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Kenny still playing the populism game

Watching the Taoiseach's address last week, my thoughts were crowded by a Czech Thatcherite and a Cork tortoise.

Let me explain the Czech Thatcherite first.

When the Taoiseach assured people that they bore no responsibility for our economic collapse, I thought of Czech president Vaclav Klaus who opened his presidential term in 2003 with these words: "I am a bit like all of you. Neither a former Communist nor a former dissident, neither a henchman nor a moralist, whose very presence on the scene is a reminder of the courage you did not have: your bad conscience."

As an opening gambit, this kind of rhetorical terseness is bracing. But it impresses even more when it is screened through the populist rhetoric the Taoiseach mustered.

Klaus meant business, and made it clear from the early Nineties that after defenestrating Vaclav Havel, there would be no more Charter 77/Radio Free Europe/Third World nonsense in the economic sphere.

So he succeeded in projecting an absolute decorum between public petition and private instinct.

The Taoiseach's failure to properly analyse the causes of our economic woes looks shabby by comparison.

Listening to him in isolation, one would be forgiven for assuming that Ireland had been invaded by an armada of robber-baron Keynesians in 1998 who turned the banking sector into a suppurating crater of debt before exiting and rejoining the cosmos.

No meaningful analysis of what happened to us can avoid starting with the melancholy fact that Bertie Ahern was the first Irish Taoiseach since the Forties to win three consecutive terms of office in three free and fair elections.

Between 1997-2007, Ahern outdid even Helmut Kohl in the big-spending leagues.

However his premiership wasn't ratified by armed struggle or by reference to the 1918 general election, but by sizable majorities who endorsed his brand of economic profligacy three times in a row.

The Taoiseach merely creates a rod for his own back by refusing to focus the national debate on the perils of this kind of populism.

Even exceptional prime ministers find it difficult to tackle popular self-pity without risking immolation, but they try anyways.

Sensing that something was radically wrong with the way post-war West Germans still discussed Hitler as late as the Sixties, Willy Brandt went to Warsaw in 1970 and knelt in the rain in the old Jewish ghetto so as to register the enormity of German deviance after 1933. Barely half the country "agreed" with his gesture the day after, but Brandt's unbearably simple gesture lingered longer than some transitory popular majority.

The Taoiseach had a target as big as Pierre Trudeau's in 1979 when the defeated

Canadian prime minister took to the national airwaves wreathed in economic failure and personal humiliation. (Mrs Trudeau had just left him and their children for an affair with Mick Jagger).

Trudeau made no concession to those who said he was obsessed with Quebec nationalism to the detriment of Canadian jobs.

Disdaining an Enda Kenny-style monologue about capricious fortune and the damned unfairness-of-it-all, Trudeau continued to dig his finger into the Canadian ribs and insist that sooner rather than later someone would have to do battle with Quebecois nationalism.

Staring straight to camera, Trudeau told the world that he wouldn't grovel or apologise for going on and on about the dangers of ethnic nationalism. Knowing in his heart that he had been defeated on an issue of high principle, he reminded Canadians that despite all their hardships they had one responsibility in life: "Strive to be happy".

And then he was gone.

Could anyone imagine the Taoiseach speaking to us like this? Or like that Cork tortoise I mentioned earlier?

This is Jack Lynch, another slow-moving ghost swirling around the Taoiseach, who delivered a similar broadcast on July 11, 1970, perhaps the finest speech by any Irish Taoiseach since independence.

Sensing looming chaos in Northern Ireland during the marching season, Lynch shed his natural diffidence and sped to Montrose to make amends for the "idly by" speech of the previous year.

Unlike Kenny though, Lynch chose to confront the populace, not conciliate it.

"Let us not appeal to past gods," Lynch said, "as if past generations have said the last word about Ireland. We have the opportunity to say for our generation what's in our hearts and minds."

I couldn't help but mentally translate Lynch's stunning speech into Kenny-speak as I listened to him. And if Lynch had been as vague and needy as the Taoiseach was, he would have ended up saying something like: "We don't need to change our attitudes down here because we are not responsible for all the madness over the border."

I wondered too if the emotional root of the Taoiseach's refusal to confront his audience is to be found in the 1921 Treaty, the landmark event he cited before closing.

Collins certainly signed it as TG4's evocative programme An Treaty showed last week, but his young shoulders buckled when Republican heavy-breathers mumbled treason and started ripping up railways lines and shooting TDs.

Like Collins' desire to conciliate his fundamentalist critics, maybe the Taoiseach can't quite make up his mind.

Is he prime minister of a victimised platoon or chief executive of a delinquent administrative entity that will continue to eat its own farrow unless he breaks the mould? His historical reputation depends on the answer he gives, if ever he gives one.

JP McCarthy also appears in The Spectator

Sunday Independent