News Gene Kerrigan

Saturday 20 September 2014

Two old pros play the punters to a tee

Michael Noonan and Pat Rabbitte showed Eamonn Coghlan how politics works, writes Gene Kerrigan

Published 18/05/2014 | 02:30

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Minister for Finance Michael Noonan. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
Minister for Finance Michael Noonan. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins

Michael Noonan said something truly stupid last week and Pat Rabbitte said something really clever. And athletics legend Eamonn Coghlan – well, Eamonn – how do we put this without being cruel? Eamonn, in his own way, did us a service. While the behaviour of both Noonan and Rabbitte diminished us, Eamonn's behaviour – oh, God – is there any way of discussing Eamonn's behaviour without abandoning all sense of sympathy for a fellow human?

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Let's put it this way – Eamonn's behaviour added to the collective awareness of our political realities. How's that for tact and compassion?

All three are politicians. Noonan isn't stupid and Rabbitte isn't as clever as he thinks he is. But they're in election mode. Which means they say whatever they think will benefit their party.

Noonan and Rabbitte could do this kind of thing in their sleep. Coghlan is relatively fresh. He's Enda Kenny's man in the Seanad and he's running for Fine Gael in the Dublin West by-election.

Running a no-name FG hack wasn't on – not for a Government that thinks it's patriotic to take medical cards away from people with cancer. The hope was that running a sports celebrity might take the raw edge off voters' awareness of Fine Gael politics.

TV3 had a debate for Dublin West candidates, hosted by Vincent Browne. Normally, I'd unhook my optic nerves with a rusty spoon rather than watch one of these things. But, Eamonn – well, it was an education. The whole thing is on TV3's website (the party starts 16 minutes in) or you can look up Eamonn on YouTube.

"I suppose you have to be a little bit mad", said Eamonn, when Browne asked him why he wants to be a TD.

While others listed the Government's cruelties, Eamonn smiled indulgently.

"This is the rhetoric we're hearing morning, noon and night," said Eamonn. The Government is making "tough decisions", he said, which is one way of describing taking a medical card away from a person with multiple sclerosis.

And, suddenly, Eamonn began doing an imitation of a constituent. Yes, he did. Gravelly voice, thrusting finger and all.

Abruptly, Eamonn is on his feet, snarling, and he's the constituent pointing his finger at Eamonn. "Get outa here, I don't want you in here!"

Eamonn sits down, holds up his hands. "Sorr-ee", he says in a reasonable voice.

"You want my vote!" he snarls, thrusting his face forward, pointing, and we realise he's his constituent again.

"I go, 'Sorr-ee'", says reasonable Eamonn to his invisible constituent. And this went on. For. Some. Time. We stared, transfixed, watching a man act out his illusions about himself and the political culture in which he seeks to prosper.

Oh, go watch it yourself. Penance for your sins. The point of this performance seemed to be that Eamonn wants to come over as a different kind of politician, a courageous chap who doesn't pander to his constituents. Or, maybe not. By this stage, I was behind the sofa with my hands over my ears.

Eamonn, poor lamb, was merely, in his amateurish way, trying to find the right button to push.

For, as Eamonn twigged, the task of the modern politician is to find the right buttons to push – the ones that will arouse the voters' emotions. Politicians pay close attention to political manoeuvres. As do media hacks.

Most people, though, are too busy with their work and their families to go too deeply into the issues. So, politicians habitually seek to find the phrase, the angle that triggers a positive reaction in the voter.

"Turned the corner", "exit the bailout", "help young people onto the property ladder", "seismic shift" – these are some of the buttons pushed in the past. They convey progress, achievement – stick with us and we'll see you through.

The fact that such phrases conceal and mislead – that's in the small print. And – as yer man said – there's a lot done, more to do.

So Eamonn was confidently pressing what he thought were the right buttons, but he sounded like a chap telling a bar room anecdote to cronies who reflect back at him his view of himself. So, I says to him, I says . . .

Last week, Michael Noonan and Pat Rabbitte gave a masterclass in how to push the voters' buttons.

Noonan was asked about a scheduled twist in the Universal Social Charge which will take another €100m out of our pockets. And give €123m to those on salaries of over €100,000. Noonan said he's looking into it and may intervene.

Then, aiming at the electorate, he pushed a button. Fine Gael isn't into "tax and spend", he pronounced. It's a hoary old right-wing button guaranteed to arouse the passions of the FG base. Those other guys, the mad lefties, they're all tax and spend. Tax and spend, tax and spend.

Not we sensible people. They take money out of your pocket and waste it. Not us.

It's a stupid remark because tax and spend is what governments do. It's exactly what they do. It's all they do. They do nothing else.

That's what politics is about these days – first and last and all the way through the middle. Who and how you tax and where you spend and on what. The rest is window dressing.

But that's complicated. Hard to argue about. And the fact that much of the taxing and spending of Irish governments has involved paying off debts owed by private bankers to private bondholders – that's not something anyone needs to talk about.

Okay, so Philippe Legrain, former economic adviser to Manuel Barroso, President of the EU Commission, wants to talk about it.

"It was outrageous of Germany, the European Commission and, above all, the ECB to threaten to force Ireland out of the euro if it did not follow through with that foolish guarantee, lumbering Irish people, who have already suffered enough from collapsing house prices and a sinking economy, with a €64bn bill to bail out bust banks.

"I understand why the Irish Government did what it did," said Legrain, "but they could have stood up for themselves."

Ah, now, Philippe, we're not allowed to whinge. Be manly, take your screwing, don't complain, that's the Irish way. Let's not cry into the water under the bridge. Be positive. Stay the course, or some mad lefties will appear from somewhere and tax and spend, tax and spend.

Michael's was a hoary ploy, but there's mileage in it yet.

Last week, stirring up the troops for the election, Pat Rabbitte pushed a button he's pushed before. Acting like a Labour dissident, instead of a minister in the cruellest government in the history of the State, he denounced the Government's "drift" and demanded tax cuts.

Knowing that Fine Gael is preparing tax cuts as a sweetener for the next election, Rabbitte elbowed past them and pushed that button first. Any Fine Gael moves to cut taxes can now be spun as a response to Pat's demands.

That's how you do it, Eamonn. The old buttons work best.

While Eamonn, in his amateurism, showed us the pathetic sight of a would-be TD frantically trying to hoist himself onto a bandwagon, Michael and Pat displayed the practised ease of old pros. Playing the voters like a fiddle.

Sunday Independent

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