Wednesday 16 October 2019

Gene Kerrigan: 'We're better than this? Well, perhaps not'

If you ever find yourself thinking that things have never been so bad, you're probably an optimist, writes Gene Kerrigan

Cartoon by Tom Halliday
Cartoon by Tom Halliday

Leo Varadkar was asked a simple question about roadworks. In trying to be a smartass, he made a pig's mickey out of what was intended to be a gratuitous insult to Micheal Martin.

He likened the Fianna Fail leader to a priest who preaches against sin but is "secretly going behind the altar and engaging in any amount of sin himself".

It was a peculiarly silly thing to say. And the notion of "sinning priests" has a particular meaning these days.

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Varadkar ended up appearing to be precisely what he is - crass, superficial and inept.

But does Varadkar really owe an apology to Catholic priests, for "tarring them all with the one brush"?

Maybe he does. After all, only a small percentage of Catholic priests abused children.

On the other hand, a very, very large percentage of Catholic clerics, up to and including senior members of the hierarchy, remained silent about the abuse and helped cover it up - thereby prolonging it.

So no, in these matters, climbing on to a high horse is not a good look for anyone from the Catholic Church.

That was just one offensive reference last week to the treatment of children. Another arose over the naming of a "co-living" business in Dun Laoghaire.

(Co-living, for those not familiar with Eoghan Murphy's latest enthusiasms, is a substitute for housing, where they charge you €18,000 a year for living in a cross between a bedsit and a hostel.)

This bedsit/hostel used to be called "the Bird's Nest", a kind of parking place for kids, back in the bad old days.

I knew a man who was put in there, and it wasn't the worst place he experienced, but it wasn't a good memory.

Some feel it's plain wrong to name this place The Orphanage, as a kind of cheap thrill echoing the past. And PR material that uses language like tenants "adopting" the bedsit is deliberate misery chic.

Hey, let's open a restaurant called The Laundry, in which all the waitresses are barefoot and pregnant and answer to the name Magdalene...

See how easy it is to be offensive?

Many of us regard the bad old days as very real, a time in which humans were physically thrashed and emotionally pulverised.

Others, though - and this includes the current Taoiseach - seem to regard our painful past as a kind of cool semi-fictional cultural memory about which we can make quips.

Back in the bad old Fianna Fail days, I met some right gobshites. Flashing the cash, boasting about connections, not bothering to conceal their contempt for those who weren't on first-name terms with the bloke who fixed the planning decisions.

The party in power influences the culture of society. And the Fine Gael culture on display today is just as brash and barren as Fianna Fail ever was.

I have a file on a laptop to which I save the stories of the week. Here's a dozen headlines I came across in the past week or so:

Almost €700m paid to private landlords in rent subsidies last year.

Four TDs and Senators outspoken on housing crisis missed more than half of Oireachtas committee meetings.

More than 200 bankrupts probed over suspicions they are hiding their assets.

Nation's biggest landlord denies inflating rents.

Fine Gael engulfed by row as TD says party 'sat on' bullying claims for years.

More families locked out of affordable home scheme.

Ireland is world's biggest corporate 'tax haven', say academics.

Many of Ireland's wealthiest taxed at rate below average worker.

Vulture fund adviser: 'Ireland is the gift that keeps giving'.

Cuckoos are increasing dominance of [housing] market.

Nine Goodman companies made largely untaxed profit of €170m.

Cost of food and drink in Ireland is 20pc higher than EU average.

These all suggest a shallow culture on the make.

This suggests a culture in which those with much are obsessive in their pursuit of more, often at the expense of those with little.

Few can doubt that the old Fianna Fail culture merely dozes, awaiting the purr of a fleet of state cars to make it come fully awake once more.

They have quiet meetings in plush houses on extensive lands.

They chat confidentially in townhouses gifted to the young fellas on their 21st.

In penthouse apartments signed over to the young wans in the year they started in Trinners, men with expensive but garish taste in finger jewellery will regularly exchange views with party hacks, to make sure everyone remains on the same page.

They'll be back.

Perhaps on the other end of a "confidence and supply" arrangement with Fine Gael.

Meanwhile, the Fine Gael culture that now flourishes appears to be one of bullying, of tasteless remarks about a cruel past and of questionable insurance claims.

And of total commitment to the shallowest of political philosophies - vote for me, I'll jack up the value of your house.

By any normal assessment, Fine Gael is as dismal a political failure as the Fianna Fail outfit it replaced.

Fianna Fail placed the country in the hands of bankers and developers. They then bailed out bondholders by taking out loans that we're still repaying, and which our grandchildren may finally clear, towards the end of their working lives.

Fine Gael placed its trust in landlords, vultures, developers and tax breaks for the very richest.

The result: they can't shelter their people, they can't provide timely treatment for the sick.

They watch calmly as insurance profits reach double their already excessive level.

They turn a blind eye to bogus "self-employment", a criminal enterprise which defrauds the state of millions each year.

Every major project they OK costs multiples of the original budget, as the brash and the crass feast on the easy pickings.

They could have insisted that the British and EU reach agreement on the Border arrangements before allowing them to proceed to negotiate a withdrawal agreement. Instead, they accepted a "backstop", which the incoming British prime minister has already declared to be "a convenient fiction".

Are they any good at anything?

Oh, yes, you bet they are.

The one matter on which Mr Varadkar and his party had an unequivocal triumph was the recent share-out of top EU jobs. This involved politicking, whispers in corners, deals and promises, to get their EPP partners into the best positions. They're really good at that kind of thing.

When you visit your Auntie Imelda, on her third day on a hospital trolley, tell her about that - she'll be thrilled.

Is this our future, in one election after another to endlessly swap the brashness of FF for the crassness of FG, and vice versa?

You know that expression beloved of Twitter: "We're better than this"?

Maybe we're not.

Maybe this is the best we have to offer - a choice between brash chancers or crass gobdaws, each wedded to obsolete political principles.

Then there's Labour, great radical speeches, followed by behaviour indistinguishable from the FG/FF cartel.

And Sinn Fein, which promised to be "responsible" after the next election, by going into government with either FF or FG, and then watched their vote collapse and wondered why.

But, hey, we've still got the Greens - remember when they were in government and... well, eh... no, I guess you don't.

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