Wednesday 23 October 2019

John Drennan: Tales of political intrigue to rival Archer

There is a bouquet of Christmas books this year to attract the political anorak, writes John Drennan

John Drennan

One of the eternal Christmas dilemmas is what literary present to buy for those strange souls who are interested in politics. This problem is accentuated by the fact that, with exceptions such as Stephen Collins and Pat Leahy, the history of Irish political books in Ireland has been relatively inglorious. As with the celebrity autobiography, most have consisted of wearisome cut-and-paste jobs or 50 funniest anecdotes-style texts, whose most natural location should be the ante room of a mercy-killing clinic.

Happily, for the political anorak at least, one of the consequences of the recession has been a marked improvement in the quality of political books. This year has brought us a bouquet of political texts dealing with The Fall of the House of Usher-style destruction of Bertie, Fianna Fail and the grand issue of how on earth we ended up in the land of we are where we are.

First in this list is The End of the Party: How Fianna Fail Finally Lost its Grip on Power (Gill & Macmillan). Written by Bruce Arnold and Jason O'Toole this reads like a fast-paced thriller crossed with scenes of farce that would be more appropriate to Halls Pictorial Weekly.

End of the Party lifts the lid off the crypt of internal politicking and political ambition that buried Fianna Fail and the country. In particular, for the first time, it fully unveils the alcohol-induced inertia that hollowed out a once uniquely successful party.

As with the best sponge cake, Mary Minihan's A Deal With the Devil: The Green Party in Government (Maverick House) wears its learning lightly. It looks at the cleaner, "greener" side of the FF/Green coalition and traces the astonishing process by which, when it came to this utterly dysfunctional "hell's kitchen" of a government, the Greens eventually became the sane wing of the partnership.

The carefully researched text bristles with new revelations, such as the role played by the celebrity economist David McWilliams in influencing Green thinking on the banking crisis. It had been known that McWilliams was close to Brian Lenihan but in an astonishing indication of the lack of trust senior ministers had in the Department of Finance, A Deal With the Devil also claims McWilliams was a key member of the inner court of John Gormley. Minihan's racy insider's account of the dying days of the Brian Cowen administration means this is a text that will interest anoraks of all hues.

One of the more surprising successes is Noel Whelan's history of Fianna Fail. He may be a somewhat painful columnist but in Fianna Fail: A Biography of the Party (Gill & Macmillan) Whelan does emerge as a natural historian.

Whelan is particularly strong in his treatment of the earlier evolution of the party from De Valera through to the Reynolds era. The pace flags somewhat when it comes to the astonishing fall of Cowen, but that may be informed by the difficulties that the serious-minded Whelan had with the low farce which was the signature tune of the final bacchanalian dissolution of Fianna Fail.

This lacuna is filled by Colm Keena's Bertie: Power & Money (Gill & Macmillan). Keena, who has written the definitive account of how Haughey amassed his millions, provides us with an equally learned tale of Ahern's slightly more Lilliputian but similarly complex political affairs.

If there is a weakness in Keena's text it is that the writing style can be slightly unfriendly for the political dilettante.

Sometimes the author tries to communicate too much knowledge too speedily but the detail, and the cruel insights it provides into the character of the ghostly FF leader, means it certainly will not be residing on Ahern's mantlepiece this Christmas. And in spite of the writer's imperfect style, the final chapter on the evolution of a Leitrim ghost village would, on its own, merit the purchase of Keena's text.

Matt Cooper, meanwhile, has reached the happy state of being an iconic brand. In How Ireland Really Went Bust (Penguin) he continues this process with an account of the destruction of the Republic, in the wake of the banking guarantee, that on occasions consists of events that would be far-fetched were they to appear in a Jeffrey Archer novel. The analysis is strong but it is lightened by anecdotes of events such as the view of Olli Rehn that Ireland was not experiencing enough austerity in the wake of a Friday-evening visit by the puritanical Eurocrat to a crowded L'Ecrivain restaurant.

When it comes to the rest of the sorry tale that followed the banking guarantee, our tragedy, as Cooper so eloquently reveals, was that the dysfunctional nature of the State our elites built surpasses anything that even Archer could invent.

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