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John Drennan: Dail happy to spend its time chasing red herrings

The Leinster House circus may have been dominated by the travails of Mick the tax cheat but, the moment that most accurately captured the state of Irish politics was when, just as the EU began to implode, Taoiseach's question time last Wednesday was devoted to Enda Kenny's St Patrick's week visit to America.

As we watched an event whose irrelevance would depress a French existentialist, it was as if nothing had changed from the dying months of Biffo's interregnum where the government became as detached from the real world as the last emperor of China.

The similarities, alas, do not end there: for it increasingly appears that this Government is beginning to suffer a similar psychological collapse to that experienced by the Cowen administration.

In the first couple of months a sense, or more accurately an illusion, was created that some recognition of the need for change had occurred.

However, as the weight of the debacle they created became apparent, slowly the life drained out of even the newest of ministers until they became becalmed by a collective despair.

Unsurprisingly, after that little 14-year absence and the state of what they replaced, the new government of Grumpy Old Men initially created quite the iconoclastic impression.

Within the whispering corridors of Leinster House all the talk was of panicking mandarins and of St Valentine's Day-style assassinations of the top brass who had brought us to this pass.

Over recent months, with some rare exceptions, this has been replaced by an atmosphere of panic redolent of a hen coop that has just heard a fox's paw scratching at the door. Nothing definitive has been said, but, the old familiar Eau de Cowen -- that unique fusion of fear crossed with impotence -- has settled over a Government, many of whom, and in particular its Taoiseach, are only beginning

to fathom the scale of what they are not dealing with.

The Opposition may, last week, have been calling, with all the rigour of jackdaws cawing in a chimney that's gone on fire, for the Government to tell us if they had formulated a plan B to deal with the Great Disruption that has almost collapsed a continent.

But, as Europe and Enda (God help us) deal with the possibility of a two-tier euro, default, fiscal union, bank runs, political schisms, sovereign debt, banking debt, the cross-fertilisation of sovereign and banking debt, the possibility of a domino-style economic collapse, domestic (personal) debt, mortgage debt, the possible junk bond status of Italy and Spain and Greece, our poor Grumpy Old Men will need to go far lower down the alphabet than B.

Sadly, we would be wise to not place too much faith in any back-up plans for economic tsunamis.

Like a typical Mayo GAA team, this lot may have talked the talk during the initial provincial championship stage, but as the days in office lengthen it is becoming clear our prematurely exhausted Grumpy Old Men have adopted the avalanche school of governance.

By this we mean they resemble the sort of frightened survivors of an avalanche who, in its immediate aftermath, take the collective decision to keep very still to the point where, should any child start screaming, a pillowcase will be put it over its head.

In their case this position is not just confined to Europe for, on the domestic front, with the exception of the occasional outburst from Leo Varadkar, the new stance is also one of remaining very quiet so as to disturb as few big beasts as possible.

The alternate problem this creates, however, is that it is becoming increasingly clear the defining ethos of this Government is one of "Austerity without Reform". One of the classic examples of this policy is the "reform" of local government where the Government is with great fear still trying to impose its €100 household charge. It is bad enough that the Grumpy Old Men will not be straight with us and say that the long-term plan is to bump this up to €1,000. But what will really facilitate the long-term rise of contempt for conventional politics is that all this is to be paid for by us without any real reform of our council workers' 34-hour, flexi-time, sick note for every Monday, "computer says no" terms and conditions.

Last week the death of the reform "ethos" in our tight-lipped Government was epitomised by the fury they raised when the contents of the latest troika report was, as is generally the case in normal

countries, discussed immediately after its publication -- but in ours by the Bundestag.

As is always the case the clever people who run the country swiftly raced on to the airwaves to tell us that, as is the case with every other serious issue from Nama to framing a budget, being open and transparent with the citizens is not how these things are done.

But, is it not perhaps time someone told our naked emperors it might be worth considering that the secrecy and deceit which characterise how these things apparently "should" be done ought to end, for it is a policy that does not appear to have worked.

Oh wait, if that were to occur it would require a democratic revolution and well... actually don't bother Enda; we'll just call the Bundestag.

In fairness, while the new

culture of fear means the legacy of the Peron-style policies of the Ahern era survives in an essentially pristine state, some elements of the Government genuinely believe its central ethos should be reform.

They are in a minority, though, when set against those old pragmatists who fear that when it comes to reform they are too harassed by the fiscal front in Europe to risk losing treacherous "allies" like the public-sector unions if they open any further theatres of conflict.

In a scenario such as this the Taoiseach's acts of stupidity over mythical shredded files, which could never be shredded because they never existed, are the entirely logical outbursts of a political eunuch who can only ease his frustrated wrath at his execrable state by acts of vengeance on those he perceives to be weaker than he is.

When confronted by the wretched spectacle of a fearful government that can only offer its people the cowards' charter of austerity without reform, or what the church might call penance without redemption, many will empathise with the belief of Vincent Browne that the drama over Mick the tax cheat was little more than a classic case of politicians chasing after red -- or, in Wallace's case pink -- herrings.

In fact, our lot was entirely correct to focus their collective energies on "Pink but Putrid" Mr Wallace for, rather like our poor soccer team, the measure of the real worth of our political elite is that they only have the intellectual and ideological capacity to deal with foolish soap operas.

Of course, the spectacle of the circus of pharisees chasing after "Pink but Putrid" is an exercise in futility but our status as the troika's unloved protectorate means that, like Beckett's tramps, futility is the only thing we appear fit to do.

Sadly while the similarity of our politics to the comic nihilism of Beckett's tramps and the similarity of the evolution of this Government to Orwell's unhappy fable about the misfortunate denizens of Animal Farm may even be as good as it gets.

Last week's fear hanging in the Leinster House air suggested our Government believes it is in a car where the brakes have failed, heading towards a broken bridge across a fathomless gorge.

Should they be right, and Greece may well tell us a great deal on that, then we may find ourselves in a country and a continent that bears a far closer resemblance to Lord of the Flies than Animal Farm.

Indeed they, and we, may already be there.

Sunday Independent