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Gene Kerrigan: Clownish caper is an odd vehicle for serious message

When the door opened and Enda Kenny came through, he saw what was waiting for him and he muttered to himself, "God almighty." As well he might. Even as he prances about, fulfilling every photo opportunity demanded of him, Kenny can't help recognising the insanity of it all.

Paddy Power's small Baggot Street betting shop began filling up 20 minutes before the Fine Gael leader was due to arrive. Just the occasional punter among the gathering media hordes. Along with the bookie people and the charity people. And the five cute dogs.

Standing there, as the photographers calculated angles and tested their exposure, as the reporters looked around the betting shop and made the occasional note, it was hard not to wonder: on a scale of 10, just how mad have we become? All of us. The politicians who engage in this buffoonery, the media who cover it, and the citizens who tolerate it.

Outside, the country has been taking a hammering. Vulnerable people are damaged, others have had their lives destroyed. Not to worry, we're assured -- change is on the way. In theory, the forces of democracy are engaged in a formal test of political choices, in which the citizens assess which way forward offers hope. In practice, even Enda Kenny, at the centre of the process, flinched at the inanity of what's happening. God almighty, he muttered. And then he got on with the job.

The next 20 minutes in the betting shop traversed the furthest borders of sanity.

Mind you, the entire first week was a bit jittery. Fianna Fail was slow coming out of the blocks, for a change. Fine Gael and Labour were already putting the boot in.

When Labour launched its national campaign in the Guinness Store, the party bubbled with the joy of it. Strategically placed young folk in red jackets cheerfully directed the media up to the Gravity Bar, where senior party figures hugged each other and showed off that glow that comes with the belief that power is at hand.

Last time I was in the brewery was during an election campaign in which Dick Spring arranged to have his picture taken pouring glasses of stout. As we hacks smacked our lips and reached for the black stuff, Spring abruptly departed, forcing us to run after him, leaving the drink untouched. Those were the days when Labour literally couldn't organise a piss-up in a brewery.

All changed. The fact that Pat Rabbitte had made a thoughtlessly sexist remark the previous day was smoothly finessed. Eamon Gilmore posed endlessly for photographs, smiling in the middle of a line of smiling women. He put on his angry face when he spoke of the extortionate rate of interest extracted by the EU/IMF loan.

A couple of hours later, Enda Kenny launched his Five Point Plan, while Micheal Martin continued pretending he's a political virgin who's just arrived on the scene and is shocked -- shocked -- to discover that the crowd previously in charge had destroyed the country.

Mr Martin, after almost 14 years at the cabinet table, actually said last week, in the course of soliciting votes, that the country needs change. And he's the lad to bring it. These people are breathtakingly shameless.

Enda Kenny had already got himself into a mess, arguing about the format of leader debates -- giving a convincing performance of someone terrified of stumbling into the kind of blunder that might revive Fianna Fail's chances. He made it worse by arriving at his campaign launch flanked by Messrs Noonan, Varadkar, Bruton and Reilly. As he spoke, Phil Hogan towered over him, like a minder assigned to ensure that no one snatched his lunch money.

After a few general words, Enda got off the stage and sat down with the hacks. His front-benchers began a series of speeches. The Fine Gaelers arrived late, took their time speaking, took a handful of questions and then tried to make a run for it, leading to a justified conniption on the part of a couple of reporters who weren't being allowed to ask questions.

Kenny is as capable of effortless spoofing as any other politician -- yet, somehow his handlers have managed to make him appear delicate, evasive.

The following day, Brian Lenihan put on a solo display of supreme confidence. His performance had the fluency that comes with addressing a court, as he outlined his "real plan" for a "better future".

This guy was so convincing, you'd have to wish that he'd been Minister for Finance over the past couple of years, instead of that other eejit who made such a mess of the country.

"A recovery is taking place," Lenihan told us, with the same confidence with which he announced in 2009 that "we've turned a corner". He was reminded that he told us back then that "the worst is over". No, he said, he never said that.

And he shook his head and told us he never said the bank bailout was the "cheapest in the world". Back in 2008, he told us, "I was careful to say" that this was the cheapest bailout in the world, "so far". We tried to understand the deep significance of this qualification -- while we recalled the Budget speech in which Lenihan did indeed tell us that "the worst is over".

Lenihan's legal training makes him able to confidently marshal any case and advance it fluently. He could, if required, just as skilfully marshal the case against, and advance that just as confidently. He quite accurately identified the factors in the real economy that give cause for hope. And -- until questioned -- he rigorously avoided mention of his disastrous banking policy, which has undermined that real economy and impoverished a generation. It was like recounting the maiden voyage of the Titanic without mentioning the iceberg.

That was a jittery first week, but no goals scored, no major gaffes. Just the minor insanities that trivialise elections here, and continue to do so even in a time of major economic catastrophe. For every formal speech, with carefully shaded language ("I was very careful to say. . ."), there's a stunt for the cameras. In Paddy Power's betting shop, Enda Kenny at last came face to face with Clive, a truly super dog.

It involved one of those charity bets, where Paddy Power gets publicity and some charity gets a few grand. The Irish Guide Dogs would benefit from this set-up.

Kenny had already cradled a dog called Nikita for the cameras. Later he would hunker down and embrace Hula, Hogan and Halle. But these were mere puppies. Clive, a massive canine -- fully trained, quiet, dignified and sure of himself -- was the star of the show.

"Ask him for a kiss," Kenny was told. And he bent towards Clive, offering his puckered lips. Standing on his hind legs, leaning on Kenny's forearms, almost as tall as the politician, Clive treated the request with distain. A photographer shouted that Kenny should talk to the dog. Enda Kenny, Taoiseach-to-be, leaned over and began telling Clive about the EU loan interest rate. I'm not making this up.

Now, Clive isn't just a good- looking dog. Clive is a life-changer. Of all of us in that room, none can make a more serious claim to being useful. These dogs don't just assist blind people. Clive has transformed the life of an autistic boy. Before Clive entered the picture, the kid's life was severely limited by his condition. Clive changed that.

Now, Clive was inside the counter, staring out at Enda Kenny, while the politician waved a betting slip at him and the cameras clicked. You had to wonder -- why do these wondrous, life-transforming dogs depend on charity for their training? Why -- even in these straitened times -- aren't their trainers supplied with whatever State funding is necessary to ensure that Clive and his mates can do the maximum amount of good?

And how did we get to a position in which politicians have to frolic about, spending time and energy creating novelty photographs, as though this is required to get their message across? Is their message so cartoon-like that it dare not be stated in simple declarative sentences? Are we, even in these ruinous times, incapable of understanding political statements unless they're accompanied by clownish capers?

Are the politicians so locked into the cartoon version of politics that they know no other?

Or are the messages they wish to transmit so threadbare that they need to distract us with novelty acts?

Enda Kenny left the betting shop and clambered into his Merc. It was parked on a double-yellow line on a narrow street, sandwiched in between two Fine Gael Opel cars and a mini-bus for the media.

Clive was going back to his good work. Enda was moving on to the next photo op.

Sunday Independent