It has often been noted that we live in a two-tier society. On the evidence of last week, we certainly live in a country where there are two distinct realities at play. There is the reality in Leinster House and the reality for the rest of us. The kamikaze cement truck on Wednesday was a fitting metaphor, when the reality on the street threatened to burst into the cosy bubble of Leinster House. But of course, it failed. It just bounced off the bubble and later that day a motley crew of TDs turned up to resume business as usual after their summer break.
It is quite simply bizarre to think that our Government has just returned to sitting after a three-month summer break. No doubt if you ask any of them, they will tell you that they work very hard in the summer, looking after things in their constituencies and whatnot. And maybe, just maybe, they did go home this year to try and frantically curry favour in their hinterlands, what with the fear of a general election looming. Because the TDs know that in this country politics is still local and the only hope they have of clinging on to their seats in the maelstrom that is to come is by trying to look after as many people as they possibly can locally.
So while the country teetered on the brink of oblivion for the past three months, that's what they were at. It is the starkest sign yet that our political system is not fit for purpose. It is certainly not fit for its current purpose.
This kind of thing was all very well back in the day when politics was a hobby and we all got a laugh out of it and supported our own team and enjoyed the comings and goings, while the country largely ran itself, buoyed along by the EU and the vicissitudes of the broader global economy. Those were great old days, when politics was full of colourful characters and it was all about vote getting, however you did it -- a kind of a regionally based popularity contest that no one except the participants and the flunkies who held them shoulder high took too seriously.
But now we are under fire as maybe never before. This little first-world country that we have all taken for granted is changing in ways that were unimaginable a couple of years ago. Indeed, every day it seems things happen that would have been unimaginable the day before. Every day now, we live with the reality that everything we take for granted could be whipped from underneath us. This is no time for the country to be run by enthusiastic amateurs.
If we don't run this country ourselves right now, someone else will come in and run it for us and it won't be pretty. There is, of course, an argument to be made that this is happening already, that Brian Lenihan, the de facto leader of the country in terms of anything that matters right now, is merely a puppet of Europe, that the IMF may not be here themselves but that Lenihan is their Jesus, sent by them to save us from ourselves. And that what the IMF and ECB are essentially saying is "don't make us come over there ourselves".
We are now in a state of national emergency. Some of you feel this in your everyday lives. You have no jobs anymore and life as you knew it has all but evaporated. And that's not just poor people, but middle-class people, too, people who have lost everything they thought they had.
Some of us are luckier. Our pensions may have been devastated, and our net worth wiped out to the point where all we have to show for a life of grafting is a mountain of debt. But we have jobs and we can pay our bills and life goes on reasonably normally for us. TDs are probably in a class of their own. They haven't seen savage pay cuts, they haven't seen their pensions wiped out; life continues reasonably normally for them, but they very much fear losing their jobs now. This means two things: one is that they can tend to be out of touch a bit with how much of a crisis we are actually dealing with here; and two, their primary motivation right now is to hold on to their jobs.
Unfortunately what is good for the TD is not what is good for the country. Right now, TDs are all jockeying for position. What matters most to them is making some impact in the party political squabbling that passes for day-to-day politics. So, for example, the opposition all attack Fianna Fail no matter what Fianna Fail try and do; and then, when they are finished with that, they turn on their comrades in opposition and then, even within parties, they turn on each other. Because every man jack of them is fighting for his life and his livelihood and they are all in competition with each other.
So what this dogfight amounts to is inordinate amounts of time spent on holidays and trying to keep your local supporters happy, and then, on the few occasions when they are working, they mainly engage in petty squabbling for the sake of it.
It is a broken, irrelevant model and right now we simply can't sustain it any more. More and more of us now agree that it is not acceptable that the bulk of political energy in this country goes into in-fighting. More and more of us now agree that the only grown-up solution is a national Government.
The one useful thing the Dail could have done last Wednesday was to vote itself out of existence. We don't need a debating society that debates everything for the sake of it anymore. We don't need an opposition that opposes everything for the sake of it. There are no real ideological gaps between any of the parties anymore. The thing that mainly separates them is that they oppose each other and have done so historically and this is the posture they have chosen. If it suited them in the morning to form a coalition they would miraculously find common ground and all join together "in the national interest".
Look at the Greens and Fianna Fail. Say what you will about them but for two diametrically opposed parties and cultures, they seem to have found some kind of a middle ground that has stuck through thick and thin. If these two parties didn't happen to be in Government, they would be ripping each other's throats out. But they are in Government and it suits them to stay there for now so they manage to get along. You would probably find the same would be true of Labour, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail or any combination of the three of them. Once agreeing became the most effective way to keep their jobs, they would suddenly all manage to do it. It would be a coalition of the willing, or a coalition of the terrified, if you will.
If ever there ever was a deep ideological divide in Irish politics, there isn't one now. Just look at how they all went into the Dail and huddled together the other day. They all worked just fine together at pretending this mattered, that what they were doing was important and that this is how Government happened. They all did the little mock-adversarial dance together and no doubt they all went for a pint together afterwards and had a good old laugh.
While some argue that a general election is the answer to the current breakdown of Government in this country, the public, who see these things clearly, have no huge appetite for it in a way. Say you have an election. What are we going to do then? Put Enda Kenny in as leader of the country? This country is limping enough as it is without having Enda shoot us in the foot even more. Or Gilmore? No one seems to know what his policies are really. He seems to have no alterative take on the banking crisis apart from that we shouldn't have done what we did but it's done now.
And besides, a general election will only take all their minds off business for another month. Then a new Government has to find its feet and figure things out and then the party political posturing starts again. Same shit, different day, as the T-shirt says.
No, the answer now is something far more radical. If what Europe is demanding now is a four-year plan, then we need a four-year stable administration to see us through it. This plan will get nowhere under the party political system because it won't be popular and the Gilmores of the world will have nothing to do with something that isn't popular. And while a few brave souls in the Seanad have offered to cross the floor for the survival of the country, it is already becoming clear that the opposition won't support Lenihan's four-year national survival plan.
You get the idea by now of a national government. Lenihan should probably head it up. You may not love him too much today but the polls showed again last week that people have no faith in Cowen and that Lenihan is the favoured successor. Also, given that much of what the leader of a national government will be doing is bringing people along with him and also keeping Europe happy, Lenihan is probably the man for the job. Joan Burton and Michael Noonan and Richard Bruton and some other senior figures should have cabinet positions and there should be an executive council of business people and general wise men who work together as the 'brain' of the Government but do not need to get involved in the nitty gritty of the operational day-to-day running of the country. Everyone from Garret FitzGerald to Michael O'Leary to Ray Kinsella could sit on this council of elders.
The details can be worked out. But the essentials of it would be a cabinet that is a council of war charged with defending the very existence of the country without the distraction of party politics; and then the council of elders who understand business and finance and who have the power to make strong recommendations to the council of war.
Right now, we are staring into the abyss and our politicians' only answer to the hand of history is sound bites and potshots off each other. We must unite now. The ship is sinking and we all are all in it together. We can continue our petty squabbling when we are back on dry land.