Monday 21 October 2019

Political Notebook: 'Maire Whelan under pressure to Stepaside, as Shane Ross might say'

 

Máire Whelan. Photo: Laura Hutton/RollingNews.ie
Máire Whelan. Photo: Laura Hutton/RollingNews.ie
Jody Corcoran

Jody Corcoran

In 20 years of reporting on the formation of governments, I have yet to witness an occasion when all have been entirely pleased with the choices made by any Taoiseach.

It is similar on this occasion, after Leo Varadkar opted not for wholesale but for piecemeal changes which reflected caution, some would say a responsible attitude, to retain the experienced Frances Fitzgerald and Charlie Flanagan, two capable ministers, albeit in different departments at a time when younger TDs expected advancement.

I must admit to having some foresight into the new Taoiseach's thinking. After his election as Fine Gael leader, he told me that it was "not the right time (just yet) for wholescale generational change", it being only a year into the Government.

Of course, Varadkar had also individually promised to retain most of the outgoing Cabinet in return for support in the leadership contest. In doing so, he won that contest but has also limited his room for manoeuvre.

Will he rue the day? He has implicitly held out the promise of generational change after the next election, but it may be that Varadkar has missed an opportunity to present a fresh Government in keeping with his projected image as a leader in the 'new European centre' and that Micheal Martin will get to form the next Government.

That's politics. Certainly my Fianna Fail sources were more relieved than expected after the Cabinet was announced.

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Whether by accident or design, the likelihood is the former, the appointment of Mary Mitchell O'Connor to Cabinet with responsibility for higher education, I would argue, is a signal that Varadkar intends to develop that new centre.

When she calms down, Mitchell O'Connor will come to realise she has been presented with a wonderful opportunity. There was surprise when Enda Kenny appointed her Minister for Enterprise and Jobs, with her having a background in education. There is less surprise that she has now been demoted to a position more in keeping with her experience.

However, should Varadkar be true to his stated intention to develop a "new" centre, he must resist his instincts and commit to the pursuit of ethos and excellence in education, where the formation of character and culture should be more primary than a sole focus on social mobility so beloved of liberals. A good start might be a close examination of the Technical Universities Bill to safeguard the traditionally broader missions of Institutes of Technology which are widely regarded to have a lesser status than universities.

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In the absence of any real excitement on the election of Varadkar and his Cabinet, one of the more interesting aspects of the week was Martin's description of Enda Kenny as an "Irish patriot" upon his resignation as Taoiseach.

The description raised a few eyebrows in the Dail, not least among certain Fianna Fail TDs who recalled Eamon Gilmore's charge of "economic treason" against Brian Cowen, from which he subsequently somewhat resiled but not entirely.

I am given to understand that Martin's intention was also to highlight what he regards to be the misappropriation of the term "patriot" by Sinn Fein. True to form, as he spoke in the Dail, the Sinn Fein TD John Brady tweeted: "Micheal Martin has described Enda Kenny as an Irish Patriot. Surely he meant to say Irish Parrot, as he ain't a patriot."

Martin returned to this the next day to which Brady again tweeted: "Micheal Martin not happy with me for disagreeing with him thinking Enda is an Irish Patriot. Tone, Pearse, Farrell, Sands were, Enda isn't."

The Farrell referred to is, presumably, Mairead Farrell, the twice-jailed Provo who met her death on 'active service' in Gibraltar and who in 1981 stood for election to the Dail in Cork North Central, polling 6pc of the vote, a relatively meagre return given the emotionally charged atmosphere at the time related to the H Block hunger strikes.

Farrell was subsequently described thus by the New York Times: "To the people of Falls Road, she was a patriot. To the British, she was a terrorist. To her family, she was a victim of Irish history."

It raises an interesting question as to what is a patriot. The standard dictionary definition reads "love of one's country", which nobody can deny of Kenny. Less narrow definitions include: a special affection for one's own country; a sense of personal identification with the country; special concern for the well-being of the country and a willingness to sacrifice to promote the country's good.

At issue here is that many fail to distinguish between the term "nationalist" and "patriot", a distinction which begs serious moral questions, a failing we might ascribe to John Brady.

Personally, I am inclined to go with George Orwell, who contrasted the two in terms of 'aggressive' versus 'defensive' attitudes.

According to Orwell, nationalism is about power: its adherent wants to acquire as much power and prestige as possible for his nation, in which he submerges his individuality.

While nationalism is accordingly aggressive, patriotism is defensive: it is a devotion to a particular place and a way of life one thinks best, but has no wish to impose on others.

To answer the question then, and in response to a recent correspondent from Co Mayo, by the standard of George Orwell, I could not take issue with the assessment of Martin that Kenny was a patriot.

Nor do I believe the word "treason" should be remotely associated with Brian Cowen.

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Patriot or not, Kenny was also a flawed politician. The final moments of his departure betrayed his flaws.

As he walked out of the door, he could not resist the urge to pull one more stroke, the proposed appointment of his Attorney General Maire Whelan to the Court of Appeal. She is now under pressure to stand aside, or Stepaside as Shane Ross might say. Kenny and Whelan were both part of the sequence of events in the shabby affair that surrounded Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan and, subsequently, Alan Shatter. Curiously, Kenny reappointed this "alarmist" Labour lawyer for his second term, a decision that raised eyebrows in the Dail and Law Library, particularly as she was reappointed in the face of the findings of the Fennelly Commission, her evidence to which she had modified.

They say that all Taoisigh and Attorneys General develop a loyal relationship. This seems particularly so in the case of Kenny and Whelan. The wonder is why. As for Ross, the man who built two careers on the argument that legal cronyism is as bad as political cronyism of the kind he used to rail against: He doth protest too much. The re-opening of Stepaside Garda station brings to an end all that. To quote from his website: "Irish public life is cursed by crony politics..." To which we can only add, the prophet of political correctness stands exposed.

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Much has been said and written since the outcome of the election in the UK, but few have assessed the result as interestingly as The Guardian journalist Paul Mason who can be regarded, I suppose, as something of a latter day Orwell.

These days Mason describes himself as a "radical Social Democrat", having moved to an extent from his Trotskyist past. He remains a strong advocate of Labour under Jeremy Corbyn. Last week he wrote: "The hard Brexit path creates a permanent crisis, permanent austerity and a permanent set of enemies - namely Brussels and social democracy. It is the perfect petri dish for the fungus of financial speculation to grow. But the British people saw through it. Corbyn's advance was not simply a result of energising the Labour vote. It was delivered by an alliance of ex-Ukip voters, Greens, first-time voters and tactical voting by the liberal centrist salariat."

His reference to liberal, centrist, salaried, white-collar workers is relevant. In general, much of what has been said about the resurgence of old Labour under Corbyn is wide of the mark. He was still a significant 70 seats short of a majority, and without support in the centre ground, he will never bridge that chasm.

That said, I agree with the assessment that Theresa May's hard Brexit strategy, which would recast Britain as the global Singapore, persuaded the liberal centrist salariat to tactically abandon the Tories. It is doubtful they will stay with Corbyn, however.

Indeed, I believe there is now an opportunity, or at least a possibility, that a new political movement can emerge in the UK, not unlike Macron's En Marche in France, comprising red Conservatives and blue Labour, perhaps with a few Liberal Democrats thrown in, an eventual outcome that may bring something of a much-needed settlement to politics there.

Meanwhile, Varadkar has the makings of a crisis on his desk, thanks to Kenny and his special relationship with Whelan. Who will rid him of these turbulent priests?

Sunday Independent

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