Friday 6 December 2019

Lincoln lets in lots of light on our General Election

Illustration by Liam Collins
Illustration by Liam Collins
Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

Currently two events are engaging political anoraks: the Irish General Election and the US presidential election. And we anoraks need both.

That's because the Irish General Election has now mostly moved from a national stage to a local constituency stage.

This means slim media pickings from a national point of view until the leaders' debates take place.

To stave off boredom I've also been following the American presidential election, where Hillary Clinton remains the most credible contender.

Last week, Clinton was quoting Lincoln, greatest of mentors for politicians who want to stay grounded.

Lincoln can throw a lot of light on three aspects of our General Election if we apply his wiry wisdom in three areas.

First Lincoln trusted the people. "If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the facts."

But an Irish Times Ipsos poll last week shows that most people don't believe Fine Gael is bringing them the facts and want a change of government.

Fine Gael has only itself to blame. It stretches credibility when it claims the recovery is down to its fiscal rectitude - while setting out to buy the General Election.

Fine Gael may feel people are not properly grateful. But as Aristotle says, nothing is forgotten faster than gratitude.

Actually, the big reason for the alienation of the majority, is that the benefits of the recovery have a strong class bias.

The public sector was protected all the way through the recession while the largely pensionless private sector had, and is still having, a rough ride.

Significantly, the same poll also showed most people don't vote with a view to forming a specific government.

So much for the media's mendacious nagging of Micheal Martin to form hypothetical governments before the General Election.

Lincoln's second lesson for our General Election is his reminder that even in his day the media could make or break a political party.

He says: "Our government rests in public opinion. Whoever can change public opinion, can change the government, practically just so much."

For all the talk about social media, RTE television remains the most decisive force in shaping public opinion. So far we have seen two blots.

Last Wednesday, the day the election was called, and the day after BBC's Spotlight programme featured Slab Murphy's sinister career, Sharon Ni Bheolain failed to ask Gerry Adams about his attitude to Slab Murphy.

Sharon Ni Bheolain is not just a newsreader. She is a superb reporter who normally lets nobody off the hook.

Accordingly, we must conclude that an editorial decision was taken by RTE chiefs that it might be unfair to ask Adams about Sinn Fein's umbilical cord to Slab Murphy.

Alas, it is not the only example of an egregious omission.

Last week RTE News ran a critical piece on Eircode, which, as I pointed out some weeks ago, is a white elephant.

Actually it's Minister Alex White's elephant. But Minister White's name was never mentioned in the bulletin.

White is a former RTE producer. So you might expect RTE not to have forgotten about him.

And in fact he hadn't been forgotten after all. The night the election was called White was on Prime Time. The next day he was on Morning Ireland.

RTE must be seen to be consistent lest it leave itself open to accusations of favouritism.

Finally, let me recall Lincoln's belief in the power of stories to shape political change - and deplore the absence of such shaping stories in modern Irish politics.

Lincoln was a legendary storyteller with a prodigious memory for folk anecdotes which he would tailor to current political situations.

He also knew how to tell them. He mimicked, whistled, twanged and brought every character to life. Carl Sandburg, his biographer, says he had at least 135 stories. And he never repeated himself.

One contemporary noted that Lincoln always had a fresh anecdote ready, "like the successive charges of a magazine gun".

Lincoln so loved a good story that he once got up in the middle of the night and woke up a friend to tell him a tale he could not keep to himself.

But his homely parables always packed a political punch. As when, after the enforced resignation of War Secretary Simon Cameron he was asked why he did not get rid of his whole cabinet.

Lincoln replied with the story of a farmer who trapped nine skunks but let eight of them go "because the first one made such a stench when he killed it".

Lincoln never stopped telling stories. Later in his life they had names like the Gettysburg Address.

But they were still simple stories. And they helped to condemn slavery and win a civil war.

Like many politicians, Enda Kenny is often criticised for telling anecdotes. Actually it's RTE which should be criticised.

Irish politicians, often lively and level-headed at a local level, can be tongue-tied in formal studio settings.

High time RTE found fresh formats where it could tell informal and inspiring stories rather than reciting slogans by rote.

Sunday Independent

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