Sunday 25 September 2016

Think-ins? They want their heads banged together

Published 15/09/2015 | 02:30

It's that time of year again... the political party think-ins are in full flow
It's that time of year again... the political party think-ins are in full flow

It's that time of year again. You know autumn is here when the Rose of Tralee is over, the 'Late Late Show' is back, Kilkenny have taken Liam McCarthy home to Noreside, the kids are back in school and the political party think-ins are in full flow.

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The description "think-ins", it should be said, is something of a stretch. There's probably more substance to the Rose of Tralee festival than what goes on at most of the party gatherings.

The events, not to put too fine a point on it, are a nonsense. They suit the 24/7 news cycle. The political parties get their photo-op of the happy, united party (mar dhea), their key figures appear on all the prime time news and current affairs shows and a story or two is cooked up. There's a bit of a knees-up. We in the media lap it up. Everyone goes home happy and the rest of the nation collectively yawns and gets on with day-to-day living.

What's the point of it all, and how did everyone manage before they existed? The answer to the first question is that there's little or none and, as for the second, we all managed just fine, thanks very much.

There may - emphasis on may - have been some point to these think-ins when they began a couple of decades ago, but their raison d'etre has long since disappeared. Back then, when the Oireachtas committee system was less developed, they arguably served as a means of allowing frustrated and voiceless backbenchers some input into policy matters, as well as serving as a useful sounding board for the party leadership to hear about gripes and concerns.

And, in an era when journalism was the sole preserve of journalists, the presence of outside specialists or experts who would come in and address the assembled TDs and senators to brief them on an issue may have helped, to some degree, to broaden the horizons of the audience and prompt some new thinking.

However, there is precious little evidence that such briefings ever trickled down to actually have an input on government policy. Let's face it: what has largely driven government policy over the last two decades has been less about innovative thinking and detailed debate and more about focus groups and winning the next general election.

Furthermore, with today's media - new and old - there is no shortage of opportunity for these experts to express their views and inform public opinion directly. It's hardly necessary to invite them in to give formal addresses to the parliamentary party.

And if TDs want to know about innovative ideas on, say, childcare in Finland, all they need to do is google those three words and a library of research is available.

Then again, how many TDs really are that interested in finding out about childcare in Finland? That's not a particular criticism of them. The reality is that advocating innovative policy ideas is not going to secure them their seat at the next general election. Holding the constituency clinic above Murphy's bar every Wednesday and Saturday will, though.

Irish political parties' efforts to debate and develop policy are pretty lamentable. Lip service is paid to it - you have to put something into the election manifesto - but it's often only an afterthought.

The contrast with the UK or the US is marked. You mightn't like Margaret Thatcher's politics, but on reading her biography, one of the things that stands out is how various Conservative think-tanks and policy centres influenced the policies she implemented throughout the 1980s. She actively encouraged such new thinking. The same holds true for the British left.

An hour's lecture from an expert, however well informed, on housing or the economy in a closed session at the think-in just doesn't compare.

Most of these parliamentary party sessions (pun intended) are quickly forgotten. The only two that linger in the memory do so for the wrong reasons.

The Fianna Fáil think-in of 2004 will be remembered in the history books for Bertie Ahern's conversion to socialism on the road to Inchydoney. The famous photo of Ahern, a barefooted Mary Hanafin and Fr Sean Healy of CORI - the keynote speaker that year - strolling on the west Cork beach symbolised the then government's shift from McCreevy economics to what was portrayed as a more socially compassionate approach.

What it actually meant was billions in extra spending and tax cuts in a bid to ensure the party won the next general election. It was politically successful, winning the 2007 general election, but disastrous for the country.

Fast forward to FF's 2010 gathering in the Ardilaun Hotel in Galway which became the stuff of legend. Brian Cowen's dire performance on Morning Ireland after a night in which he entertained the troops in the bar with stories and a, by all accounts, pretty decent version of the Lakes of Pontchartrain caused major controversy and was hugely damaging to the then Taoiseach.

The drink-ins - sorry, think-ins - were never the same after that. But instead of marking the end of what had become a jaded formula, they have limped on, each year more sedate and uninspiring than the last.

And the column inches and TV cameras they attract each September mean it will stay that way for the foreseeable future - two days of assigned 'thinking' per party.

General George Patton famously said that if everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn't thinking. Take away the soundbites and the cheesy family photos and the worry is that there's not a lot of genuine thinking going on in Irish politics.

Shane Coleman presents the 'Sunday Show' on newstalk.com at 10am.

Irish Independent

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