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Brendan Keenan: Facing a battle that would strike fear into 1916 heroes

RTE's satirical show lacks a 'loveable' figure like the Minister for Hardship, reflecting our loss of faith in politics

RTE'S Irish Pictorial Weekly, the satirical television show which has just finished an acclaimed run, unashamedly takes its name from its Seventies predecessor, Hall's Pictorial Weekly (called, if you're too young to remember, after its creator, Frank Hall).

It is a tribute to that show's success that, not only does its name live on but that the formula still seems to work. Both programmes were born out of economic crisis, but I could not help noticing a subtle but significant difference.

The iconic figure in Hall's Pictorial was the 'Minister for Hardship' – generally taken to be a takeoff of the then Taoiseach, Liam Cosgrave.

The iconic satire in the new show centres on the leaders of the 1916 Rising who, as the battle rages, are drinking, eating and carving up the perks of office which they expect soon to enjoy.

In the last episode, one of them is hit by a stray bullet and dies lamenting that he will not live to see the free Ireland of bankers' bonuses, unvouched expenses, payments to public sector workers for turning up for work etc.

No one is saying that the men of 1916 were like that. That is the point of the satire. The difference in the two shows is that the audience did believe that Mr Cosgrave was like that: austere, determined, inflexible and a fervent believer in sound public finances.

On these matters, he was (thankfully, he is still with us) as German as any German. One would not need Barry Murphy's Angela Merkel in the show to lecture the feckless Irish population; the Minister for Hardship would do just as good a job.

I would, in fact, quibble with the portrayal of Dr Merkel as a Bond villain. That reinforces the folly displayed by most of our leaders and a large chunk of our commentators which the show satirises so well. A chancellor in homespun clothing beside a miserly fire would be closer to today's differences between German attitudes and Irish ones of the kind portrayed in the fictional GPO.

Another difference is that the Minister for Hardship was in many ways an affectionate figure. He would lecture us on our shortcomings and dismiss our complaints. My favourite remembered line is: "Tis far from phones ye were reared."

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There is no affection in the mock Rising. This is not just a sign of the times but a symbol of the lack of belief in the sincerity of the present Government when it comes to the austerity programme.

They give every impression of wishing they were somewhere else and having to apply policies they do not really believe in. This is bad enough but the public has the not unreasonable impression that its leaders are not carrying their fair share of the burden.

They have signally failed to explain the banking crisis. The failure to deal adequately with the past behaviour of bankers ("banks" are not responsible for anything) fatally weakened the case that there will be no full recovery unless the banks are restored to profitability through higher charges and interest rates and, quite possibly, more capital.

The grudging affection of the Seventies has been replaced by anger. Many sincere and eloquent tributes were paid to the late Shane McEntee TD but I did not notice the one I would most like to have heard: a senior politician saying that Mr McEntee was right in what he originally said about the social welfare cuts.

In the circumstances I may as well say that my personal view is that he was right. Disability benefits must bear their share of the cuts and there is a good case that cutting the respite grant is one of the least damaging. It also seems fair to say that it remains generous.

In passing, while I am no techie, I fail to understand why anyone is allowed to post anonymously on the internet. Mostly, they have to sign in and the computer should automatically put up their names.

Minister Joan Burton came closest to taking on the faceless cowards a few days later, saying the startling figures for the numbers on some kind of benefit or in jobless households have to be examined.

Better late than never, one might say, but tiptoeing through a minefield is not quite the same as leading from the front.

One has to have a certain sympathy. Grudging affection did not save Mr Cosgrave from a huge defeat in the face of a Fianna Fail election manifesto whose recklessness can be seen as the start of all the subsequent disasters.

The present Government bears the scars of 1997 when, like Mr Cosgrave, they were expected to win but didn't. Unfortunately for them, they have been handed a responsibility which would have made even the real leaders of 1916 quail.

If they are not able to grasp it firmly over the next 12 months, the end result could be anything but funny.

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