Friday 15 December 2017

'If you lose, I win' approach fails everyone

Policy disagreement should be on the basis of fact, not partisan politics, writes Willie O'Dea

In his State of the Union address last Wednesday, US President Barack Obama set out the challenges facing his country.

It is significant that he identified the need to change the tone and content of the political debate in the US as an important part of his process of rebuilding America.

The president said: "We can't wage a perpetual campaign where the only goal is to see who can get the most embarrassing headlines about the other side -- a belief that if you lose, I win.

"Washington may think that saying anything about the other side, no matter how false, no matter how malicious, is just part of the game. . . it's sowing further division among our citizens, further distrust in our government. Just saying no to everything may be good short-term politics, but it's not leadership."

It's a lesson that should not be lost on any of us in the political arena here at home. We have seen the "if the Government says it, it must be wrong" approach take a firm hold in Ireland.

Fine Gael and Labour were at it on the banking inquiry. The fact that the inquiry is to be based on a piece of legislation they supported only six years ago (the Commissions of Investigation Act 2004) seemed to have slipped their collective minds when there was some short-term political capital to be made.

This compulsion to say everything the Government does is wrong was in evidence from Deputy George Lee when I debated the banking inquiry with him on RTE's Primetime recently. The first words out of his mouth that night were: "this is a stitch-up" and his reasoning went downhill from there as he ended up labelling a process his party welcomed six years ago as a "flim flam".

For the record, back in 2004 Fine Gael said the system introduced in the Commissions of Investigation Act was: "A new approach which may bring speedy results at a reasonable cost is, in principle, worthy of support."

But that was pre-Lee. While he didn't introduce the "whatever it is, I'm against it" mantra, he has been one of its most vocal champions. Perhaps it is born out of his frustration at not having a clear role within Fine Gael. I suppose George is Fine Gael's bidet. None of them know precisely how to use him, but they feel he adds a bit of class.

Fine Gael and Labour have every right to disagree with our approach, be it on the economy, pay or the banking inquiry. But, let them do it on the basis of factual argument not partisan political assertion. As Obama observed, the "you can't ever trust the Government" attitude does not display real leadership.

This failure to offer substantive leadership was shown to even more dramatic effect with Enda Kenny's Late, Late Show interview. While his genuine warmth and charm came across, it was clear that he was never more than a question or two away from not having an answer.

As he stumbled and fumbled trying to explain why he wouldn't go into Government with Sinn Fein -- somehow forgetting that the fact that he doesn't agree with their policies was reason enough -- he sought to cover over his embarrassment by beaming lovingly at the camera.

And there it was. The single picture, the single frame that encapsulated the core Fine Gael message -- smile over substance.

Willie O'Dea is Minister for Defence and Fianna Fail TD for Limerick East

Sunday Independent

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