Sunday 17 November 2019

Here's to the new good old, bad old days

Politicians don't blush when they're caught these days, they hang on to their air of moral superiority, writes Gene Kerrigan

'G and FF will fight each other for votes, after which — whoever becomes top dog — they’ll resume the cartel arrangement, to ensure they hog Dail time and exclude competition'
'G and FF will fight each other for votes, after which — whoever becomes top dog — they’ll resume the cartel arrangement, to ensure they hog Dail time and exclude competition'
Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

Remember the good old days? Remember when Dublin councillors wore a groove in the O'Connell Street pavement as they left their meetings and waddled around the corner to Conway's pub to collect their backhanders?

Ah, innocent times, indeed. In parliamentary terms, there's stuff going on right now that would have made Charlie Haughey blush.

It's an extraordinary time - when things that once would have got governments into trouble, are shrugged away as though they don't matter.

The reason politicians get away with it, I think, is that for the past couple of years we've had a sustained series of political set-pieces. And such set-pieces grab the attention of the media - both mainstream and the allegedly more sceptical social media - and put everything else in the shade.

We love set-pieces. We know the shape of them, the well-worn moves. They give us press conferences and grand announcements, documents to read, rallies to attend, leaks and gaffes, surprises and disappointments. They have winners and losers and we love that kind of emotional thing in real life almost as much as we love it in TV talent shows.

In 2015 we had the marriage equality referendum. In 2016 we had the general election, followed by the long (long) process of forming a government.

Through all this we had Enda Kenny's long (long, long, long) goodbye, with the 1916 stuff going on in the background.

Then we had the long run-up to the Leo-v-Simon show, the appointments to Cabinet, the usual mock-fights with Fianna Fail.

And Leo, all the while, slowly but relentlessly, helplessly, almost proudly exposing his dominant feature - his narcissism.

All of this has been fascinating as drama - and already we're on the campaign trail for the next general election.

Meanwhile, the Dail switched the lights out for nine weeks - July 14 to September 20.

Not to worry, it's not like there's anything urgent that needs to be dealt with.

Homelessness was a crisis this time last year, it'll be a crisis this time next year - no need to get worked up about it.

Sure, isn't it grand, the price of your house going up by the minute? If you have a house, of course. And some politicians have more than one, given how many of them are landlords.

Health? Ah, sure, we're so used to the oul' trolleys, our A&E patients would feel uncomfortable in an actual bed. Too soft.

Admittedly, all is not well within An Garda Siochana. But, look: the top brass say they're outraged that the rank and file have been making stuff up. And the rank and file say they're sick and tired of the top brass bullying them into making stuff up. So, that kind of balances itself out.

You might believe that any of these things occupy the primary attention of our parliament. But you'd be wrong.

It's not that these politicians don't care about homelessness, health chaos and all the rest - they're as caring as you or I. If they could wave a wand…

But they can't.

And they'd rather not make difficult decisions - against their ideological beliefs, upsetting their financial backers, upsetting their core members, upsetting strong power centres such as the Garda - and, besides, they're busy with the next set-piece.

And this general election has more long-term consequences at stake than most.

After the 2011 election, FF was leaking blood - experienced TDs had already taken their pensions and run. The party risked terminal decline.

In 2016, FG took a battering, Labour was almost wiped out.

Every word from Micheal Martin since then, and every action, is geared towards presenting FF as a reformed party. New faces, new ideals - the party that learned its lesson, purged itself and is ready to serve the nation.

Every word from Leo Varadkar since then, and every action, is geared towards presenting FG as the responsible party, with a dynamic young leader who has served the nation well (and here's a wee tax cut, for good luck).

And Brendan Howlin has put his dissident outsider face on, as he seeks to erase Labour's recent history.

If the voters don't buy Micheal Martin's tripe, if they remember the depth of the party's corruption, the decades of cynicism and arrogance, and the policies that made this country a basket case - the FF leader will get the chop. And the party will roll backwards down the hill he has helped it climb since 2011.

If the voters don't buy Leo Varadkar's tripe, if they remember that this dynamic young leader is 10 years in the Dail, six as a minister, that his list of accomplishments - well, what list?

His utter failure in Health, alone, should have relegated him permanently to the backbenches. If the voters remember that, Varadkar is in trouble, as is the party's cute, self-serving arrangement with FF.

If the voters don't buy Brendan Howlin's tripe, they'll remember Labour betraying the hordes of young people who flocked to them in 2011, implementing everything it had promised to oppose.

In theory, we don't have to have a general election until April 2021 - three years and seven months away. But the cartel arrangement between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail might at any time erupt into heated words, followed by a bad-tempered political punch-up.

And this is where the dodgy parliamentary carry-on meets the big public set-piece.

Question: when will this general election be held, and who will decide?

Last June, we learned that the Cabinet allowed Enda Kenny's Attorney General sit in on the meeting at which it was decided she should get a prestigious judicial post. A staggering decision.

Imagine if, say, Albert Reynolds tried to pull that one. The Dublin 4 sophisticates would have torn him asunder.

In the row that followed, we learned that Varadkar and Martin had a secret phone discussion on the judicial appointment, unknown to parliament or public. In a huff, Martin revealed that Varadkar had misled the Dail. He'd claimed not to know something he had in fact discussed during that call.

Varadkar, in return, attacked Martin for disclosing the existence of the secret phone call. They didn't disclose the extent of these secret discussions on important decisions.

Then, they agreed to remain pals.

FF was cool with a Taoiseach misleading the Dail. FG, too. Misleading the Dail used to be a political mortal sin. Now, sure, it's just one of the things you do between elections.

There are politicians and media pundits who come close to fainting when they see Mick Wallace's pink T-shirt, or when they realise Richard Boyd Barrett has failed to tuck his shirt tails inside his trousers.

Yet flagrant breaches of parliamentary and Cabinet protocol - things that very much matter, things that are the nuts and bolts of parliamentary democracy - are allowed to pass by with a shrug. All concerned - politicians and pundits - maintain their air of moral superiority.

FG and FF will fight each other for votes, after which - whoever becomes top dog - they'll resume the cartel arrangement, to ensure they hog Dail time and exclude competition.

Meanwhile, I'm assuming all significant decisions - including the date of the general election, supposedly the prerogative of the Taoiseach alone - are decided in the secret discussions between Varadkar and Martin.

Here's to the new good old, bad old days - they never left us.

Sunday Independent

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