Friday 13 December 2019

Backbench fools follow lead of media lemmings

Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

W B Yeats was far too fond of fascistic leaders like Benito Mussolini and Eoin O'Duffy. But his lines about a body politic, where good people lack core convictions and partisan people are full of pointless fury, ring true in this recession.

Let me pause briefly to repeat my position on the blame game. I do not believe the Rainbow would have reined in the Celtic Tiger or behaved better than Fianna Fail. Nor do I believe the Rainbow -- at least with Labour on board -- would have dealt with this recession as resolutely as Fianna Fail, particularly on public sector pay.

That is why I have nothing but contempt for last week's display of pointless passionate intensity after the Cabinet reshuffle. The chief culprits were the lemmings in the media, who portrayed perfectly sound appointments as missed opportunities (to do what?), and the lemmings in the Fianna Fail backbenches who foolishly followed that line.

Let's look at the big picture. Right now the Irish Republic is in a rotten place. Most people are having a miserable time with money. They blame a cosy circle of bankers and speculators for most of their misery. They want them brought to book.

But most people also want the pampered public sector brought to book, too. The polls show that most people back Brian Cowen and Brian Lenihan in moving towards some kind of parity between public and private sector pay. And this stand points to a new future for Fianna Fail.

In facing the fury of the public sector, Fianna Fail found itself occupying the high moral ground which had formerly belonged to Fine Gael. If the Government stands firm and goes the full term it will have a fighting chance at the polls. But its moral standing is still being sapped by stupid mistakes.

Last year, the Government should have brought the bankers to book before it brought the public sector to heel. More recently, Brian Lenihan should not have done a sweetheart deal with a coterie of senior civil servants. And the Government should have demanded that Alan Dukes stop defending the pay rises at Anglo Irish Bank.

Brian Lenihan would argue that any premature move against bankers might prejudice legal proceedings. He would have a point. But I still believe, as I said at the time, that a series of dawn raids on the luxury homes of the hard-core speculators, even without arrests, would have created greater acceptance of the public sector pay cuts.

But a bigger mistake was the way Lenihan defended the recent sweetheart deal with senior civil servants. Isolating the core issues, he ignored political context. Worryingly, this is the same kind of Platonic argument adopted by Alan Dukes last week.

By Platonic, I mean the myopic habit of concentrating on one single isolated core issue to the exclusion of all the rest of existence. It may be true as Lenihan says that the senior civil servants were only getting a lost bonus back. It may be true as Dukes says that Anglo Irish staff are doing more work. But it's only true if you tend a single tree without regard to the rest of the wood.

Alan Dukes has always been that kind of Platonist. But an Aristotelian political animal like Brian Lenihan should know better. In a famine you do not feed your child a chocolate bar in front of a starving crowd while making some Platonic point about how you held it back on his birthday last year. That was then, this is now.

But in spite of these mistakes, Brian Cowen and Brian Lenihan have largely done what needs doing. True, Cowen is not as good as Lenihan in putting a gloss on it. But on balance we are better off with a Taoiseach who believes more in doing good than looking good.

That is why Brian Cowen did not deserve the media drubbing he got about the cabinet reshuffle. Nor did he deserve the disloyalty of a bray of backbenchers. Watching the media successfully stampeding the sour-grape backbenchers, I was reminded of lemmings leading lemmings.

The media behaved like lemmings by marching out of Leinster House last Tuesday all singing the same song: that the reshuffle had been botched and that Mary Coughlan and Mary Hanafin had been demoted. The backbenchers behaved like lemmings by falling for that line.

But it was simply not true. The reshuffle was a realistic mix of experience and new energy. Experience dictated that Batt O'Keeffe was the best man to prime the jobs pump, while Pat Carey, Tony Killeen and Sean Curran are all hard workers and solid media performers.

Cowen also called on new energy. How can the media lemmings pretend that Sean Connick and Mary White are not first-class choices? Connick is a study in courage and competence. He speaks out on public sector reform, combines loyalty with a willingness to lay his beliefs on the line, and -- a sign of steely character -- is not afraid to stand up to Sinn Fein at a local level.

Mary White is another worthy appointment. She has proven herself to be a person of physical and moral courage. She is thoughtful, tough and a stand-up woman in a crisis. In sum, she is everything I mean when I say someone has good politics.

Likewise, the notion that Mary Coughlan and Mary Hanafin were demoted is nonsense. Cowen sending Coughlan to Education is like Obama sending someone to Iraq or Afghanistan or Israel. Education is do or die, death or glory. Batt O'Keeffe did -- and did well.

Likewise only lemmings would peddle the line that Mary Hanafin had been "demoted" after she had wearily warned against that cliched perception. Old-hack conventional wisdom says that Tourism, Culture and Sport are not as important as Social Welfare. But again, that was then and this is now.

Social Welfare is a salt mine. You hand out taxpayers' money to poor devils who depend on the dole. There is no glory and no glamour. By contrast, Tourism, Culture and Sport is a Garden of Eden. Clearly Hanafin herself is thrilled. And what's not to like?

Hanafin's new job is to create new jobs. How? By telling the world what a great place Ireland is for a holiday; by turning up in Shanghai to remind rapturous Chinese audiences that not only Joyce and Yeats but Riverdance and Irish films rule, okay; by spending her summer in one of the few places that can cheer us up in a recession -- Croke Park.

But the best thing about the reshuffle is that Brian Cowen backed Mary Harney to continue in Health. Because no matter how much Fine Gael may fulminate, the Irish people know Harney's heart is in the right place. So is her head. That head and heart should also tell Harney not to go to town on Newstalk just because Nell McCafferty was having a bad hair day. We respect Harney because she shrugs off the weekly wounds inflicted by big beasts like Dr James O'Reilly. We will respect her more if she makes light of a fretful midge. A small swat is all it's worth.

Eoghan Harris

Sunday Independent

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