Friday 22 March 2019

They're decommissioning democracy

The clowns behind the McNulty farce are the clowns behind the Water Tax

Taoiseach Enda Kenny declines the offer of an umbrella despite the inclement weather as he arrives at Dublin Castle for the North South Ministerial Council Meeting.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny declines the offer of an umbrella despite the inclement weather as he arrives at Dublin Castle for the North South Ministerial Council Meeting.
Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

There was a Fine Gaeler on Morning Ireland on Thursday and - God, I haven't laughed aloud so much in a long, long time - the tears were coming down my cheeks.

Cathal Mac Coille did one of those quiet, polite and persistent interviews, asking very simple, logical questions about the Enda Kenny debacle. The poor Fine Gaeler had nowhere to hide. His leader and his party have become figures of fun.

Three things came to mind, as I wiped away the tears.

One: now the whole country knows what Richard Bruton and his mob were up to when they tried to replace Kenny as party leader before the 2011 election.

Two: this is entertaining, but the clown at the centre of it all remains Taoiseach.

Three: this clown is the same one who's asking us to trust him while he prepares to privatise Irish Water.

And, now that I think about it, there's a fourth thing that arises - the police are on the verge of making a very, very big mistake.

When Bruton tried to dislodge Kenny he couldn't point to any policy differences. And Kenny had no dodgy deposits in his bank account, or anything of that nature, so why get rid of him?

Bruton could merely mumble something about how Enda was a great fella, but he'd taken the party as far as he could and it was time for change.

What the dissenters couldn't say openly was that Kenny has the sensibilities of a county councillor. He's inoffensive, pleasant and presentable. He can memorise "five points" and repeat them endlessly, even if they're not appropriate.

From the beginning, he's run from robust one-on-one interviews, dodged debates, and become famous for reiterating the same phrases over and over.

The fact that he's a nice guy, that he can be funny and thoughtful, just makes the truth more embarrassing.

Like traditional county councillors, Enda loves to dispense goodies. He made Heather Humphreys a minister, he chose John McNulty as a would-be senator. In enhancing McNulty's CV, Enda and his cronies pulled a stroke probably without even thinking about it - they're from a political tradition in which stroking comes as naturally as breathing does to the rest of us.

When the whole thing fell apart, Fine Gael hurriedly flushed McNulty away, and left Humphreys humiliated, as she too reiterated prepared phrases and ran from accountability.

Here again is Enda's notion of taking responsibility for his actions: "I take responsibility for this having evolved to what people might imagine it is."

Mr Kenny has his entertaining side, yes - but it's no way to run a country.

At the EU, when this country was under attack and needed a tough response, Kenny giggled publicly while Nicolas Sarkozy tickled his neck. Christ knows what went on in private.

The government followed Fianna Fail in obediently taking on endless private debt. The 2012 EU commitment that seemed to promise relief was squandered as other EU leaders realised that they were dealing with weakness personified.

Michael Noonan was allowed to schmooze from country to country, mumbling, "Ah, go on, sir, couldn't ye see ye're way to giving us a wee break?" And he got the odd bit of debt restructured, raking back a billion here and a billion there, as the country settled into a €64bn adjustment to its future.

Ah, sure, house prices are shooting up, so we've nothing to worry about, right?

Around the country, there's unease about the water charges. An expensive public relations exercise - for which we're paying - tries to sell it to us as being all about conserving a precious resource. But, just as we can smell the embarrassing reality of the McNulty farce, no amount of PR deodorant can cloak the reality of the Water Tax.

Since the 2008 collapse, the strategy has been to protect the bankers and bondholders, and they'll protect the rest of us. There's been a very deliberate redistribution of wealth. And not in a good way. The Water Tax is just another part of that.

Eventually, Irish Water will be sold - along with the database they're compiling of our personal data - to a private consortium, as ministers cheerfully tell us they're "recouping money for the taxpayer".

This won't happen for a while. The cost of fixing all those leaks will have to be borne by the state, before the private consortium is awarded the prize.

From one end of the country to another, people are protesting against the Water Tax. And this is right and proper.

But isn't the Water Tax a result of a decision by a democratically-elected government? If you don't like it - well, get politically active, change the government.

And there's the problem.

Democracy is about choice. What we have now is the periodic casting of a vote that can - at best - rotate the personnel implementing the same policies.

Here's Brendan Howlin, in the run-up to the 2011 general election: "We're not in favour of water charges... our manifesto has set out that we are against water charges".

Enda Kenny tried to get rid of the Seanad - for no good reason, it just popped into his head one day. The Dail has no authority whatever in policies - though, to be fair, this trend had begun long before Kenny became Taoiseach.

His contribution to decommissioning democracy has been to sideline the Cabinet, replacing it with the four-person Economic Management Council. The EMC operates in secret and isn't accountable to the Cabinet, much less the Oireachtas.

Brendan Howlin, a member of the EMC, now enforces the Water Tax, having sought and obtained a democratic mandate to oppose it.

A range of big business interests employ lobbyists from the "public affairs" sections of the big PR companies, to give them a line into government. The finance business has the ear of government through the IFSC Clearing House Group.

And let's not mention the ECB or the Bundestag.

It isn't just people in blue shirts, with fascist salutes, who undermine democracy. Here, it's been done by people who found the structures of democracy inhibiting, difficult or inefficient. They've effectively nullified the institutions of bourgeois democracy that we're supposed to venerate.

Had Kenny abolished the Seanad, if he got rid of the Dail too, and locked up the Cabinet, the country would be only marginally less democratic than it is now.

In such circumstances, as day follows night, people engage in peaceful extra-parliamentary protest - which has an honourable tradition in protecting the rights of citizens.

When the police are present at a peaceful process, they have two jobs to do. Obviously, they have a duty to ensure that anyone breaching the law, a protester or anyone else, is brought to account.

Equally important - if not more so - is the duty to protect the right of the protesters to make their protest. The right to protest against government policy is not a luxury. It's not something that anyone - politicians or police - can decide to allow or disallow. It is a right, full stop - without which all other political rights are conditional.

A police force that doesn't understand this is about to subvert its own supposed role. And - in these days of ubiquitous video - the evidence of garda failure to protect the right to protest is unmistakable.

Their attitude of antagonism is visible. Protest itself is treated as bad behaviour - to be shifted, corralled, provoked, arrested.

Police tactics that were refined in the Corrib protest - rural, isolated - are now being imported into urban communities across the country. As yet, we don't see the astonishing scenes of November 2010, when student protesters were greeted by police with shields and visors, swinging batons at kids sitting peacefully on the ground.

A deliberately-sedated democracy needs its citizens to protest. If the police are antagonistic to such protests, instead of protecting them, the police assume an openly political role. Besides, rank and file gardai ought to know by now who'll be blamed if a badly-timed swing of a baton kills someone. The fall guy will be flushed away quicker than John McNulty.

Sunday Independent

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