Monday 16 September 2019

Gene Kerrigan: 'It's a game: distract, sneer, deny, bluster'

Whether on TV or in the Dail, politicians find ways of dodging serious debate on reality, writes Gene Kerrigan

It's an important matter for hundreds of thousands of people. And all of us will pay for it. First it was scheduled to cost hundreds of millions of euro. Then we learned it's more likely it will eat up several billions.

The political classes are treating rural broadband in the same way they treat everything else - as justification for a series of squabbles.

Last week, the issue of rural broadband was the subject of the usual casual slagging. There are serious questions about the huge cost, and decisions are being made that will affect the lives of many, many people. Yet, when politicians discussed the issue - whether on TV or in the Dail - the game was the same: distract, sneer, deny and bluster.

It's as though these people are so damaged, so lacking in serious purpose, that they know no other way to conduct themselves.

We've already had a ministerial resignation over this. Denis Naughten was told to resign after it emerged he had undisclosed meetings with the head of the consortium pitching to carry out the broadband project.

Everything was put on hold while this was examined. The Smyth Report was the result, and it was to be shown to Cabinet last week.

Page three of that report says it "contains confidential and commercially sensitive information". If leaked, it warned, it could prejudice the outcome of "contractual negotiations".

It was, of course, leaked.

Someone used the media to massage public perception, by revealing in advance selected facts that were said to "clear" Naughten.

There was no question of clearing. The report effectively approved of Naughten's resignation.

No one alleged that Naughten was up to anything dodgy. His behaviour was questionable in that he seemed to have sought kudos by appointing himself Mr Rural Broadband, and foolishly engaging in private, undisclosed meetings.

But, before the Smyth Report was published, the selective leak framed public perception. He had been "cleared" - as though his resignation was unnecessary.

Only a limited number of people could have leaked this partial information - a serious breach of duty. Yet, the Government shrugs and does nothing.

The report from consultant Peter Smyth merely told us that, as far as he could establish, the meetings did not contaminate the broadband project.

Smyth said they "gave cause for concern". But he believed Naughten's resignation "insulates" the process from "apparent bias".

How did the politicians deal with the media debate? Let's take Virgin Media's Tonight Show.

The government position was represented by junior minister Patrick O'Donovan. He claimed Smyth showed there was nothing to see here. Anyone who wasn't satisfied, he suggested, was somehow disrespecting "Peter Smyth's integrity".

This was a cheap debating trick. It would be wrong to call O'Donovan a lightweight - he doesn't rise to that standard.

Worse was to come. Willie O'Dea, representing the Fianna Fail wing of government, said something unmemorable. Rose Conway-Walsh of Sinn Fein reminded him that FF sold Eircom, which allowed millionaires to get richer, while broadband was neglected. This happened 19 years ago.

How did Willie refute this charge? Before he could, Ivan Yates provocatively asked O'Dea if he liked facing "lectures from Sinn Fein".

O'Dea responded to Conway-Walsh: "Are you sorry you killed Jerry McCabe?" No kidding.

This was a reference to a garda murdered by the IRA 22 years ago, during an attempted robbery.

It is legitimate, in context, to question Sinn Fein about the activities of the IRA during the Troubles. To do so gratuitously, as a taunt, when reminded of doubtful decisions, is just plain wrong.

Not because it troubles the person taunted, but because it reduces a murdered police officer to a handy debating device.

In the Dail a couple of days later, the leader of Fianna Fail, Micheal Martin, raised the rural broadband issue. And we got an example of the extraordinary carelessness with which the Dail treats serious matters.

Those living in rural areas have the same claim as the rest of us on State resources to improve their infrastructure. And, rural broadband isn't all about streaming movies and ordering stuff from Amazon. It would help small businesses to compete and generate employment.

That doesn't mean we shouldn't question how these things are best achieved.

There are politicians who specialise in exploiting fears that "Dublin" (that alien force from "up above") is cheating the poor country folk. There are urban politicians who accuse hard-working farmers of being lazy tax-dodgers. Blaming "them" for screwing "us" is a common divide-and-rule tactic among the worst of our politicians.

As a result, political parties are keen to demonstrate their commitment to rural broadband.

They've already made a pig's mickey of it. The broadband plan was published in 2012. There were a number of consortiums pitching for the contract, now there is one.

Serious questions arise.

Why did experienced broadband companies drop out? Why did most members of the only consortium left drop out? Will the broadband proposal be outstripped by an alternative technology?

Will fast broadband down every lane boost local businesses, or will it have everyone ordering even more from Amazon?

Will it revive ailing town centres or finish them off?

If everyone in rural Ireland wants high-speed broadband, how come only one in seven has been accepting Eir's broadband offers?

Is the current plan good for rural people, or bad? Is it the best use of money?

We need a proper discussion on such matters. Otherwise, we may spend billions doing the wrong thing, because the FG/FF cartel are frightened they'll be accused of an anti-rural bias and suffer at the next election.

How did the Dail debate the issue?

Last Wednesday, Micheal Martin zeroed in on the fact that the consortium being awarded the broadband contract is not the one that was previously assessed.

There were four outfits in that consortium. Three dropped out. The one remaining outfit, Granahan McCourt, became the new head of the consortium, and was joined by four new outfits. We have an entirely new consortium, coasting along on the credentials of the lapsed consortium.

Micheal Martin asked about this new consortium. The Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, said: "It is not a new consortium. The leadership has changed and the composition has changed, but it is not a new consortium."

The consortium has changed totally, leader and members - but it's the same consortium.

This is nonsense, and obvious nonsense. It's as though Varadkar is afraid to deal with reality, as it may delay things and he'll be taunted by a rural TD.

When Micheal Martin persisted with the issue, Varadkar asked if Fianna Fail's "plan" was "to try to scupper this project so that people in rural Ireland will be denied the infrastructure they need?"

Here is Irish politics distilled. Don't ask questions. Don't point to glaring discrepancies. We want to give people goodies, the other shower want to scupper the goodies. Vote for us and not for them.

These people are smothering democracy.

Sunday Independent

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