Saturday 18 January 2020

Gene Kerrigan: Coalition cruising towards the farcical

Our EU masters no longer care what goes on in our elected parliament, writes Gene Kerrigan

THIS week, at no extra charge, we bring you right to the heart of the tiresome debate about the notorious Austerity Treaty -- and how it relates to the ups and downs of Tom Cruise's movie career. Beyond that, we'll consider what the punishing years of economic crisis have done to democracy.

Let's hand you over now to Fine Gael TD Paschal Donohoe, who will put the Government's case for the Austerity Treaty. Paschal was speaking in a Dail debate last Wednesday.

"Tom Cruise is an actor," said Paschal, fearlessly refuting any malcontents who might argue that Tom is a software developer, "who has divided opinion."

Paschal wasn't just offering biography, he had a view on the varied critical responses to Cruise's cinematic work.

"Some like his films", Paschal said, adding: "Others do not." Paschal likes to give both points of view. "One film", he suggested, "that quite a few thought was his finest moment was Jerry Maguire."

Ah, here. Come on, Paschal. Do we really need to go into . . .

"Probably", said Paschal, "the most famous moment in that film is the scene in which. . ."

Paschal then explained the "show me the money" scene in Jerry Maguire, a movie that was popular in 1996. Why did Paschal feel the need to laboriously explain to parliament the plot of a 16-year-old movie? Because he wanted to tell opponents of the Austerity Treaty that they should "show me the money".

As a speech, it wouldn't pass muster in senior infants. And it was all downhill from there. Much ado about "the idea of conditionality in regard to Article 136", but otherwise woefully bereft of passion, context or relevance.

This is not to suggest that Mr Donohoe is any worse than the many others -- including the Taoiseach -- who regularly make vacuous speeches. He just happens to have done so in the past few days and thus serves as a convenient example.

In a related development, the troika's enforcers came to town for one of their regular check-ups, to see that we're following orders.

They pinned Michael Noonan against a wall in the Department of Finance and slapped him around a bit. Or, as Paschal might put it, they snarled: "Show me the money."

What about meeting some representatives of the Opposition, Mr Noonan asked. You know, like you customarily do? No, they replied. Bugger off.

Mr Noonan, knowing this was wrong, tried to steer them towards an Oireachtas committee.

No chance, baldy, they growled, or words to that effect. Because unelected bureaucrats don't even bother to pretend any more to respect the structures of democracy.

All was not lost. When Mr Noonan was asked about this in the Dail, he said that any concerned TD was welcome to "write out his views and send them" to the ECB enforcers. He added, comfortingly: "I am sure they will consider those."

Indeed. No doubt they'll read such letters aloud to one another, in funny accents on long, tedious flights.

Across Europe these days, concerns are commonplace about how parliamentary democracy has been compromised. Over decades, the finance business established strongholds that now trump any form of democratic control.

Not just too big to fail, but too well connected to be brought to account. Now, everything is subordinate to restoring the finance business and it's plaything, the euro.

Threats of economic chaos ("we'll freeze the ATMs") are more powerful than any law. Unelected bureaucrats from the ECB now represent the finance business and politicians defer to them.

It has become ever more easy to sideline busy-body representatives of the irrelevant citizens.

Professor Joseph Vogl, from Humboldt University in Berlin, put it this way in a recent speech: "Political decision-making is becoming informal. . . improvised meetings, committees of experts, government panels, 'troikas' or 'Merkozys' have taken over government business."

And this privatisation of governance applies not just where a 'bailout' has been arranged. An anti-democratic trend observable over decades has been accelerated by the banking crisis.

Where these things are discussed in adult terms, it's understood that a huge financial burden has been forced on to Irish citizens, in an attempt to repair the euro, which was endangered by careless drafting and reckless gambling.

Here at home, discussions about what is being done to us are conducted at an infantile level, such as: "They're very pleased. We're meeting our targets."

The content of treaties doesn't matter -- we do as we're told. We had to vote Yes to Lisbon, we were told, to "stay at the heart of Europe".

Last week, Eamon Gilmore told us to vote for the Austerity Treaty to make our "comeback at the heart of the eurozone". Lucinda Creighton wants us to put "Ireland at the heart of the eurozone and Europe".

In an infantilised democracy, that's how we debate. The heart of Europe; the five-point plan; we've turned the corner; we all partied; Frankfurt's way; not another cent; there is no alternative; only game in town.

In a degenerate parliament, TDs release the pent-up contempt they have for one another -- with perhaps a degree of self loathing. Last week, United Left Alliance TD Richard Boyd Barrett got to ask questions on behalf of his Dail faction.

It was the occasion for a blooding, so the lads tirelessly taunted Boyd Barrett. When the TD persisted, Pat Rabbitte -- one of the most intelligent people in the Oireachtas -- jeered: "Just because you've a double-barrelled name doesn't mean you can ask two questions."

This was reported as a "quip". In what universe would this qualify as a "quip"? Such lazy insults would have been at home in the Dail of the Forties, on the lips of Oliver J Flanagan.

This is what happens when great powers dominate politics and a parliament is impotent.

Last week, Fine Gael TD Michelle Mulherin drew sneers when she made a Dail speech condemning "fornication" -- sex outside marriage. I read her speech and disagree with its argument.

But there's no doubt it's a coherent, sincere expression of an undiluted Catholic view. (You should read the Seventies debates on contraception, in which future supposed paragons of liberalism condemned "fornication" in much more offensive terms.)

Why did Mulherin's speech attract such attention? Because it was unusual. It was a bare, frank and serious expression of a political position still held by many -- whatever you or I might think of it. As such, it seemed grossly out of place in our national parliament.

I've been observing, and at times mocking, the Oireachtas since shortly after Paschal Donohoe was born -- and it has often been a shabby place. But without meaningful structures of democratic accountability, a society is just one last crisis away from secret police and night-time disappearances -- all the things that lurk in the darkness outside of the light of democracy.

It would be untrue to say that democracy is being dismantled. The structures remain and there is within most of us an instinctive preference for a system of representation and accountability.

But we are now in the world of Prof Vogl's "improvised meetings, committees of experts, government panels and the informal groupings that substitute for democracy".

Recent steps taken by our parliament and the EU are without doubt steps towards that darkness, rather than away from it.

Sunday Independent

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