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Wasteful show trials won't change a thing

THIS Thursday, Britons will go to the polls to decide whether to ditch the traditional 'first past the post' method of electing members of parliament in favour of the Alternative Vote system, as used by the good people of Papua New Guinea and esteemed members of Hollywood's Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences when choosing who gets the Oscar for best movie.

Polls suggest the move will be defeated, but what's really noteworthy is that this is only the second time the entire United Kingdom will have held a referendum since the early Seventies, when it followed us into what we naively believed back then was a Common Market, rather than the sinister scheme for continental domination which European federalism turned out to be. In that time, we've had 25 of them, including referenda on reducing the voting age, protecting freedom of travel, regulating the legality of adoption, not to mention the innumerable exercises in giving even more power to European autocrats trying to achieve with a show of democracy what Adolf Hitler failed to manage with the Luftwaffe.

Now Enda Kenny has announced there'll be another one along later in the year, this time on breaking the Constitutional stranglehold which prevents judges' pay being reduced -- in addition to a proposed referendum to give back to the Oireachtas the power to conduct Dirt-tax style inquiries into the banking crisis.

Then there's the referendum on the abolition of the Seanad, and the one Sinn Fein wants on adopting an all-Ireland Constitution, because, of course, there's nothing like an arcane and pointless debate on the national question to foster a feel-good spirit in the country.

Giving power to the people is all very well, but there's no evidence that the people themselves want to be consulted on every jot and tittle of government policy. They want decisive leadership. What they're getting is time-wasting and dithering masquerading as a democratic imperative.

That much is particularly evident from the referendum being prepared to pave the way -- John the Baptist-style -- for the self-styled Messiahs of the Oireachtas to sit in judgement on bankers and the politicians who failed to stop them ruining the country.

The term "show trial" has been mentioned in this regard, and while that's probably an exaggeration, since the outcome is unlikely to involve the guilty parties being taken out the back of Dail Eireann and shot, it does raise the interesting question of why recently victorious Irish politicians think they are the ones best suited to pass judgement on the crimes and misdemeanours of others.

Fine Gael and Labour still seem to be in thrall to their own publicity as the saviours of Ireland who rode from the mist in February's election to drive the hated dragons from their caves. Hasn't the penny dropped yet?

We didn't vote for them. We voted for change. Foolishly perhaps, but that's how it was. If change isn't achieved, then we're right back where we started, only with different dragons. What makes them imagine we'd change the Constitution at the first opportunity just so they can sit smugly in judgement on the sins of others when many of us would still be favourable to the notion of putting them in the metaphorical dock too -- if only for failing in their basic duty when in opposition to warn against the looming economic disaster which they now claim to have seen coming along? Especially when we know rightly that any future enquiry will simply ape the mistakes of all previous such inquiries, which was to generate a lot of hot air and not much action.

If the definition of madness is to keep on doing the same thing but expect a different outcome, then Fine Gael has already gone cuckoo in office; but what's really dispiriting is that it appears to have embraced the insanity, because at least that saves it from the horror of actually doing something. Let's form a commission of inquiry; let's have a referendum. These are not actions, so much as further excuses for inaction.

In Wednesday's Irish Times, Vincent Browne laid out in chilling detail the potential pitfalls of an Oireachtas inquiry: the endless legal wrangling as witnesses take up their constitutional right to State-funded legal representation; the referral of every bone of contention up to the High Court and Supreme Court; the inevitable perception that the Coalition was using its strength to persecute key players among its rivals such as Brian Lenihan and Bertie Ahern, whose role in the banking crisis would undoubtedly be central to proceedings.

In other words, it would drag on and on, sapping the energy of the Dail, making too many lawyers rich in the process, bestowing victim status on many of its key witnesses, and probably end in failure anyway. Yet even that would be forgivable if the futility of the exercise had no further consequences.

Alas, it would. There's been a definite lifting of the mood across the country in recent weeks. Tentative hints of the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. The light may be snuffed out again soon, but for now it's possible to believe in the future, believe in ourselves. Where's the sense in dropping anchor and making us sit indefinitely in these storm-tossed waters, arguing over who should walk the plank, when we could cut free and sail on?

The new Government has to be about the future, or it's about nothing, because the future is the only part of the story which it can alter. There was a time for acrimony, when retribution could have had a liberating effect. That opportunity passed. Now it would be like going back, years later, to kick the dog that bit you.

The only way to move on is to leave those dogs behind, and if Fine Gael and Labour want to waste their years in office snapping bitterly at the tails of the rival pack, then we'll have to leave them behind too. Life is a one-way street. We can't afford to put the journey on hold while they indulge themselves in finger-wagging and finger-pointing. Two fingers to that.

Sunday Independent