Sunday 15 September 2019

Public watching Leo and Micheal song-and-dance act for clues

Cartoonist: Jim Cogan
Cartoonist: Jim Cogan
Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

This week I want to touch briefly on what makes for a good party leader, a good current affairs show, and, above all, good judgment.

When I say leaders I am thinking of Leo Varadkar and Micheal Martin.

Both are presidential leaders who the public rate higher than any of their party rivals.

What the public likes about both leaders is their professed willingness to slay sacred cows.

In his FG leadership campaign, Varadkar promised to look after those who get up early in the morning - which we took to mean the private sector.

But his Budget 2018 backslides from that implicit promise and so far this Government has only been good for the public sector.

In contrast, Martin stands for those who might not have a job to get up to - but he has still to be tested on the private sector.

Martin's greatest claim to courageous leadership has been his relentless rejection of any alliance with Sinn Fein, a far more convincing stance than that of Varadkar.

Beyond that, the biggest difference between the leaders is how they are seen by their own parties.

Fine Gael has hugely invested in Varadkar. Every single member of the party is fully behind him because if he falls they all fall.

But Fianna Fail still contains a few delusional and disloyal elements who foolishly think they can play footsie with Sinn Fein.

If they succeed they will stampede Middle Ireland into Fine Gael's arms and the party will go down at the next general election.

When Shane Cassells called out Sinn Fein "apologists" in Fianna Fail he was simply trying to save the party from suicide.

The Fianna Fail Ard Fheis will tell us if Martin fully runs the show. If so, Fianna Fail has a fighting chance.


Another show, TV3's successful Tonight Show, proves the truth of Liam Cosgrave's recipe for success.

Asked how a conservative Fine Gael would adapt to a progressive like Declan Costello, he said "a bird never flew on one wing".

That's the secret of any show with two presenters - but only if each represents a different wing of the political spectrum.

The Tonight Show works well because, broadly speaking, Matt Cooper is left of centre and Ivan Yates is right of centre. Whether its production team fully gets that point is moot.

If they did get it, they would not have sat Sarah McInerney into Yates's slot last Wednesday.

McInerney has many talents, but she's from the same liberal spectrum as Cooper, so there was no tension, no spark.

Ivan and Sarah might well work. But Matt and Sarah will not. That last combo is like listening to an echo.

Most production teams are a bit right on and would rather work for RTE. But putting on people who share their own views is a recipe for moribund television.


Finally, let me turn to the complex problem of pronouncing public judgment on people who have behaved badly.

Last week, David Walsh, a distinguished sports-writer, was criticised for providing a reference for an old friend, Tom Humphries, now a convicted sex offender awaiting sentence, but once a lauded sportswriter, too.

But not by me. In passing, let me record that unlike most journalists I was not a fan of Tom Humphries's journalism, which I once castigated in this paper as over-heated "fine writing".

Moving on, I believe we can learn a number of important lessons on law and life from this sad affair.

First, I was glad to see the brave young woman in the case had the courage to refuse to read Humphries's personal apology.

Glad, because I'm sick of listening to RTE broadcasters bullying Provo victims into saying they forgive the perpetrators.

Second, I disagree strongly with media criticism of David Walsh's action, for both legal and moral reasons.

Let's take the legal side first. Historically, all decent civilisations have insisted that sentencing has to take account of two things, harm and culpability.

Accordingly, character references, from friends or other persons, are essential if the court is to arrive at what one Californian judge called "a reasoned moral response" to the crime in question.

References like Walsh's probably won't do much good for Humphries, but nobody could seriously contend that they do any harm.

References reflect a kind of bewildered solidarity, best summed up by General Sherman who said at Grant's funeral: "Grant stood by me when I was crazy. So I stood by him when he was drunk."

The American mandatory federal guidelines are a stark reminder of what happens in a system where judges' hands are tied.

These abolished all discretion in sentencing. That means that three minor robberies gets you a life sentence in California.

Context is all. Tom Humphries committed a crime. But he is not a monstrous serial abuser of small children like Brendan Smyth.

Irish law properly provides for character references. They keep the judicial arteries from hardening and gives them material to work with.

But there's also a moral side to Walsh providing references for a shunned friend.

In Paul's epistle to the Galatians 6:1, he asks us to imagine how we would like to be treated if we were in bad trouble.

"Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted."

In an excitable era where social media prompts us to rush to premature judgment, Galatians preaches restraint to those fond of pointing fingers.

Even if the facts allow us to judge another person, it still does not follow that we should rush into doing so.

This is especially true when we have no direct link to the situation, when we are simply spectators and hurlers on the ditch.

And we certainly have no right to criticise David Walsh as if he was somehow guilty by association.

My thinking about all this has been deeply influenced by the powerful opening statement of Mr Justice Peter Charleton on Monday, February 27, 2017.

"One useful aspect of the legal mind is that it is conditioned to look for evidence, to seek supporting evidence, to look for patterns indicative of truth, to not leap to conclusions and to not declare that someone has done something discreditable without sufficient proof. That is our standard and we will abide by it."

That's what I propose to do in judging Jim Fitzpatrick, who in his delight at the use of his illustration on a stamp, ended up defending the sadistic Che Guevara.

As a character reference, let me say that Jim was always against the Provo campaign. He has visited the Shankill area for years, taught local artists and children about Cu Chulainn and encouraged them to embrace the Irish side of their identity.

Finally, remember what Joseph Brodsky, the Soviet dissident, told his judgmental leftie students in America.

"Of all the parts of your body, be most vigilant over your index finger, for it is blame-thirsty."

Sunday Independent

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