Sunday 23 October 2016

Ross talked the talk as a TD but can't walk the walk as a minister

Published 18/08/2016 | 02:30

Sports Minister Shane Ross (on left) watches Scott Evans’ match in the last 16 of the men’s badminton in Rio de Janeiro. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Sports Minister Shane Ross (on left) watches Scott Evans’ match in the last 16 of the men’s badminton in Rio de Janeiro. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Having haplessly become the target for this summer's silly season, Shane Ross is now falling victim to the very treatment that he heaped on his political peers when he was a journalist. Believing that a government made up of schoolteachers, former solicitors and sons and daughters of political dynasties was a failed model, Ross ditched his pen and microphone to storm the political system and free it from cronyism and secrecy.

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Now, Ross is learning the hard (and very public) way that practising realpolitik is far more difficult than simply being a political polemicist.

Several of the stances he has taken recently oscillate between nimbyism and populism and have left Ross looking like an urbane Healy-Rae. When it comes to political shrewdness, however, that may be a bit unfair on the Healy-Raes - as Ross has shown little of their political cunning.

Yesterday, he again highlighted his failure to understand the correct behaviour for a Government minister. In the immediate aftermath of Pat Hickey's arrest, a breathless Ross tweeted his 40,000 followers: "Shell shock here in Rio."

A worthy headline for any self-respecting tabloid newspaper. However, as Sports Minister, representing, protecting and promoting our athletes should always be his primary concern. His secondary concern should have been for Ireland's international sporting reputation. His last concern should have been his own state of disbelief.

Ross's transition from simply demanding answers to delivering them has not been a smooth one.

This begs the question, should journalists stick to questioning others or can they really cross over to become political players?

As a journalist and politician who was on the margins of political decision-making, Shane Ross excelled in causing raucous debate. A prominent member of the Public Accounts Committee and an Independent TD, he often championed the cause of many who were frustrated by the lack of idealism and progress at the centre of political life.

So the man with an upper-middle-class accent came among us and repeatedly captured the public mood on contentious issues of the day. By asking direct and incisive questions in sometimes rather dramatic fashion, he easily outshone most of his political colleagues in terms of performance and hyperbole.

However, as a minister, the expectations of him have increased exponentially. It is no longer enough to simply capture the mood of the electorate, he must now catapult their expectations to execution.

The chasm between those expectations and the reality of political life is vast. Journalists who are seasoned in the art of demanding deadlines seldom appreciate or understand the groaning pace of passing even the simplest piece of legislation, never mind the vagaries of dealing with crisis situations involving external agencies or organisations like the Olympic Council of Ireland, which are part-funded by the Government but are difficult to sanction.

Small wonder that the vacuum between calling for something and making it happen comes as such a shock to those who have not been immersed in the political system and dependent on the civil service before.

One can only imagine the eye-rolling within the Department of Transport and Sport as their minister suggested placing a "journalist" on an investigative panel to ensure full transparency in getting to the bottom of the Olympic ticket saga.

It was a valiant attempt to assuage disgruntled members of the media who wanted answers. Unfortunately, however, this was about as likely as an Irish boxer receiving a fair break from an Olympic referee.

The egomania of a journalist who thinks that he or she can be better than politicians is no new phenomenon. Nor is it confined to these shores. It is becoming increasingly prevalent as the boundaries for professional careers becomes ever more blurred.

Gore Vidal, Al Gore, Norman Mailer, George Lee, Boris Johnson, and Michael Gove are all former journalists who crossed the line from political complainants to prescribing policy prescriptions and seeking a democratic mandate.

Some have been more successful than others. Occasionally, the short-termism of their policies and their innate failure to understand the wider consequences of the myopia of their individual agendas have been exposed.

Most recently, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove both played enormous roles in Britain's decision to leave the European Union - a result which has not only propelled Britain into a state of civic uncertainty but, in the words of financier George Soros, "threatened the very survival of the European project".

Ruthlessly exploiting a charged debate around emigration, Johnson and Gove used their collective political power and media manipulation to exploit difficulties in the Conservative Party.

To date, over four million people have signed a petition calling for a second vote. Johnson's and Gove's legacy is buyer's remorse, a syndrome or 'Regrexit'.

The ability to shape and frame public opinion is becoming ever more accessible to those who have the chutzpah to step up to the plate. Journalists mostly seek validation for their work through public agreement in the hope that their engagement on issues attracts readers, followers and listeners.

Politicians, on the other hand, do it to acquire votes and then power, which they exercise and so increase their status. Ironically, when all the palaver around politics and the media is stripped back, both professions are about engaging and persuading the public. They are not mutually exclusive.

One-time political foes of Shane Ross in Leinster House who may have been on the receiving end of his lashing will be licking their ice creams with a degree of schadenfreude as the minister gets kicked around for sport by old friends in the media this summer.

An international propaganda war involving the Olympic Council of Ireland and Pat Hickey is not going to produce gold medals for anyone, least of all the Sports Minister presiding over revelations of a ticketing scandal.

As he hightails it out of Rio, Ross may wish to reassess his new relationships by keeping his friends close and his enemies closer.

More than any other politician, he knows the game. It is nothing personal, it's just business.

Irish Independent

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