Politicians' macho act taking steady toll
Posturing over water charges is disguising increasingly fragile cracks in the Irish facade, writes Gene Kerrigan
It got a bit embarrassing last week. You know what it's like when a couple of would-be tough guys go chin to chin – and neither of them wants to fight, but there are people watching and they don't want to look like they're weak?
Are you lookin' at me? What if I am?
Cut that out or I'll bust ya.
Oh, yeah, you and whose army?
That was Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore last week. Toe to toe, chin to chin. All the macho belligerence of Winnie the Pooh squaring off against Paddington Bear.
The fake fight was supposed to be about water charges. You could tell it was fake because the media was littered with inside information leaked by "sources".
How this works is: a couple of those overpaid "advisers" go from one media ear to the next, whispering the scoop that there's "intense anger" (Irish Examiner) over the water charges. That "Labour is angry" (Irish Times). And the Irish Independent managed to get a Labour TD whose name we've forgotten to bravely go on the record with the disturbing information that Labour believes that Fine Gael was "totally out of order".
You talkin' at me?
Y'ar totally outa order, righ'?
It was all over the radio and the TV too, with political correspondents and political editors rattling on at great length about a fight that didn't exist.
The media know they're being used to promote the political profiles of Winnie and Paddington. But there are deadlines to meet, and next week the whisper in your ear might have some genuine news, so you play the game. And if this misleads the citizens – sure, it's harmless. We love an oul' bit of a row, so we do.
What was the kernel of truth at the heart of the made-up fight? Well, Fine Gael know that Phil Hogan will get a bit of a kicking over the water charges, but that doesn't matter too much, because Phil is probably heading off to a lucrative EU job.
But old habits die hard. So, Fine Gael leaked details about water charges, before Cabinet could discuss it. There was no disagreement – just a few bits and pieces to be ironed out, but Labour felt it should put on an act, to get the troops excited – it increases the chances they'll canvass.
There are always serious matters over which to do battle. There is, for instance, a rather large debate going on internationally around the research of Thomas Piketty, a French economist. Within the EU/IMF axis, there's concern about the effects of the past six years of austerity. In short, people are squaring up against one another over issues that affect the day to day lives of all of us.
There's evidence that, after 30 years of utterly free markets, a class of super rich has grown, along with prosperous layers of their camp followers and handmaidens. And the post-Depression advances in equality have been reversed, along with the gains made by post-World War II progressive taxation. This will have consequences not just in inequality and the growth of poverty in industrial countries, but in the evolution of democratic structures, and in long-term political instability.
We in this country have no use for discussing where we might fit into such debates.
Why would we bother our little heads with reams of impressive research done by some French chap when we can ponder the consequences of the distribution of fourth preferences in the battle for control of Waterford County Council?
Here, the political scene is so anaesthetised that the various parties' minders have to periodically invent mock battles, to convince us that Enda and Eamon and Michael are still alive.
Hey, there's an election coming up. Yes, 'tis only a local election, and that other election to the powerless chamber beyond in the EU, but – sure – isn't it great gas!
Sure, the Irish would bet on two flies crawling up a wall, so we would, begorragh! And, what do you think – will Michael Martin stamp his mark on the party if he manages to get the troops all fired up to go for that extra seat in Donegal, or is it Clare?
There's a seamlessness across the political landscape. Fine Gael, Labour, Fianna Fail, not a smidgen of policy difference between them. In 2011 they pretended there was, but by now they accept that they're seen as one political position represented by three groups of people, all trying to sit in the same chair.
And Sinn Fein waiting to see where it can most profitably coalesce.
Water charge, property charge – these are mere labels applied to the mechanism used to siphon money. We're in the midst of an historical process of transferring wealth from one strata of society to another – the kind of thing that lies at the heart of Thomas Piketty's research.
Call it a water charge, a property charge, tuition fees, an income levy, Universal Social Charge, a raise in Dirt, a raise in motor tax, or VAT or carbon tax.
Or don't call it a charge at all – make it a cut in student grants, a cut in the numbers of academics, a cut in child benefit, in social welfare, in jobseekers' allowance, in respite care grants. Cut medical cards, charge old people in nursing homes for not dying quickly enough – what you call it depends on what you can get away with.
Irish politicians are not naturally thicker than those in other countries – though the electoral format that has evolved attracts the cunning bastard rather than the thoughtful idealist. When he left office in 1997, after his only other time in government, Brendan Howlin critically analysed his own stewardship, and spoke about it in an interview with Maev-Ann Wren for her 2003 book about the health service, Unhealthy State.
He didn't realise, he said, while Minister for Health, the incompatibility of the public and private systems. He did his best, but simply hadn't thought through the reality of the struggle in which he was engaged. And the fact that the public health system wasn't by chance deprived of resources. "The government", said Howlin, "wanted a chunk of the population – 30 per cent or thereabouts – to pay for private health insurance but, in order for that to happen, they really required the public system to be inferior. Why else, if it was first rate, would people pay for a private system?"
No doubt, when Howlin is retired he will do the thinking he doesn't have the time or energy to do today – just what was all that about, he'll ask himself? And it'll dawn on him – as the Yanks put it – a day late and a dollar short.
We're being asset-stripped, steadily. There are serious social and political changes afoot. But our Winnie and Paddington stage mock battles and continue the course laid down for them by Frankfurt and the market managers.
So, we play our little political games. It gets harder, though. Just three years ago a few people took the Labour Party seriously when it put up posters that said, "Gilmore for Taoiseach".
Now, we look at the Paddington Bear of Irish politics and we wait for him to say something like, "Frankfurt's way or Labour's way", so we can have a bitter laugh.