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Incisive Higgins exposes dearth of talent in the Dail

In a week of mesmerising political confusion one voice spoke out with a simplicity and directness that was welcome and incisive. It was also in marked contrast with the displays of histrionics and hypocrisy that passed for political logic here in Dublin, in the Dail.

The voice was that of Joe Higgins, the only Irish Socialist Party MEP, representing Dublin but speaking more widely for what used to be called 'the left'. He is a man whose politics, looked at in the abstract, would not be all that close to mine, but whose performance as a politician is powerful and direct. He also belongs to an honourable tradition that has really ceased to be adequately explained by using the old terms of 'left' and 'right'. He is instead engaged on behalf of people whose lives of struggle are not endowed with wealth or privilege.

He has had a difficult life in politics; no doubt he will be standing for a seat on March 11 and I wish him well. He will be part of that mix that comes under the broad title of 'independents', though he would insist on the addition of 'socialist' and would then say he has a party to prove it. Increasingly, people are looking to the category of 'independents' to fill a vacuum in this country's democracy. That, too, I support and will have more to say about it presently.

Before doing so I have more to say about what Joe Higgins told the European Parliament about what Europe had done to Ireland and he spoke a great deal of truth in his well-timed and well-judged attack on Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the EU Commission. In fact, as one well-placed friend and commentator said to me: "He did a better job of speaking up for Ireland than the Government". He did so because his courage is at the root of what he says, while that of the relevant government ministers carries enough baggage of fear and respect to crush such people, just as Barroso would arrogantly crush them.

Higgins told Barroso that the Irish taxpayers were bailing out French and German banks for their irresponsible lending decisions. The Irish electorate was being beggared by what had been placed on their shoulders. Barroso lost his temper and responded by claiming, quite falsely, that the fault lay with reckless Irish banks and the incompetent Irish authorities.

Sure, we did have reckless banks, some more so than others, all of them poorly controlled by the State, its official regulator who should have known better, and by the undoubted complicity of politicians with the banks, aimed at ensuring a ready flow of cash to bankers to pass on to developers.

But the complicity was only part of the picture. Barroso says it is all of the picture. The truth is that Europe was equally culpable and it was dishonest of the EU Commission president to say otherwise. Barroso is not really a democrat, nor is he elected. Like so many of the perverse crew of men and women who now rule us from Brussels, he is an appointee, part of an unimpressive share-out of lucrative administrative and legislative spoils that are such a mockery, in Europe's headquarters, of the fundamental principles of democracy that Europe so hypocritically demands of its member-states.

Barroso was in part motivated by local pressures back home. He is Portuguese, and his country is feeling pressures not unlike our own. He does not want the parallels to be drawn too clearly between Portugal's struggles over 10-year bonds that carry interest at 7pc and our own distressful circumstances. What was disgraceful about his performance was his open and distorted contempt for Ireland. This was narrowly focused. It contained no appropriate disdain for the institutions that forced their circumstances for Ireland's recovery on the mulish, supine leader of this country, Brian Cowen, and his floundering Finance Minister Brian Lenihan, who negotiated the bad deal we made with Europe.

A sizeable proportion of voters in the coming election will see Higgins as speaking the sad truth about what Europe has done to us, and Barroso indulging in sentimental, and highly distorted stuff, claiming that Europe was "trying to support Ireland" . . . as it had done -- wait for it -- "when Europe was financing your farmers after the war to feed your own people".

One wonders who educated this strange fellow who comes from what was then a strict dictatorship sympathetic to the Third Reich and the Axis Powers? What does he mean about 'financing our farmers' who were themselves selling food produce to Britain?

I think the upcoming general election will have many candidates who would comfortably share with Joe Higgins an outspoken examination of the terrible leadership we have had under Cowen and his Government and under the previous Irish administrations under Bertie Ahern.

We have tended, in the past, to have a maverick class of independent, often governed by interest in a single issue or governed by self-interest. This may change with deputies of the intellectual calibre of Shane Ross, who also recently declared his determination to stand.

The bovine behaviour of Fianna Fail shows how deplorable party-whip systems can become, depriving members of words and of thoughts and turning their obedience into a form of political slavery. Nor is it absent from other parties, now fearful of saying anything that might snatch away from them the opinion poll security on which they depend.

There is virtually no voice in the Dail at present that would have been able to provoke -- as Joe Higgins did -- Jose Manuel Barroso, driving him into the heavily biased and inaccurate expression of anger he displayed last Wednesday. After March 11 I hope that situation will be changed significantly in the Dail by the advent of men and women who are not tied to party convention and party rules while at the same time adopting main-stream issues and concerns, and forming a loose federation inspired by two things: firstly, the use of their own intelligence and, secondly, the recognition that it is collective leadership we need rather than the heavy hand of a stubborn individual leader like Brian Cowen.

Irish Independent