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Sartorial freedom fighters or the emperor's new clothes?

Mick Wallace should consider a makeover. The Independent Wexford TD, who likes to cut a dash with his pink shirts and twinkling ringlets, clearly enjoyed posing as a sartorial freedom fighter who was ready to defy the Dáil's preposterous dress code. Following the tomfoolery of last week, however, he has been left looking like just another dowdy bluffer -- a sheep in wolf's clothing.

Nobody emerges from the Miss Piggy affair smelling of roses. The conversation that triggered the controversy -- in which Wallace, Luke Flanagan and Shane Ross were caught on mic casting aspersions on the attire of Fine Gael's Mary Mitchell O'Connor -- was an unedifying manifestation of schoolyard slagging, an expression of political antagonism that was singularly lacking in politics.

Wallace, who made what was deemed the most offensive remark, promptly apologised to Mitchell O'Connor, and Ross followed suit. Flanagan, by contrast, dug his heels in, dragging the sorry story out for longer than was necessary. Ostentatious pig-headedness, it turns out, is indeed a conspicuous feature of Dáil life.

In fairness, however, much of the response to this minor discourtesy was overblown.

Having complained about being thrust unfairly into the media spotlight, Mitchell O'Connor soon developed a curious fondness for the merciless glare. Her efforts at playing the feminist martyr have been risible.

Moreover, if derisive observations about the physical quirks of parliamentarians are now genuinely regarded as beyond the pale by the political commentariat, somebody should copy the memo to Jackie Healy-Rae, Brian Cowen, Donie Cassidy and a dozen other male politicos who've endured similar critiquing over the years.

Ultimately the real losers here are Wallace, Flanagan and Ross. All three were elected as standard-bearers for the new politics -- a high-minded doctrine that would, we were assured, sweep away the pettiness and hypocrisy of the past.

Yet nothing encapsulates the old politics like the tradition of TDs speaking out of both sides of their mouths, all sweet talk in public and foul treachery in private.

To varying degrees, the Independent trio have demonstrated their seriousness and sincerity as politicians. To continue distinguishing themselves from the old-guard, however, they will have to eschew all of its bad habits.

Ironically, the more insidious side of political double-talk was also illustrated last week by Enda Kenny's cynical attempts to magic away his election promises on Roscommon hospital. In his ongoing campaign to present himself as a man of stainless steel, the Taoiseach had strenuously denied he'd made a personal commitment to save the hospital's A&E department. He had to eat his words when a tape recording emerged proving otherwise.

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Kenny has a history of being caught using his foot as a gobstopper. During Barack Obama's visit, he tried to palm-off a passage of Obama's rhetoric as his own. When his wheeze was rumbled, he lamely insisted he'd been paying homage to the silver-tongued US president. Kenny's capacity for spoofing is immense and will eventually prove his undoing.

Make no mistake: a propensity for double-speak is always bad news and, in extreme cases, leads to catastrophes like Willie O'Dea. O'Dea is the embodiment of the political quick-change artist who plays dumb in the smoke and talks tough in the sticks. He was once forced to apologise after he was recorded at a meeting urging Limerick taxi drivers to resist deregulation measures that the government, of which he was part, had introduced.

In his apology, O'Dea said he would have moderated his language had he known his remarks were being taped.

Given the depth of substantive problems facing the country, there is something grotesque about the energy evidently devoted by some parliamentarians to making style statements and denouncing the style statements of others. A gombeen politician is a gombeen politician no matter where he buys his shirts.

If the cap fits . . .


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