News John Drennan

Wednesday 17 September 2014

John Drennan: Paddy isn't being told the story

The code of silence on the Budget mirrors the toxic secrecy that led us to the abyss we're now in, writes John Drennan

Published 08/07/2012 | 05:00

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Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore and Taoiseach Enda Kenny

If you were looking for an example of the dysfunctional nature of Irish politics it would be hard to surpass last week's exchange between Enda Kenny and Micheal Martin over Joan Burton's recent speech on the pressing need to reform the PRSI fund.

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The most intriguing feature of Mr Martin's queries on the issue was that, implicitly, he appeared to believe it had been wrong of Burton to raise the issue, not so much because of what she said, but, because Joan had broken the Taoiseach's fatwa on ministers raising budgetary issues.

However, while the leader of the Government and opposition were in apparent agreement on the Burmese virtues of censoring free speech for ministers, Mr Kenny was not for sucking on that tart sweet labelled 'open discussions on the next Budget'.

In as fine example of Biffo-style democratic debate as you would ever see, Enda made it clear to 'Paddy' that only after "the decisions are made by the Government in respect of the Budget" would there be "full, open and frank debate".

Kenny's stance was, in fairness, understandable, for conventional wisdom always garlands a Taoiseach with plaudits when they slap down ministers and humble backbenchers who speak their minds.

Some 'innocents' might claim it would be no bad thing if, as part of Mr Kenny's 'democratic revolution', politicians treated the taxpayers who pay their salaries with the respect citizens should expect and outline the choices and conflicts that exist in all governments.

However, you will not get too many takers for such fine and fancy notions in the political theatre of the nation.

Instead our dear friend known as 'consensus' -- first cousin of another old colleague called 'group-think' -- will say that Mr Kenny, in quashing the free exchange of ideas, has 'exerted his authority' -- whatever that may be.

But while other attractive phrases such as 'decisiveness' and 'tough leadership' will also be swiftly attached to our man if he takes the road most travelled, should the Taoiseach allow debate, he will be accused of 'losing control' being 'semi-detached' and purposeless.

There are those who might believe suppressing the free exchange of ideas is indicative of cowardice rather than authority, but this, alas, is what passes for clever politics in Ireland -- and even if such politics swept us into bankruptcy, we are, apparently, not for turning.

In fairness, it should be noted there is, unfortunately, no shortage of examples where the Irish citizenry has acted in such a manner as to strongly deter politicians from engaging in open debate.

Still it is unfortunate, to put it mildly, that the generalised stupidity of the electorate that has continuously selected either granidloquently corrupt politicians such as Charlie Haughey, Liam Lawlor, Ray Burke, Michael Lowry, or the utterly inept such as Bertie, Biffo, Mary Harney, as well as now Enda, should act as such a deterrent to iconoclastic and free-spirited open discourse.

In fairness to Mr Kenny, who enjoyed telling his ministers to shut their traps so much he repeated the exercise twice, the acquiescence of the Cabinet to the 'diktat' was as swift as it was insincere.

And with the usual forensic independence that would embarrass the sheep of Animal Farm, the Taoiseach's views were swiftly echoed by the usual collective of loyal ministers and aspiring back-benchers.

But, while the Taoiseach's authority had been successfully 'asserted', those who live outside the environs of Leinster House in Wonderland would be entitled to ask what is wrong with our political state, or society, that we are apparently unable to have a mature debate on the options we must face.

The wreckage left behind by the old model means there is no shortage of issues, such as how our state-of-the-art social welfare system is compatible with our status as hapless bankrupts, or how a health over-run of €200m, facilitated by hospital consultants taking home up to €1m annually, can be resolved by denying free toast to nurses.

Some will even think it odd that a Government which has prioritised the fundamental reform of our tainted political system does not see the creation of a new, open politics as representing a sine qua non of such a scenario.

Instead, the Irish political elite continue to embrace the 'Victorian dad-style' ethos where, like father, Enda and the Cabinet are never wrong, and citizens, like all good children, should be neither seen nor heard.

However, we are beginning to realise that, just as if you cosset children from the realities of the world, you create young adults who are incapable of independent living, the old authoritarian paternalism has had a similar effect on the Irish State.

The problem here, however, is that just as most crimes are solved by the principle of cui bono (who benefits) the interests of too many people are served by the politics of silence.

Knowledge, after all, is power, and though there is very little of that to be had in this poor failed political entity, Messrs Kenny, Gilmore, Howlin and Noonan would, understandably, like to keep as much of that elixir as they can for themselves.

Ironically, though, while they may take the rap for the continued thriving state of this ethic, in our case the beneficiaries of the culture of silence are far broader than our politicians. Chief among their number is the same vested private and public sector elite who destroyed the first Republic and escaped relatively unscathed from the wreckage.

Be it in Finance, where the endemic 'group-think' of the department meant anyone who questioned the Tiger 'miracle' was silenced, or in Health, where whistle-blowers on everything from Hepatitis C to the abuse of children were quelled, the key to success in the public sector -- where the principles of TK Whittaker were drowned some time ago -- has always been to keep the head down and trap shut.

Ultimately, the chief beneficiaries of this appalling cult

of 'whatever you think, say nothing' has consisted of our debased clique of business and banking faux aristocrats who fiddled while the Bonfire of the Celtic Tiger Vanities went out of control, and are now intent on escaping from the consequences of their acts.

Their happy state is all the more curious because Mr Kenny, in coming into office, famously noted that one of the defining traits of the Irish character was that Paddy likes to know the story.

Sadly, nothing epitomises the little death of reform within this administration more, or how our mandarins have seized this State back by the throat again, than the apparent determination of this Government to tell poor Paddy absolutely nothing.

On one level we should not be too surprised -- for one of the more subtle threats this Government faces is that of simple nostalgia.

The current political elite, and particularly the Grumpy Old Men, desire nothing more than to return to the comfortable carpet-slippered certainties of the early Celtic Tiger era, when civil servants did the heavy loading, and the role of the politician was to announce a few old grants and pacify as many interest groups as possible with some form of fiscal soother.

But this is actually not good enough, for the political DNA of the time contained the toxic viruses of secretiveness and arrogance that walked us blindfolded into the abyss we now languish in.

It would be nice to think that some day we might govern ourselves like the Germans, the Dutch and other such civilised societies, instead of treating free discussion with the suspicion the Catholic Church reserved for free love in the Sixties.

We instead appear to share the attitude displayed in the apocryphal tale of Paddy's appearance on Mastermind where after saying 'Pass' to the first 20 questions, beginning with his name, an enthusiastic fellow citizen shouted: "Fair play, Pat, tell them nothing."

It is, however, time we learnt that when it comes to the task of building a new republic that might be somewhat better than the rotten hulk that sank like a stone in 2011 that silence, particularly when it comes to the Cabinet lambs, is not always golden.

Sunday Independent

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