Wednesday 21 August 2019

Gene Kerrigan: 'We need a Donogh, we've got an Eoghan'

How can politicians deal with a housing crisis if they can't even handle a mere John Delaney, writes Gene Kerrigan

Donogh O'Malley died at the age of 47, in 1968. He was a Fianna Fail chancer. He was one of the lads - hard drinking, arrogant and sometimes obnoxious.

Hugely ambitious, he was trying to make a name for himself so he'd have a shot at becoming Taoiseach when Sean Lemass retired.

He was also one of the most useful politicians in the history of the State. O'Malley's achievements as Minister for Education (in office for less than two years, until he keeled over with a heart attack) helped change this country immeasurably for the better.

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That's him in that unusual Allianz insurance ad campaign. It shows him behaving boldly and with courage - which was true, but only part of the story.

I thought of O'Malley while I was watching online some of the John Delaney farce at the Oireachtas Committee on Sport. It was one of those times when you find your head sinking as you wonder how in hell our political class has become so ineffectual.

What that Oireachtas Committee needed was a bit of the Donogh O'Malley spirit - someone who'd snarl in the general direction of the FAI delegation, as they made it clear they'd nothing enlightening to say. And tell them to go, just go - just eff off out of here, you're stinking the place up.

In more diplomatic language - we needed someone to tell the FAI that their behaviour suggested there might be something going on they didn't want us to know about. Therefore the committee would recommend that the State totally and permanently disengage from the association.

Instead, for hours politicians asked questions they knew would not get straightforward answers.

Meanwhile, the political parties were stoking up their electoral machines, looking for our votes for their candidates in the Euro elections and the local government elections.

That's what we need: a fresh mandate for politicians to sit quietly while John Delaney refuses to answer questions. More conservative politicians who'll express horror at the housing disaster and the health chaos. And then tweak feeble schemes designed to encourage the private sector - which thrives only on profit - to refrain from extracting maximum profit, and act just a little in the public interest. Oddly enough, that hasn't worked.

Not one fresh idea will come from these people. Not one effective policy.

Here's why Donogh O'Malley was so significant that he features in an ad campaign by an insurance company 50 years after his death.

And here's why we're getting another generation of ineffectual politicians who'll mouth the right words and achieve nothing.

In 1916, Volunteer Harry Colley, trapped in Dublin's inner city, said to hell with it and charged a British barricade. They shot lumps out of him. A British army doctor gave him half an hour to live.

Forty years later Harry was still clinging to a Dail seat. Paddy Beegan and Gerry Bartley, too, got their Dail reward for shifting the Brits. Through the 1950s they were still in the Dail, as were the likes of Sean MacEntee, Bob Briscoe and Dan Breen.

Volunteer Dickie Gogan didn't retire from politics until the late 1970s.

They risked their lives, no one begrudged them the honour - but the country was stagnant, closed off and looking back.

When a new generation of politicians got into office, led by Donogh O'Malley, Charlie Haughey and Brian Lenihan, they had decades of stagnancy to clear away.

O'Malley declared the failure to educate our people to be a "dark stain on the national conscience". But it wasn't just morally wrong - it was holding the country back. Only the small, inbred middle class could afford education, and there weren't enough brainy people among their offspring. If Ireland was to become anything more than a backwater, it needed to create an educated working class.

And that meant free second level - and since the country was in such trouble that it had to be done, O'Malley simply announced it.

We need it - make it so.

He staked his career on the decision. It changed the country and we're still reaping the rewards.

Haughey became corrupt. His generation of politicians became cynical. Today, we've got professional politicians, for whom looking after the constituency - and protecting the seat - is their job.

That entails obeying the party line.

They do as they're told, even though they know their policies are screwing the lives of the children of people forced out of the housing market. Even though their policies are ruining the plans of young people who want to start families and contribute to the future.

Housing? Health? Politicians can't rise to such problems. They can't even put manners on the FAI - an outfit into which we've poured millions.

As in O'Malley's time, bold decisions and courage are needed. Instead, rich investors are making fortunes, as they gloat that this is the kind of housing market they dreamed of dominating. This Government has made Ireland the best little country in which to screw millions out of a screaming market.

We're governed by a class of conservatives who genuflect to the private sector - it's part of their DNA, they can't help it.

Nothing can be done directly, the private sector must take command of every project. This is the gospel according to FG/FF.

The problems today are as gigantic as the one facing Donogh O'Malley - he had the guts to ask himself how could it be solved.

He had a report - commissioned by a predecessor, Paddy Hillery - that recommended reforms. O'Malley told his department he wanted free second-level education implemented. Full stop.

He created a rural school bus system, he set up Regional Technical Colleges.

Today, ministers run everything through committees; they hire private sector consultants, pay them millions to assess and reassess and provide tonnes of material that can cover the minister's ass.

First priority: the buck mustn't stop with the minister. Usually, the forest of consultants and the complexity of private sector contracts ensure that we couldn't find the buck with a metal detector.

I clicked off the Delaney farce. Just then, my letterbox made a snapping noise and an expensive election leaflet dropped into my hallway.

It had a photo of a youngfella, in what looks like his Confirmation suit.

Oh, great, just what this country needs - yet another generation of Haugheys. It's Cathal, from the Butter Wouldn't Melt generation.

The aspiring politicians are all over the place - on the sides of buses, with shiny new cars emblazoned with party colours and photos of the candidates.

They remind us that there are many stupid people amongst us who will vote for the party with the shiniest cars and the buses with the biggest smiles.

And, then, enter stage right, the grinning, ingratiating face of Peter Casey, the man who just wants us to elect him to something. Anything.

The Presidency.

The Dail.

The European Parliament.

Letterkenny County Council. The Steering Committee of the Sacred Heart Choral Society. Peter wants to be elected to something, anything.

The man seems to have a visceral need for validation. Let's elect the poor, needy bugger to some unfortunate body that'll have to listen to him failing to finish a sentence for the entirety of his tenure.

When we need a Donogh, we're stuck with an Eoghan and a couple of Simons. And, God help us, a Peter.

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