Monday 10 December 2018

Politics? We really don't know the half of it

Soapbox

'Today, as before, politically connected lawyers get an upgrade to the top of the class-ridden queue. To pretend otherwise is foolish. It's the political doctrine of We Take Care of Our Own'
'Today, as before, politically connected lawyers get an upgrade to the top of the class-ridden queue. To pretend otherwise is foolish. It's the political doctrine of We Take Care of Our Own'
Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

There are times when the mask slips, and this is one of them. While Fine Gael and Fianna Fail were squabbling over the appointment of a judge, they disclosed some rather startling things we're really not supposed to know.

Nothing too serious, mind you. Just the conduct of the Cabinet, the integrity of the judicial process and the primacy of parliament. Truth, justice and democracy. No sweat.

Some of the things that have been going on are hard to believe. If you read through the official Dail record of last Tuesday and Wednesday you might well conclude that Fine Gael and Fianna Fail have finally lost the ability to distinguish at all between right and wrong.

You may have noticed them squabbling about appointing a new judge to the Court of Appeal. Pretty boring stuff, a lot of posing, but in the course of the squabble, our shiny new Taoiseach admitted telling an untruth.

And the leader of Fianna Fail casually revealed his part in a conspiracy to undermine parliament.

So, boring or not, it's important stuff.

A good place to begin is the pages of the Irish Independent on November 11, 2011. There, an article by Dearbhail McDonald and Cormac McQuinn revealed that 168 judges had been appointed since 1995. And 56 of them had personal or political connections to political parties. One judge in three.

Ah, but things have changed, right?

No, those 168 appointments happened in the 16 years following the creation of the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board, which was supposed to take politics out of appointing judges.

Today, as before, politically connected lawyers get an upgrade to the top of the class-ridden queue. To pretend otherwise is foolish. It's the political doctrine of We Take Care of Our Own.

So, no one collapsed in shock when Enda Kenny departed and - simultaneously - his Attorney-General, Maire Whelan, got a cushy judicial job.

There were allegations of stroke politics. Imagine that.

In the row that followed, FF seemed at times to be astonished to find themselves attacking a cynical stroke. Usually, they're defending such behaviour.

In the course of the bickering it came out that Maire Whelan was present when the Cabinet discussed her appointment as a new judge. As Mary Lou McDonald put it: "The successful applicant was seated at the table of decision at the time of decision."

This simply should not happen. Whelan should have left, so all could speak freely.

After all, Whelan was involved in the events leading up to the resignation of Garda Commissioner Callinan. Conclusions on her evidence to the Fennelly Commission make for disturbing reading in the commission report.

Such matters may be considered relevant in appointing a judge. Yet, Whelan sat in Cabinet, we're told, while a decision was made on her future.

Catherine Connolly TD asked for an explanation of this extraordinary situation, but the Government won't say.

Minister Charlie Flanagan told Connolly that such questions, "strike at the heart of Cabinet confidentiality and I am not going to breach that doctrine".

The Dail record does not tell us if the bulls**t dribbled down Flanagan's chin as he spoke.

In order to protect the integrity of Cabinet, it seems, members must conceal why they breached normal Cabinet conduct, which in turn places Cabinet integrity in doubt.

While this sordid little row was under way, our shiny new Taoiseach decided to get a dig in at FF. It involved naming three lawyers. There were gasps of outrage from FG when Micheal Martin hit back with a suggestion that Maire Whelan wasn't of the calibre of those three.

A lot of silliness followed.

In the midst of all this, Taoiseach Varadkar said that "up until now" he thought Micheal Martin was merely questioning the procedure followed, he didn't know that FF was questioning Whelan's qualifications for the job.

This was an untruth.

Our shiny new Taoiseach was pretending not to know.

That was Tuesday.

Micheal Martin appears to have simmered overnight. He knew the Taoiseach had misled the Dail. Why didn't he immediately challenge Varadkar?

Because he and Varadkar had a joint interest in keeping secret the fact that what was happening in the Dail was just part of the picture.

The previous Sunday night, Micheal Martin rang Varadkar and they discussed the appointment of Whelan. The leaders of the two largest parties had a secret discussion on a judicial appointment.

FF had doubts about Whelan. Varadkar had been tied into supporting Whelan by the departing Enda Kenny. On the phone, they discussed positions in view of the impending Cabinet meeting.

This, it appears, is "the new politics". Secret discussions and attempts at a common front - then, public "debate", where they strike poses, and parliament gives an impression it is overseeing matters - while the parties are operating to a script written elsewhere.

The existence of such secret discussions, and attempts at agreement, undermines parliament. We don't know the extent of such phone discussions, whether there are secret meetings, secret documents - a secret parallel parliament.

Varadkar was miffed at Micheal Martin.

In the Dail, he confirmed the phone call discussion, and confirmed that Micheal Martin questioned Whelan's suitability. He also alleged that the FF leader "said he would not go there publicly" - ie, that Martin would keep secret the phone discussion and his doubts about Whelan's suitability.

The new Taoiseach, in short, sees nothing wrong with party leaders having secret discussions on judicial appointments.

Micheal Martin was supposed to keep his mouth shut about all this, so Varadkar felt free to mislead the Dail by falsely claiming he didn't know that FF was questioning Whelan's suitability.

Varadkar's first week as Taoiseach began with a somewhat giggly visit to London. We were left with an impression of gaucheness, a lack of substance - a Mr Bean Goes to Downing Street vibe. Few would have been surprised if he'd publicly asked Mrs May to show him around Hogwarts.

As for Brexit, he doesn't seem to have much to offer other than asking the British to change their minds.

His "reshuffle" was dominated by the need to reward those who supported him while he was working tirelessly to become party leader.

Overall, the arrangement with FF continues to ensure that the right wing parties dominate both government and opposition, creating a cartel that excludes other voices.

Ministers ignore questions and instead answer at length questions they haven't been asked.

FF will continue to prop up FG, having pretend-debates, deciding things in secret, revelling in their own importance until they decide they've more to gain by collapsing the Government.

In the Dail on Wednesday evening, Mick Barry TD summed up rather well. "While there are important issues at stake, the row has taken the form of a spat between two factions of the ruling elite in this country. The story of the Irish judiciary... is a story of class privilege and establishment political interests from start to finish."

From now on, anything Varadkar says in the Dail can be taken as possibly true. And it may or may not be in line with what he says in secret discussions with Fianna Fail.

Sunday Independent

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