The woolly, detached language is verbal Polyfilla, plugging the empty spaces where certain truths must be left unspoken. And these truths we don't mention include:
The Oireachtas, ministers and the civil service are in economic matters subservient to a small number of unelected officials in Frankfurt. Those officials almost all still subscribe to the extremist soft regulation, free market politics that caused the crash. On the whole, our politicians share those views.
There's a solid crossover of personnel between the unelected ECB officials and the major banks.
The alleged promise that we would get back most of the money spent to prop up Irish banks (so they could prop up German and other banks) was a nonsense - though there may yet be some cosmetic move to spare Mr Kenny and Mr Gilmore's blushes.
In foreign affairs, our officials operate within parameters set under the shared jurisdiction of the EU Council of Ministers and the US State Department.
Any attempt to change the country's subordination to these interests will be met with sharp and immediate punishment.
Successive governments have turned the country into a service platform for large corporations that pay millions in fees to lawyers and financial services in the course of avoiding paying billions in tax. And this strategy is under attack from the treasuries of the countries where the tax should have been paid. We are now trying to keep both sides happy - the corporations and the treasuries of those to whom we genuflect.
What Joan Burton dared not say was this: we will get into political bed with anyone - Sinn Fein included - but there's one non-negotiable condition. Cabinet seats, number of advisers, programme for government - all up for grabs - everything, except one thing.
And that is: We will not allow into office anyone who does not accept the agenda of austerity and subservience that follows from the unspoken truths about how this country is governed.
Burton can't say this. And she doesn't know how Sinn Fein will jump, so she must dodge the question and plug the gap with meaningless words.
Logic suggests a Fine Gael/Fianna Fail coalition. But, for reasons of history and ego, that will be resisted. So, the issue arises, if the numbers are right, will Sinn Fein signal its acceptance of and submission to the unspoken truths under which we are governed, or will it continue making radical noises?
We will know the answer when Gerry Adams says he wants to make Ireland the best small country in the world in which to do business. And Mary Lou McDonald says she wants to bring clarity, light and direction to what will be a difficult journey to a better future ahead.