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Eoghan Harris: Home truths and a reality Czech as we start new year

AS WE board the 2012 train, there is just time for a glance over the shoulder at 2011. Relax, I won't bore you with reviews of novels, plays or films. Just a brief political comment on an appalling year -- apart from the Queen's visit -- and a few farewells.

Politically, Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore wasted 2011. Politicians who tell us things are tough, without taking pain themselves, are simply spin-doctoring. Time they cut the tough talk and took a tough pay cut.

The Oireachtas pension list published last week shows me at the bottom of the trough with €6,000 a year. Unlike some of the others I need the money. Freelance journalism is not for the faint-hearted.

Even so, I would be willing to take a 30 per cent cut just to put a dent in the pensions of certain despicable politicians who took up politics like a lucrative hobby, put down the days in the Dail doing very little, and then waddled off with a fat pension for the rest of their lives.

All poverty is relative. Most people do not resent Michael O'Leary making money in return for running risks. But most people can't see why retired ministers and senior civil servants deserve all that dosh.

The Government wrongly believes the serial public sector scandals of the past year are one-day media wonders, soon to be forgotten.

But the political corpses of these scandals lie rotting in shallow graves. The smell fills the air and will not go away.

The public is profoundly angry about the abuse of

public pay and pensions. Why don't Fine Gael and Labour share that anger? Thanks to my stint in the Seanad I can supply some, but not all, of the answers.

Having grown up in the generation of Lemass, Lynch and FitzGerald, I arrived in Leinster House with a high opinion of Irish politicians. But I departed with no desire to spend more time in their company. Most politicians seemed prisoners of the delusion that they deserved all that was going.

We have changed the government, but we have not changed the culture of entitlement. Although 70 per cent of our people live in fear of poverty or financial ruin, their elected representatives show no empathy with that suffering -- except in empty phrases.

At least the late Brian Lenihan put a levy on the public sector. This Government has shown no such guts in getting to grips with the glaring gap between the top earners in the public sector and the coping class of the private sector. This failure is rooted in the recent General Election.

Enda Kenny should not have gone into government with Eamon Gilmore. The only excuse for doing so was to take an edged weapon to the pay and pensions of the civil service fat cats. Lumbered with Labour, the Government has cravenly cut services rather than pay and pensions.

How can Fine Gael or Labour bell the fat cats of the Irish economic establishment -- and the public sector unions who protect them -- when the recently published pension list shows that the political class is the fattest cat of all? And that applies to all of them, including the so-called socialists who support the public sector unions.

* * *

The deaths of three people affected me deeply this year. One of them was a friend, one of them was an Irish politician, one was a Czech politician I never met.

Patricia Redlich was the friend. Her regular readers will need no reminding of her compassion. What I will miss most is her moral rigour.

Unlike most moralists, she did not spare herself. She never took herself to task for making mistakes. Only for not taking risks, for not doing what should be done.

Redlich once remarked: "Sins of commission are more forgivable than sins of omission." She had no time for fence-sitters. Me neither. Why I miss her so much.

* * *

Brian Lenihan, to me, will always be a lost leader. Michael O'Regan of The Irish Times may be right in saying that history may not be kind to Lenihan because of the bank guarantee. But last year Lenihan died with a bravery that gave politicians a better name than they deserved.

Bad as this recession may be, it will not rock the foundations of Irish democracy -- provided the political class takes some pain. And in the darkest days of the past dreadful year, Lenihan's physical courage spread a special sweetness and light.

He had moral courage too. At Beal na Blath he took on the last taboo, the treatment of Southern Irish Protestants in the period 1919-1922: "Many people with little or no connection to the struggle died or suffered by accident, or because of where they worked or where they worshipped."

Lenihan's reference to the killing of civilians because of "where they worshipped" is a courageous first step in facing the fact that the IRA killed innocent Irish Protestants in that period. Apart from Peter Hart, Irish academic historians in general seem more anxious to argue about the numbers of "neighbours who disappeared" than make amends.

* * *

The politician I never met, but still mourned, was the former Czech President Vaclav Havel, leader of the Velvet Revolution of the Eighties. Havel was one of the three thinkers who forced me to finally face what was wrong with Marxism -- the other two being the American black economist Thomas Sowell, and the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski.

Havel brought home to me the stupidity of separating socialists from socialism. Socialism was what socialists did. Whatever about the theory, what they did in practice was defy democracy and practice dictatorship, even if some were paternal dictatorships.

For me, philosophy has to find a practical political home. So as soon as I became convinced that the socialist project in Eastern Europe was finished, I wrote down my views in a pamphlet called The Necessity of Social Democracy and shared them with the Workers Party -- which promptly suppressed them.

This suppression led to the first split in the Workers Party in 1990, when most of Eamon Smullen's economic affairs section left the party. It was soon followed by a second split and a mass exodus, first to Democratic Left and then to the Labour Party. Hence Havel's ideas played a small but significant part in Irish politics.

* * *

The Czech influences continue. Earlier I used the phrase "neighbours who disappeared" in connection with Southern Protestants. The phrase comes from a project by Czech students -- exhibited at Dublin City Library -- who talked to elderly Czech people about what happened to their Jewish neighbours.

Irish Protestants did not die in great numbers. But thousands were frightened enough by episodes of sectarian murders to leave their native country forever. Time we acknowledged these neighbours who disappeared, and made historical amends.

Tomas Kafka, the Czech ambassador to Ireland, opening the exhibition, drew on his country's deep reservoir of historical realism to remark: "We should not give in to the idea that what occurred in the past is unrepeatable just because we learnt our lesson. This complacency could cost us a lot. Our moral superiority to the past has not so far stood any real test of time."

Sunday Independent