Saturday 20 April 2019

Poor Willie could never have weathered this witch-hunt

'The public knows the sort of elements that former minister Willie O'Dea was up against.'
'The public knows the sort of elements that former minister Willie O'Dea was up against.'

Eamon Delaney

The first thing about the fix that Willie O'Dea has got himself into is how terribly sad it is: sad that a person of his tenacity, wit and energy should be caught out like this. Let's be honest: this is a not a huge matter.

O'Dea didn't con the public, or the legislature, he didn't preside over a government disaster or take public money. But it is the little things that catch you out. Just ask Albert Reynolds.

Few of us can remember the full mechanics of the Harry Whelehan affair which brought down his FF/Labour Government in 1994. And even fewer of us can remember the torturous details (the Duggan case, unseen folders, etc) which torpedoed the second government immediately after, which Bertie was supposed to form with Labour.

But what matters these days is being caught out -- no matter how small the offence -- and the momentum which builds thereafter, especially with the growth of rolling media, endless talk radio, Twitter and websites.

"If you're explaining, you're losing", as they say, and in this case, by its very nature, O'Dea had a lot of explaining to do.

Of course, it also helps if there's a tenacious opposition, and these days the opposition are baying for blood of any kind -- and a Government head.

They've been unable to land a killer punch, but now they smell blood. But they should be careful because eventually they could be hoist on their own petard of moral righteousness. Nor are they necessarily always into touch with the broader public, even if they have the 'angry lobby' with them, the easily aroused citizens who endlessly text into the radio shows and for whom RTE's the 'Frontline' is a weekly blood sport.

Just look at Michael Lowry, for example, forced to resign in apparent disgrace, but who topped the poll thereafter in Tipperary and is credited with building up Thurles. Or Jim McDaid, forced to resign as defence minister, because of alleged Republican links, but who subsequently always had a comfortable vote for his Donegal seat.

The broader Irish public know that politics, like life, is an imperfect art and none of us is pristine clean. Indeed, often the public like to know that their representatives can cut up rough, especially if, like Willie O'Dea, you are down in Limerick fighting gangland crime and the IRA element that killed Garda Jerry McCabe.

It is the latter association which provoked O'Dea to go too far in his descriptions of the activities of the Quinlivans in the Limerick area.

But, in fairness, once O'Dea realised what he had said, he went in and changed his statement. This should have been enough. After all, what journalist has not had such conversations with a politician, especially when it's late and the tongues get wagging.

Of course, not all such politicians used to be recorded they way they are now, in our YouTube age. But even then the matter could have rested. But it has been skilfully spun alive again, helped by Sinn Fein's understandable focus and the robust opportunism of Fine Gael.

O'Dea is also unfortunate in that he is in a coalition government where the junior partner, the Greens, are perceived to have been given the run around on a lot of issues, including those concerning high standards in public office.

The Deirdre de Burca walkout, with her accusations of weakness by the party, didn't affect them, but by now there is a feeling that the Greens should be 'getting' something from their larger partner in Government and O'Dea's resignation may be the scalp. It is brutal but that is the way.

The smaller opposition party has to be seen to be 'upholding standards'. The PDs used to be referred to as the moral mudguard on FF.

They called for resignations of ministers and Supreme Court judges, and they got them. It was the same with Labour over Harry Whelehan. They walked into Albert's office and Ruairi Quinn famously declared that "we've come for a head, Albert, yours or Harry's".

Now, it is O'Dea's head that is on the block. But the broader public may not agree. They know the elements that O'Dea was up against, and they see the 'catch the man out' game cruelly unfold.

But they also very likely see a man of integrity and passion who just went too far, and got caught out. A man who had an unguarded conversation with a local journalist that contained just a bit too much rumour.

But let's remember, there's something of Willie in all of us.

After all, former US President Richard Nixon used to say that when people looked at JFK, they used to say "that's who I want to be", and when they would look at Nixon, they'd say "but that's who I am".

Irish Independent

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