Monday 16 September 2019

The legends of sleepy, hollow party leaders

As Fine Gael follows its forgetful leader in circles, the media seems to prefer fantasy to reality, writes Gene Kerrigan

Illustration by Tom Halliday
Illustration by Tom Halliday
Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

Political journalism has of late entered a fog of fantasy thicker than any I can remember.

The media's political experts tell us, with great authority, that which is simply not so. A week later, they tell us - with equal authority - the complete opposite.

One legend being flogged mightily is that Enda Kenny can play a pivotal role in Brexit, as he is a leader who has honed his negotiating skills over many years. And he's held in high respect by a range of EU leaders.

He's thus perfectly equipped to protect Irish interests, to help the Brits out of a pickle and simultaneously to ensure that Brexit doesn't wreck the entire EU project.

Clearly, the only man for the job. Old dog for the hard road.

And they tell us these things with straight faces.

Simultaneously, they tell us that the Taoiseach is a bloody eejit. They had no option but to tell us that - we could see the evidence on our TV screens, in the Dail broadcast.

Enda has gone - in the space of days - from Lion in Winter to bloody eejit who can't remember what day it is.

Then, after an eight-minute speech at an internal Fine Gael meeting last week, which no political reporter heard, he's portrayed as a Master of the Political Dark Arts.

Let's look beyond this myth-making, to the reality of Kenny's record - and the lack of substance in those who hope to replace him.

Legend: Enda is a mighty political warrior whose prowess won two general elections for Fine Gael.

Really?

By 2011, Fianna Fail had been in office for 14 years. In that time, two of its leaders suffered major embarrassments at tribunals. Other major figures were implicated in questionable activities, money rained in from builders, the odd 50 grand disappeared.

Fianna Fail's representative on an ethics committee was the notorious hustler Liam Lawlor. And its man on a tax fraud inquiry had a dodgy offshore account.

They cut the tax base, gave the banks the run of the country and loosened regulation. When this collapsed the banking system, they panicked and gave the bankers tens of billions of euro.

In 2011, a rake of Fianna Fail big shots knew the voters were about to reef them, so they retired to a life of ease, on the big pensions they'd arranged.

With FF as the government, if FG was led by a stuffed pillow it would have won the most seats.

As it was, the stuffed pillow would probably have done better than Enda. Even with Fianna Fail's entrails all over the floor, he couldn't get a majority.

In 2016, he made a pig's mickey of the election campaign.

Of course, he's a skilled negotiator.

Says who?

Bertie Ahern, for all his faults, was indeed a skilled negotiator, proving it again and again. What did Enda negotiate?

Well, there were the EU "bailout" interest rates, which he…

No, that was the Greeks and the Spaniards, insisting on better rates - which had to be given to us, too. Enda may have applied for the better rate - he didn't negotiate anything.

What about negotiating a sharing of the financial burden of saving Europe's banks from contagion?

Yeah, what about it?

It was something Kenny was supposed to do but he funked it. Instead, Michael Noonan announced that we'd "take one for the team", so we volunteered to pay other people's debts.

But, sure, they all know Enda, and they like him - all the EU leaders.

Yeah?

Remember Sarkozy tickling Enda's neck, like a pet chihuahua? That's how they know him - as a pliable smiler.

The Irish will do as they're told.

Pay the bill for others; Yes, sir.

If we vote on a treaty against instructions our politicians make us vote again until we do as we're required.

That, and our reputation as a tax haven for the rich - that's part of the Enda legacy, which in turn follows on from the toxic Fianna Fail legacy.

We are actually - really - totally - truly - pathetically - suing the EU to stop them from making Apple give us €13bn.

That is where the strategy of grovelling has led us.

Last week's failed attempt to shift Enda Kenny from the Fine Gael leadership showed the party's would-be new leaders to be cowardly incompetents.

Kenny had displayed a staggering ineptitude. He told the Dail about a meeting with a minister that didn't happen - and he provided a detailed account of what was said (or, as it turned out, wasn't said).

This wasn't on some minor party detail. It concerned the integrity of the Garda force, the coherence of the Cabinet and the reputations of several individual gardai.

He said "mea culpa" but didn't explain how it happened.

In the absence of an explanation, we can ask was he deliberately misinforming us? Or did he have the latest in a succession of what are delicately called "senior moments".

In short, is he not in control of his faculties?

The media tried to make sense of it. He's used to "speaking in parables", we were told, he got a wee bit carried away.

Another explanation: it's "false memory syndrome", brought on under pressure.

False memory syndrome concerns matters dredged up from years past and mistakenly interpreted - not the details of a conversation you didn't have the other day.

On a personal level, we wish Kenny well. Politically, in the absence of a benign explanation, no serious politician dare leave matters lie.

Before the meeting of the Fine Gael parliamentary party, the media's political experts explained the corner Kenny was in. The poor guy was done for. The new guys wouldn't stand for this.

Kenny spoke nervously from notes. He said he'd make his mind up about quitting when he comes back from Washington, in the second half of March.

He gave no date, no schedule. Others claim that means it will all be over by Easter - which it might be, but Kenny didn't say that. He might quit at Easter, or Christmas, or the year after next.

There were at least six would-be party leaders in the room. Leo and Simon and the other Simon and Richard and Frances and Paschal.

Six people with the self-belief to declare themselves capable of leading a major political party through a period of serious instability. And, by extension, capable of filling the role of Taoiseach.

And between them, not a spoonful of gumption.

The would-be leaders were afraid, at the party meeting, to speak their minds. They might look too assertive in front of those who'll vote for the new leader.

So, they said nothing. And, outside the meeting, anonymously, Fine Gael stalwarts adopted the persona of someone "close to" themselves to speak their minds, to a reporter who'd pass it on as the words of one of their "close" (but imaginary) friends.

So, we, the voters, stumble around in this fog of unattributable comment on events that only vaguely reflect reality, unable to be certain that anything that anyone says has any more substance than last week's barely remembered - but inaccurate - explanation for whatever is going on.

Spin doctors create legends, at the behest of politicians who dare not tell us what they stand for, to be retold by a media too caught up in the 24-hour news cycle to apply anything other than a thin wrapping of analysis.

And we wonder why all of the above are steadily losing credibility with the public.

Sunday Independent

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