Monday 23 September 2019

Led by little people with little minds and little horizons

This is our tragedy -- in extraordinary times, we have been saddled with the most ordinary of leaders, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Listening to Irish politicians argue the toss over who should be the next leader of Fianna Fail, or what jobs various opposition spokespersons can expect in the next government, is a bit like overhearing the people who missed out on a lifeboat and were left on deck when the Titanic went down wondering what hotel to stay in once they reach New York.

Who cares? Seriously, what does any of it matter? The dark water is closing in. Yet the more time passes, the more surreal it's getting.

On the surface, there's a thin skein of seriousness and restraint. Underneath, there's the same lunatic jig of factional party politics going on as familiar names and faces jockey for position in advance of a poll.

Even on a slow week, most people would struggle to get excited about Mary Hanafin's alleged ambitions to lead her party, or who gets the junior ministry in charge of paper clips next spring, but in the shadow of the iceberg that the IMF/EU bailout represents, it's nothing less than unseemly. There are times for caring about the arithmetic of the Dail -- and right now isn't it.

There, though, the Opposition members sit on the various political talk shows, unable to keep the grins off their faces, like children giddy with the prospect of Christmas Eve, practically rubbing their hands in glee because the countdown to an election has finally begun and they will soon have their little legs under a ministerial desk. That the power they stand to inherit has been severely diminished seems not to bother them one iota. They scarcely even mention it. They just want their turn, because they've waited long enough.

Even Brian Lenihan -- otherwise impressively statesmanlike last week, both at the press conference where the Government's four-year austerity plan was unveiled, and later in his interview with Prime Time -- couldn't resist the urge to toss in some petty politicking. "This document has to be the basis of any sensible proposals for the next General Election," the Minister for Finance was declaring, striking the 140-page book for extra emphasis.

Yes, the campaign starts right here...

This self-indulgent fiddling as Rome burns continued unabated all week, as the media first became consumed with a cascade of nonsense about whether Green Party TD Paul Gogarty should have brought his daughter into a press conference, and then manufactured a row over whether the Taoiseach had been sexist for asking the Labour leader to make his finance spokeswoman, Joan Burton, shut up.

Fine Gael's website, at the same time, was castigating the Government for not spending more on sport, because clearly that was the pressing issue of the moment, while the National Women's Council was demanding shrilly that parties "commit themselves to women's equality... in advance of a general election", as well as advertising for "an experienced and highly skilled researcher" to oversee the production of a Gender Mainstreaming Strategy for the Health Service Executive.

Have we all gone utterly insane?

There was a young German man in the audience on Frontline last Monday who was clearly baffled why so much attention was being focused on this party political waffle when the deep underlying issues thrown up by the crisis were not being addressed. No one had an answer for him, so they moved on awkwardly.

His question only gathered pertinence as the week wore on. British and international media were discussing our woes in much more depth than the Irish, distracted as we were by babies and Joan Burton and trainspotterish spats over who was going to get the fifth seat in Cloud-Cuckoo-Land once the transfers were counted in the election.

Thursday night's Question Time on BBC1 devoted a quarter of its running time to the question of whether the euro would survive at all -- a currency of which the UK is not even a part. Likewise, newspapers in London were full daily of sympathetic commentary on whether Ireland would not be better off getting out of Europe altogether rather than drowning the people in another sea of debt which will probably not stop the federalist project crashing down around Europe's ears anyway.

A few deeply worried souls stuck their heads above the parapet in Ireland to ask what we're actually going to do if this bailout doesn't work, and why we are taking such a monumental gamble on behalf of other states whose primary concern -- quite rightly -- is their own self-interest.

After an interminably tedious preamble, Michael Noonan even got around to raising that issue on Wednesday's special Prime Time, wondering what our membership of the EU really meant when, at the first hint of trouble, the knives in Berlin are being sharpened. The eurocrats have clearly decided that Ireland's difficulty is their opportunity to increase their stranglehold on the continent's decision making. After an all-too-brief interlude, when the spotlight was trained at last on the big picture, normality resumed with more pointless childish chatter about the election.

This is our tragedy. In extraordinary times, we have been saddled with the most ordinary of leaders. As the historic task facing us got as enormous as it could possibly get, the men and woman tasked with surmounting it showed themselves up to be little people with little minds and little horizons.

The farce was best summed up by Enda Kenny's announcement that he had rung up Brussels and been assured that any incoming government would not be bound by FF's Budget. Basically, the Fine Gael leader stood up and told the Irish people they should vote for a man who has to ring Belgium to get permission to do something in Ballina. It's like putting up your hand in junior infants until Miss says it's okay for you to visit the loo. It would be funny if it wasn't so scary.

If the Taoiseach needs permission from Brussels before making decisions on behalf of Ireland, what does it matter who becomes Taoiseach at all?

Meanwhile, back in the sixth form socialist debating society, Fintan O'Toole in the Irish Times was advocating the suspension of elections in favour of a "technical administration" composed of "people of integrity and competence" until such time as the pesky voters reach the correct level of political consciousness. Dictatorship of the proletariat, anyone?

Are these really our only available options: semi-digested adolescent anarchism, or another rerun of failed party politics? No chance, say, of a genuinely radical, energetically eurosceptic, pro-enterprise, pro-small business alternative? Apparently not.

Seems that the old song was right: "Send in the clowns. Don't bother, they're here."

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