Monday 16 September 2019

Curtain up on the Enda-Leo-Simon Show

Politicians feed us little dramas, we eat them up and ignore the real politics that is happening offstage

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Click to enlarge
Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

We who work in the media love political set pieces. And we're already into the one that's going to entertain us for weeks, if not months: the change of party leader.

No cutesy cliche will be left unemployed as this set piece unfolds.

When Enda Kenny realises the size of the pension waiting for him, will Frances Fitzgerald become the first woman taoiseach? Will smiling Leo Varadkar become the first gay taoiseach? Or will frowning Simon Coveney become the second balding Corkman to take the prize?

Might some little rascal such as Paschal Donohoe, or even Simon Harris, nip in and best them all?

We love political set pieces because they're fun to do. And easy to do. And our customers like them, so the set pieces grab readers and listeners and viewers.

Our favourite set piece, of course, is the general election - the Grand National of political horse races.

It entertains us for weeks. The polls, the constituency profiles, the TV debates, the manifesto launches, the leaders running from one town to the next and shaking hands with anything with a heartbeat.

We churn out colour pieces, analysis and predictions galore - we and most of our customers enjoy the craic - and though it has to end we know there'll be another set piece along soon. It gives enjoyment and it shifts a product.

And, at the same time, we can tell ourselves we're doing something useful - we're participating in democracy.

Then there are the results, the shrieking victors, the weeping losers, the formation of a new government, the stories about the losers who walk away with big pensions and lump sums, and figuring out which of the new TDs will be the first to do something embarrassing.

We've mastered these set pieces in the same way footballers master the taking of a corner, a penalty, or an indirect free kick.

We're addicted to the political set piece. In-between general elections, we'll make do with a by-election, referendum, or a presidential election - and if there aren't any of those we will settle for the Ard Fheis, the Spring Statement, the Autumn Think-in, and the Budget.

All of which are staged and reported as little dramas, with gains and setbacks, heroes and villains, winners and losers.

And, of course, every now and then, the leadership contest. Politics is presented as a never-ending succession of little dramas that mix the familiarity of the soap opera with the excitement of the horse race.

But there's one thing that's almost always missing in analysis of any of these little dramas - politics.

Politics, not as theatre or soap opera but as a struggle between various factions of the population for a share of the resources belonging to us all.

This is what politics is about at heart - but we hardly acknowledge its existence.

The past decade has seen a transfer of wealth from the lesser-paid to the wealthy. This didn't happen accidentally, it resulted from political decisions. But it's as though such matters are too vulgar to be considered central to Irish politics.

Instead, politicians stage their set-piece dramas and we respond like the old dog hearing the bell.

So, who has the best temperament - Varadkar, Coveney, Fitzgerald, Donohoe or Harris? Who does TV best? Who do the Fine Gael supporters best warm to?

(Of course, the bottom line in all of this, among the party TDs and senators, is: who can I trust to save my seat?)

With the absence of politics, what do we know of Kenny's beliefs after his 41 years in the Dail, 14 years as Fine Gael leader and five years as Taoiseach?

Standard right-wing Christian Democrat politics, with a spoonful of social liberalism and a readiness to go with the flow when the wind changes.

The free-market policies to which our leaders cling are remarkably unsophisticated. It's as though they picked them up years ago at a dinner party - Hmmm, Declan, that sounds pretty convincing to me.

Our leaders are forever telling us we're a "small, open economy". We know that Kenny interprets this as, "We are weak, God love and protect us". So, we must always look to the strongest leader in the room and seek advance through deference. By demonstrating his loyalty and usefulness, Kenny hopes the strong will give us the occasional break.

This left Kenny forever looking for a Batman to whom he could play Robin. A Blackadder he could serve as Baldrick, a Ted to his Dougal. His job was to explain us to the master ("The Irish people went mad, Ted. Mad, I tell you").

For most of his time in office, this meant deference to Brussels and Frankfurt. This enabled the EU to happily conclude that the Irish citizen would bear a massive part of European bank debt.

And we did.

Rather than fight this, it was second nature for Kenny and Michael Noonan to ingratiate themselves further with their "we'll take one for the team, yer honour" subservience.

Then Brexit happened. And the clash between Apple and the EU over corporate tax dodging.

Kenny quietly detached his lips from the nether regions of his old masters, and sought new powers that might give us a break if he approaches them with sufficient humility and the charmin' old grin.

To what extent the strategy of subservience worked is for another day. For now, as we consider the manoeuvring to replace Kenny, we need only note that none of the leading contenders offers, A) a pledge to continue that strategy; or, B) an alternative approach to running the country.

On more immediate issues, they offer nothing but platitudes.

How will they deal with the rapidly expanding scandal of homelessness? Or the separate but related property speculation that threatens to again destabilise the economy? Or the warnings that the public health system has deteriorated to such an extent that it causes hundreds of unnecessary deaths each year?

The fact that Varadkar spent his years in health shaking his head at one scandal after another, saying, "That's shocking, that is", has somehow not disqualified him.

The fact that Coveney offers the homeless nothing but free-market tweaks has not harmed his chances.

It's as though the real choice in politics is between Varadkar's warm smile and Coveney's naive earnestness.

This cartoon version of politics is so ingrained we now accept it as though it isn't palpable nonsense.

While this tepid drama plays out, offstage machinations are ignored. The direct line the wealthy have into the Cabinet isn't ever an issue.

The five grand rise for TDs reflects the booming finances of the better off, while we're told there's no money to restore the income cuts of teachers. This boom at the top, and Ah, now, don't get reckless at the bottom is left unanalysed, unexplained.

The dinner-party politics that produced the free-market fetish isn't up for discussion. In the 1930s and 1940s, when the housing problem was even bigger than it is now, politicians who'd never been to a dinner party, and weren't hampered by cartoon economics, looked for what worked, employed direct labour, and built the great estates that housed generations.

Today, politics is reduced to trying various "incentives" in the hope that builders - who are not in business to advance the common good - will help the homeless.

There's a great political machine grinding some to oblivion, while vastly enriching others. By staging political set pieces for us, the politicians ensure we limit ourselves to deciding what hairstyle we prefer on the chap nominally in charge of the machine.

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