Friday 26 December 2014

Rabbitte was right to tell us some of the uncomfortable truths about politics

Published 07/08/2014 | 02:30

Pat Rabbitte
Pat Rabbitte

Pat Rabbitte told some uncomfortable truths this week. You might dislike the way he told them, but that does not make them any less true.

He did the same thing more than once in the past, when he had more to lose. He has little or nothing to lose now. To all intents and purposes, his political career has ended.

The manner of its ending capped a sad story.

He should have resigned from the Government, like Ruairi Quinn, before he was sacked. Again like Mr Quinn, he should have done so without bitterness or recrimination. He did himself a disservice by allowing his anger to show in public.

He had some grounds for bitterness, if not for recrimination. His outstanding intellect and his capacity for accurate and objective political analysis should have brought him more rewards and more recognition over the decades.

But the lack of rewards was always going to be the fate of a man who long ago chose the wrong party in terms of both ideology and prospects.

Although he spent so much of his career in the Workers' Party and Democratic Left, he is at heart a social democrat. He worked hard to bring about the merger between Democratic Left and Labour. The merger never brought about the advantages for which both parties hoped.

But none of that undermines the truth, or the huge relevance for today's politics, of his criticisms of Fine Gael this week.

Charles J Haughey, of all people, said that the major party in a coalition government should accord a minor party somewhat more influence than its numbers warranted. Fine Gael under Enda Kenny has disregarded that advice.

In this least ideological of countries, Fine Gael in office has appeared to uphold two quite different ideologies: conservatism of an old-fashioned and very Irish kind, verging on the rustic, and a fumbling version of neoliberalism.

It has ignored some of Labour's most cherished desires, for example, a state bank. We have had no debate on whether we need one, or how it could work. Meanwhile, the average citizen has no idea how we are going to repair the banking system.

The same average citizen, however, has strong opinions about the shakiness, bordering on collapse, of the entire system of governance since the beginning of this year.

Mr Rabbitte was right to attack Fine Gael for mishandling the water charges question - for which Labour seems to have got most of the blame - as well as the medical cards fiasco and, above all, the spate of controversies involving the Department of Justice. His criticism of "drift and mistakes" was, if anything, too mild.

But he was wrong to complain about Joan Burton's promotions of first-term deputies.

For one thing, that sounded too much like pique, something he had better start avoiding. For another, all such promotions are leaps in the dark. We simply must hope they work.

Anybody ascending to her present eminence for the first time has to make choices, not just in the traditional sense between experience and potential, but a basketful of extremely difficult choices relating to age, background and personality.

You can't do it. I can't do it. Enda Kenny can't do it. It is something for Labour alone. If she has got it wrong, she will assuredly suffer in time.

The mistakes of government-forming are the stuff of history and legend.

The public seldom know this, and people are often puzzled when politicians lose their jobs or reputations because they do not fit into some scheme of things. But they are quick to denounce what they see as personal flaws.

Pat Rabbitte has "form" when it comes to saying things in a manner that sounds arrogant and dismissive.

The most notorious came in 2012, on the subject of broken election promises. "Isn't that," he asked, "what you tend to do during an election?" Meaning, make promises which you know you cannot honour.

Well, no, it isn't. And the politician who has been most vocal on the numerous sins of the Fianna Fail Party should have remembered that Fianna Fail did the country more damage by fulfilling daft promises than by breaking them.

He dismissed, in much too lordly a manner, the complaints of those who wanted a different regime for taxing (or not taxing) companies exploring for oil. There was force in his argument, but everybody has a right to be heard.

Centrally, Mr Rabbitte himself has a right to be heard, in retirement even more than in office, because he must have more things to say that are true and relevant and pointed and are the fruit of long experience.

No better man, in my opinion, to take up the argument set out in this newspaper on Tuesday by Stephen Kinsella. You will remember that Kinsella tore into the Government's "good news" campaign and, specifically, into the way that it holds out prospects of tax cuts.

The recovery is only skin deep. We will remain deep in debt for a very long time. The first and worst phase of austerity may have ended, but we have not been restored to prosperity. The Government should tag on to every "good news" announcement a warning that we remain vulnerable to more shocks at home, from Europe and from faraway places.

That is perhaps the most important truth that we need to hear. We do not need exaggerated hopes or claims based on little more than a housing bubble in the South Dublin suburbs.

Mr Rabbitte should analyse the facts and give us his opinions, based on a lifetime of learning. But he should speak in the style of an elder statesman, not the style of a disappointed politician.

Irish Independent

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