Sunday 8 December 2019

Time for a radical shift to a new generation of talented politicians

It's time for the main players in this tragic farce to exit the stage and let a new cast take over, writes Jody Corcoran

It is advisable to stay out of Leinster House if you want to know what is really going on. Last weekend I was in Madeira, the sub-tropical island about an hour's flight from Portugal. It is a lovely place.

Now 250 MEPs and officials are on what they call a "study break" in Madeira. Important work is said -- by the MEPs -- to be taking place. It is another example of how our politicians still take us to be complete fools.

But in the parallel universe wherein they exist, talk of such extravagance is "all shite", according to Jim Higgins, a Fine Gael MEP, holed up in a five-star hotel overlooking the sea.

Good man, Jim.

While I was away, the body politic at home engaged itself in what the Fianna Fail senator, Marc MacSharry, subsequently described as a "pantomime"; that is, an attempt to fool us that they are serious about government by consensus.

To call it pantomime comes close, but not close enough. Tragic farce is better. But it is worse than that . . .

This parallel universe of which I speak: most politicians inhabit it all of the time, to the extent that it has become their reality.

Think of the film Inception: when you are dreaming but think you are awake. Most politicians live in dream world, where they say one thing and mean another, where they spend our money like drunken sailors, on themselves and on a public sector which sustains their comfortable existence.

Life in Leinster House can be like a dream within a dream: or a nightmare, if you prefer.

It is not just the politicians, but the journalists, too, who report on the business of the place, who live in this world. The journalists tell us what they have agreed is happening; the wonder is that they can still do so with a straight face.

But to paraphrase Jim Higgins: it is all bullshit. The point I am trying to make is that nothing which has gone on in the past two weeks is actually real.

The spin is that "politics as usual" must be set aside in the national interest. To varying degrees, everybody in authority in Leinster House is pretending to go along with that.

In fact, what we have witnessed is the essence of "politics as usual".

For the Government it is about staying in power. For the Opposition it is about getting into power. Never forget the in vino veritas words of PJ Sheehan to a young garda: "When we get into power you will get nothing."

Meanwhile, the country is but a step from the International Monetary Fund, and inching closer.

Yet it is not all so depressingly cynical, for in the background there are signs of hope, of reality intruding, which should be seen as such and protected and nourished for what it is.

But first, let me tell you what is really going on, as directly as I can . . .

The Government is perceived to be in its final weeks. As a former government minister told me last week: "There is a stench of death about the place."

Brian Cowen is in a place called hope. He is hoping that something will happen which will allow his Government to survive. "Step by step," he said last week.

In this phase of the cycle, his next big step is to get a Budget through. Not just any Budget, but a Budget which will see €4bn in cuts and savings.

I believe there to be a realistic prospect that the Government will fall on the Budget and that we will have a General Election around Christmas. Oh, glad tidings.

But if Cowen does manage to get a Budget through, the Government might actually survive, at least for another while.

Cowen hopes it will continue until 2012, by which time, he hopes, something will have happened to have rescued the economy. "Step by step . . ."

The Greens, meanwhile, are beginning to panic. They feel the election is imminent. Perhaps they are taking too seriously the insights of political journalists. Come what may, the Greens will be wiped out in the election.

Instinctively, then, the Greens, like Cowen, will cling to office for as long as possible. They are in a place called hope too. But they know they are dependent on a number of Independent TDs to survive. That is why they are hedging their bets.

If the Independents walk, the Government will fall. If the Government falls, the Greens will be wiped. The Greens, therefore, must make a contingency plan.

So John Gormley threw out the suggestion of a national government. Such a national government could be considered for an agreed period of time "possibly after the next election", he said.

The reporting of Gormley's comment was lost in translation. The "after the next election" bit was ignored. Suddenly it became talk of a national government now.

The Greens decided to run with it anyway. What the hell. As a source close to Gormley told me last week: "Politics is many things, but it isn't always neat."

The upside of Gormley's comment is that it has applied a certain pressure on Fine Gael and, in particular, on Labour.

Three weeks ago Enda Kenny ruled out consensus government on the grounds that, while it may be good for the country, it would be bad for Fine Gael.

Sometimes a moment of truth can emerge in dream world: this was such a moment -- into how a politician always thinks.

Now Kenny is trying to come across statesman-like. He has seized upon an opportunity for discussion with Cowen. Indeed, he has said that it was he who suggested it.

In fact, it was Cowen who first opened the possibility, in Galway, last Saturday fortnight.

Cowen's letter to the Opposition last week, in which he merely offered that "we explore the extent to which cross-party consensus could be achieved on a realistic approach", is being reported as a U-turn by the Taoiseach.

It was anything but. Cowen may have been annoyed by the Greens' solo run. He first heard it on the airwaves.

But Cowen was getting to that point anyway. "Step by step . . ." His approach, as always, was let down by the manner of his communication, and by his insistence on due process.

The Taoiseach's offer in Galway, that the Opposition have a look at the books, had only just been taken up: Sinn Fein and Labour were in and out of the Department of Finance. On Wednesday, Michael Noonan was in and out.

Cowen wrote to the Opposition almost as soon as Noonan was out.

None of this means that talk of a national government, or government by consensus, is any more real. It is just politics. The purpose was to put pressure on Fine Gael and Labour. That purpose has been achieved.

From a point three weeks ago where he felt a 'Tallaght 2' would be bad for Fine Gael, Enda Kenny has suddenly moved to a point where he is now suggesting that it was, in fact, he who had wanted such discussion with the Taoiseach all along.

Kenny is motivated by one thing: power. To achieve power he must be seen to do the right thing, and the right thing to be seen to do is to engage with the Government to save the country.

But to achieve power, however, Kenny must also remain leader of Fine Gael.

A day after Kenny dismissed 'Tallaght 2', the former Fine Gael leader, Garret FitzGerald, implicitly rebuked him; then the well-connected Fine Gael senator, Eugene Regan, did so; ditto the powerful Peter Sutherland.

Kenny got the message: time to come across statesman-like to save, not the country, but his leadership.

But Kenny needs an election soon. He is now between a rock and a hard place. He must pretend to meaningfully engage with the Government, but he needs the Government to fall.

If the Government looks as if it might, actually, carry on for another while, Kenny will be gone within weeks, to be replaced, perhaps not by Richard Bruton, after all, but by Brian Hayes, or Leo Varadkar -- two guys, among others of their generation, who are genuinely motivated: that is the sign of hope, of reality intruding, which should be protected and nourished, of which I speak.

It will be fun, if that is the word, to watch Kenny pretend to support

the Government while trying to bring it down. Let me see . . . what will be the issue? VAT on children's shoes, anybody?

Step forward Michael Lowry, the former Fine Gael minister who, outwardly, is supporting the Government. Outward show is least itself. Here was Michael last week: "This is a very decisive moment in our history and we need to be responsible." Good man, Michael.

Meanwhile, Eamon Gilmore is twisting and turning like a contortionist. Gilmore is running out of road. He needs an election almost as quickly as does Kenny -- before he is found out.

He came close to being found out last week. In reality, he was found out. Gilmore said that a Labour Government would not cut headline social welfare entitlements, nor would it tax the middle classes. He will, of course, protect the public sector. But he did not say how he would achieve cuts and savings of €4bn.

If there is any benefit to this ongoing farce, it is that Gilmore has been exposed. The man is a chancer. Out and out. The next opinion poll will be telling.

Nobody, meanwhile, wants to deal with Sinn Fein: not because of its bloody past, but because of its bedsit economics. Well, nobody except Gilmore, you can be sure, and his media cheerleaders. And Gilmore has just been found out.

The main players in this tragic farce are of a certain generation: Cowen and most of his Cabinet helped lead us into this mess, eyes wide shut; Kenny is the longest sitting TD in the Dail; Gilmore has just turned a shade greyer.

Here is an interesting fact: Ed Miliband, the new Labour leader in the UK, was just 14 when Michael Noonan was first appointed to the Cabinet.

David Cameron is 44. It took the Prime Minister three months to slash and burn 300 quangos. Three years on, our lot are still thinking about it: worse than that, they are creating new ones.

Similarly, logic in Leinster House comes only from those in their 30s and 40s: people with large mortgages, with friends in the real world who are losing jobs, with school-going children who will be paying for this mess for the next 50 years.

In Fine Gael they are Hayes, Varadkar, John Deasy, Paul Bradford and many others; in Fianna Fail they are MacSharry, Dara Colleary, Conor Lenihan, Sean Fleming and a few others; Sean Sherlock will be the next leader of Labour. He should be leader now.

It is possible that when they achieve power they may abandon reality for the comfort blanket which so gives succour to the grey men who currently influence authority in dream world, as they have done, by and large, since the foundation of the State.

But it is no longer a civil war thing; it is not about Fianna Fail or Fine Gael anymore. Increasingly, I am of the view that neither is it simply a Left-Right thing. More and more, it has become a generational divide.

The time has come for a truly radical shift. Call it a cold bucket of water.

Sunday Independent

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