Tuesday 20 August 2019

The wilful ignorance of our political leaders

The Taoiseach's lack of knowledge of the Kerry Babies scandal was hardly an isolated example, writes Gene Kerrigan

Tom Halliday
Tom Halliday

Like every job, politics has a basic set of skills, a body of knowledge built up by earlier practitioners. Those who enter politics are supposed to acquire that body of knowledge. Senior civil servants, too. And journalists who deal with politics.

They're all supposed to become as familiar with this body of knowledge as writers are familiar with the alphabet, as builders are with the limitations of bricks and mortar.

Last week, as the Kerry Babies controversy re-entered the headlines, the Taoiseach cheerfully admitted a surprising ignorance.

"I only fully learned the details of the Kerry Babies case recently," said Leo Varadkar, "as I was too young at the time. It's been eye-opening".

True enough, he was only six when all that was going on. But he's had some time to catch up - he's now almost 40.

And his comments suggested he truly knew nothing of the controversy.

Most people don't need to know the details of such matters - they're getting on with their lives, learning their own job skills.

But for politicians, such events are not just interesting yarns from the past. They are what politics is about, the continuous, shifting battle between groups, movements, classes; the victories that herald change, the defeats that signal continued oppression.

Wilful ignorance of such a significant event is a strange thing in a politician, an odd lack of curiosity.

In a Taoiseach, it's more than that, it's a wilful ignorance about today's Ireland - how we got the way we are, what we overcame and what we didn't.

The Kerry Babies was a major milestone in that it involved two issues with which we're still struggling - misogyny and the state of the Garda Siochana.

There are many such milestones. The Magdalene Laundries, the Mother and Child scheme, the contraception campaigns; the Frank Shortt stitch-up, the Donegal rackets, the Nicky Kelly miscarriage of justice, and so on. There are lots of similar landmarks connected with other problems: the Hepatitis C poisoning, the planning corruption, the Ansbacher tax scandal, and so on.

These events identify the forces and issues that shape a society. The erupting scandals represent great leaps forward and major setbacks. Such forces push and pull us into the future, hold us back, bring victories that benefit some and defeats that oppress others.

A political culture that relegates all that to a formless "past", from which it learns nothing, leaves itself ignorant of the forces that act upon it.

We can see this in the hapless, incoherent political responses to the succession of recent Garda scandals.

It's as though our politicians have no sense of how we got to where we are - no sense of the shape of the problems that afflict them.

If you don't know the history of the Garda, if you're ignorant of how previous scandals emerged and how they were dealt with - or not - you are wandering the landscape without a compass.

In dealing with home­lessness, it's as though most politicians picked up some free market notions in college debating societies, or at dinner parties in Dublin 4, and those firmly held and half-understood convictions dominate their thinking.

The history of housing, of even greater challenges that were triumphantly met in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, is a closed book to them. They know only builders and developers and bankers, landlords and investors, and what might "incentivise" them.

Why would a Taoiseach choose ignorance?

Well, politics is clogged with vote-mongers who survive through decades in the Oireachtas and retire without ever having had a political thought. They reduce politics to transfers and slogans.

The media doesn't help. It reports politics mostly as a competition between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail.

Every issue should raise the question: how will this affect the people? Instead, the media almost always reduces the question to how it will affect the electoral fortunes of the major parties and their chief personalities.

Every political presence or initiative outside the Fine Gael/Fianna Fail axis is treated as an alien intruder, awkwardly refusing to play the game. We end up with an Oi­reachtas stuffed with timeservers and placeholders, obsessed with stroking the votes. They sweat and fret over every molecule within the borders of their own constituencies, and remain ignorant and uncaring about anything outside those borders.

We're left with leaders whose knowledge of the past goes back no further than the last election; whose vision of the future goes no further than the next.

Varadkar is no worse than the average TD. Despite having risen without trace, as a minister, he convinced his peers he would be better than his opponent at saving their seats next time. And that's what this kind of politics is about.

His weekly video is supposed to make us aware of his every movement. His expensive Strategic Communications Unit seeks to cast him as Action Man.

In truth, it shows us that his days are a catalogue of triviality, a succession of handshakes and feel-good remarks, the same empty phrases recycled, delivered with automatic smiles and mock solemnity.

His obsession with image exceeds anything we've seen before, his shallowness equalled only by an unshakeable belief in his own hidden depths.

His signature issue - dole cheats versus "people who get up early" - is a cartoon version of politics, insulting in ways he doesn't know to people he is hardly aware exist.

Wilfully unaware of the past, ill-equipped to deal with the future, such politicians will be gone before many of their constituents know they're there. Meanwhile, they smile and stroke and seek to shave social welfare budgets in the hope they might be able to please us with a tax cut.

There is no report on any controversial matter, whether from a commission or a tribunal, that has been warmly grasped by the politicians of the day with cries of: "Great! Let me check this report is credible and we can set about doing what's right for the people!" They prefer ignorance.

In the wake of the Kerry Babies controversy, I found myself in the company of a Fine Gael government minister, now dead. I'd just finished a lengthy analysis of the judge's report and I had a folder of documents under my arm.

"Something you might want to have a look at," I said to him.

I showed him photo­copies of pages of Judge Lynch's report. On these, I'd marked the judge's references to evidence from the tribunal transcripts, and photocopies of those transcript pages.

It was beyond any doubt that the evidence in the transcripts didn't say what the judge's report claimed it said. All of this was about to be published in Magill.

I gave the minister the photocopies and he smiled weakly at me.

For a moment I didn't know what that smile was saying. Then it clicked. The scandal had happened. We held a tribunal. Now we had a report.

This report wrapped it all up and allowed us to file and forget.

Why in God's name would a government minister want to read anything that might suggest he upset that perfectly placid apple cart - even if the report did a serious injustice to an innocent woman?

So I smiled back, and we went on our way.

As Mr Shakespeare almost said: Some are born ignorant; some achieve ignorance; and some have ignorance thrust upon them.

Sunday Independent

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