Thursday 21 March 2019

Sorry, but we need to talk about Enda

When parliament is so timid and the media reports uncritically, we're in trouble

Enda Kenny
Enda Kenny
Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

No, look - I'm sorry, but this just won't do. We can't leave it at that, as though it didn't matter. There used to be a thing called truth. There used to be a thing called self-respect.

There was a time, not so long ago, when malcontents occasionally raised questions about the behaviour of the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny. We pointed to things the Taoiseach said that we suspected were not true.

This is no longer an issue. The Taoiseach is either under a compulsion to make things up or is suffering from a condition that makes him experience delusions.

The issue is: do we continue to pretend it's not happening, or do we do something about it?

There are people who casually accuse the Taoiseach of lying, but clearly this is not the case. The Taoiseach once claimed to have received phone calls from workers surprised to find more money than they expected in their pay packets, due to his tax cuts.

He even quoted the thing, they, allegedly, said.

Why would he lie about that? It was transparently untrue, he was bound to be caught out. The increase was so small as to be virtually unnoticeable. People don't ring the Taoiseach's office to verify the accuracy of their wage packets, they ring the accounts department.

He eventually admitted it didn't happen.

When he told a story about "two-pint man", and how he demolished the drinker's arguments on the water tax, he repeated the story a few weeks later, as though he'd met another two-pint man and had the same argument, and some of us concluded that it never happened at all.

In the summer of 2012, he told us he had achieved a "seismic" advance in his campaign to achieve a debt writedown. Some said he exaggerated, but it looks now like it just didn't happen, but he thought it did. Anyway, he's now against debt writedowns.

In the latest episode, Mr Kenny told the media that he told Alexis Tsipras, prime minister of Greece, that throughout the economic crisis, the Irish Government hasn't raised taxes.

Mr Tsipras proposed to force some small amount of austerity on rich Greek people. No, no, no, said the Troika. Mr Kenny popped up, dispensing wisdom. Do it like the Irish Government did, he said - no income tax, Vat or PRSI increases.

Mr Kenny - for some reason - felt compelled to retail that falsehood. He seems to be a victim of his own compulsions.

Nothing compelled his fellow politicians, the media or his party to ignore the fact that something bizarre had happened. But that's what they did - and are still doing.

Within minutes, Twitter was alive with economists asking one another how Mr Kenny could make such a claim. Some listed the tax raises.

Publicly, the odd behaviour was ignored. Deadpan, the media reported on how Mr Kenny lectured the Greek government.

Morning Ireland hesitantly suggested that he'd got it wrong on Vat. And then - inexplicably - continued its report as though he'd got it right on everything else.

There certainly was a story in Mr Kenny's claims. Like this: "Yesterday, in the course of supporting the Troika's attempt to remove the Greek government, the Taoiseach made false claims about Irish government policy."

One hell of a story, you have to admit. No self-respecting media corps would ignore it, right?

We have to ask ourselves why the media did indeed ignore this startling story. Misguided patriotism? Bias in favour of austerity? Sheer embarrassment?

The economic evidence is clear - after seven years, austerity has been a disaster. It will leave the eurozone and the EU itself immensely damaged, economically and politically.

However, it's part of the right-wing catechism, so there will be no change. The media would do itself a favour by examining its commitment to the right-wing delusion that nothing matters more than fiscal equilibrium.

When the malcontents insisted on examining Kenny's falsehood, he had to give an explanation. What he meant to say, he said, was that there shouldn't be tax rises in the hospitality sector, tourism being so important to Greece.

This was embarrassingly hollow. It didn't make sense. It was reported, for the most part, deadpan - as though it wasn't more evidence of something very wrong at the heart of Government.

Mr Kenny's office wrote a letter to The Irish Times, slagging off a Fintan O'Toole column on the Taoiseach's behaviour. This made things worse - it didn't address, let alone deny, the odd conduct.

Irish politics suffers from a poverty of expectations. We know our politicians, and expect little of them.

When the Taoiseach behaves oddly, we say, Ah, sure, it's just Enda, and we all know he's a nice man but a bit of an eejit.

We expect nothing whatsoever of Joan Burton. Last week, she attacked families with eight, nine and 10-year olds, ensuring real pain in families that live on the margins. Criticised by Sinn Fein, you will not be surprised to learn that she used the 1972 murder of Jean McConville, by the IRA, to defend her policies.

The implication seemed to be: the IRA killed Jean McConville. Jean McConville had children. Joan Burton didn't kill Jean McConville. Therefore she is more worthy than Sinn Fein, so she's justified in bringing in policies that will damage children.

It's one thing to hold the IRA to account for this or any murder - this should be, has been and will be done. But it's something shamefully different to opportunistically use the corpse of any victim as political cover.

No one blinked. It's the kind of thing we expect.

Last week, significant Irish Water legislation affecting citizens, tenants and landlords was sneaked through parliament, stuck into an innocuous environmental bill. The Dail process was guillotined, to limit debate.

No one blinked. It's the kind of thing we expect.

In a parliament peopled by such dreadfully poor political material, with party whips riding shotgun, legislation is controlled by very few people.

And in such a timid parliament, policed by parties that demand utter loyalty, there's little chance of anyone pointing out that the Taoiseach is behaving oddly.

They put party before people; they put loyalty before principle; they put personal political advancement before anything else.

When Mick Wallace was enmeshed in his Vat problems, I believed he should resign. I thought that was the best thing to do - but I'm very glad he didn't. On a range of issues, he's spoken with clarity and insight despite lacking the fluency of the professional politician.

Last week, he raised the Nama scandal - and he's been making knowledgeable and intriguing speeches on Nama for some time. In a parliament so laden with time servers and seat warmers, such work - which should be the norm - stands out.

It's notable that it's the small parties and the Independents - Catherine Murphy, Joan Collins, Clare Daly, Richard Boyd Barrett, Stephen Donnelly, Ruth Coppinger, and others - who make a bigger contribution to old-fashioned parliamentary oversight than do the mainstream parties.

Is there no one in Fine Gael with the self-respect to discreetly raise the matter of the Taoiseach's odd behaviour? It's not a case of attacking him - it's a matter of reacting in an adult way to an adult problem.

Apparently not.

Sunday Independent

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