Thursday 13 December 2018

Time to put pressure on Sinn Fein, the Vapers Party

Illustration by Jim Cogan
Illustration by Jim Cogan
Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

Life is suffering, says the Buddha. But it's not too bad for life members of Insider Ireland. Especially the public sector elite who write reports on how to extract the last penny from those who have neither permanency nor pensions.

I refer to the Department of Public Expenditure's report which mooted a cut in the state pension. Joan Burton distanced herself from it, but the damage was done. Apart from being as politically suicidal as the water charges, it came across as callous.

The Department would deny it was intentionally so. But it reminded me of what I call the Domincan Republic principle. This dates back to a 1980s visit to the poverty-stricken squalid dictatorship as the guest of the actor Gabriel Byrne, who was making a TV mini-series on Christopher Columbus. We were staying in a paradise of sun and sea, where pineapples were picked from the trees around us. But we found it bitter fruit, because on the long dusty roads people stood listlessly with nothing to sell except a single sliced orange.

My point is that many of us cannot swing comfortably in hammocks while other humans slave in the sun. Civil servants with cushy jobs are not scientists studying their fellow citizens like rats in a laboratory.

The Department should not commission a report proposing a cut in the state pension without a preface admitting the moral problem posed by those in permanent and pensionable jobs proposing cuts affecting, among others, some 900,000 people with no pensions whatsoever. In short, the report lacked a sense of shame.

***

The Oxford Dictionary says " vape" was the big verb in 2014. To vape or vaping is the act of inhaling an electronic cigarette rather than a real cigarette. And it prompts a political comparison.

Political vaping perfectly describes the relationship between Sinn Fein's new supporters and those of the Boys of the Old Brigade who claim never to have been in the IRA, but who like to exude a smell of sulphur which gives the vapours (yes) to groupie Shinners of both sexes.

The IRA is a tobacco cigarette. Sinn Fein is the electronic cigarette. So to vape means to inhale the incense of a real cigarette without running any real risks. From now on I shall mentally call Mary Lou McDonald's party Sinn Fein the Vapers Party.

McDonald herself is a prime example of a vaper. She claims to support abused women, but she will not specifically condemn IRA acts of violence against a specific woman, Mairia Cahill.

Last week on RTE, McDonald again dipped her garments deep into the green dye and said she had no regrets about her handling of the Cahill case. Toughing it out brazenly is a tactic she has used time and again. And she will do so until RTE presenters start probing specific cases and staying on her case until they get specific answers. Apart from that, RTE - and the rest of the media - should stop calling her Mary Lou as if she was one of Mrs Brown's family. Reporters should also react with risibility if she ever opens her mouth again about women's' issues.

***

Charlie Flanagan, in contrast to McDonald, came out with his hands up. He did not hedge in saying sorry for his minor gaffe in tweeting a vulgar joke. But what is he - or any other Minister - doing on Twitter at all? God knows the Government employs enough spindoctors. So why don't they earn their money? Why don't they advise Ministers to avoid social media like the plague?

And its not just Ministers who should stay away. Any public figure, and that includes political columnists, have nothing to gain from social media. Let me tell you why an opinionated person like me ignores them.

First, Facebook. I don't have an active account, but I feel the more we give strangers the less is left of our own inner core to cope with the world. Furthermore I don't feel like sharing with more people than I can personally cope with.

Second, Twitter. Here I feel the brevity of the message and tempting speed of response allows for neither nuance nor reflective judgement. I do have another reason, but that's a trade secret in case I return to spindoctoring.

Meantime, to keep my hand in, let me give politicians a few tips for the New Year about dress codes. And only pretentious millionaire drop-outs and pseudo-proletarians pretend that clothes do not matter.

In 2015, I hope some male politicians will put away the loud striped suits, dazzling white shirts and garish red ties. Conversely, others should cop on that dressing down is not proletarian. Working-class males put on a suit, shirt and tie when going for a job.

Female politicians might make a few changes too. The main one is to stop draping scarves that look like window curtains round their necks.

Letting yards of flowery cloth hang out over your front is the equivalent of tying a cardigan around your middle when worried about your weight. In both cases it only draws attention to whatever it is meant to conceal.

Women TDs who want to dress seriously have two role models in Dail Eireann. Those in search of street cred should study Clare Daly, who takes great care not to look like she takes great care.

Conversely, those in search of Cabinet rank should copy Francis Fitzgerald's classic style. No scarves, little jewellery, clothes which are apparently cut as plainly and simply as the truth. But, of course, both Clare Daly and Frances Fitzgerald practice the art that conceals art.

***

Let me finish on a happier note. On our mild New Year's Eve, I was sitting outside a cafe in Blackrock. Gay Byrne stopped to say hello and we chewed the fat for a while.

As we talked I studied his face, ever pleasant, ever alert, ever enigmatic. And I thought to myself: We were so lucky to have had you for so long.

Future historians will go to Gay Byrne's television and radio shows to find out what was going on in the Irish psyche for the past 50 years. Relax, I'm not going to say any more about this. It would end in cliches about Byrne conducting a national conversation beside the broadcasting fire.

But I do want to salute Byrne's good politics. Fifty years ago, when I first met him in RTE, Byrne was ahead of his time: an Irish patriot and pluralist who was also proud of the English part of our national identity.

Orwell says "at 50 everyone gets the face he deserves". But Gay Byrne always looked a bit like Buddha. Like the latter, he did not expect life to be perfect and always bore his burdens stoically.

But Byrne also practised what Buddhists call careless love. The serene art of taking life seriously, but not solemnly. We got the benefit of his careful careless love for 50 years and we are the better for it. Go maire se chead.

Sunday Independent

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