Friday 17 January 2020

Willie O'Dea: 'A lesson for Leo: listen to the advice of your experts'

The on-off shambles of the RIC commemoration shows the perils of politicians making an unsupported solo run, writes Willie O'Dea

Easter 1916 commemoration: President Michael D Higgins inspects an Army guard of honour at the GPO. Photo: Sasko Lazarov/
Easter 1916 commemoration: President Michael D Higgins inspects an Army guard of honour at the GPO. Photo: Sasko Lazarov/

This day last week the Taoiseach and his Justice Minister were adamant, no matter what anyone else might think, that they were going to commemorate the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) and the Dublin Metropolitan Police at a State event in Dublin Castle this Friday.

This was curious as there had been no mention of an RIC commemoration in the programme of events announced by the Government in Cork only a week before, on January 2. By Monday morning, Minister Charlie Flanagan's solo run was under attack from all sides. Mayors from councils across the country were refusing invites. Almost everyone bar Flanagan and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar could see that this was not going to happen.

Neither of them was for turning. They could not grasp the harsh reality that complex situations don't suddenly become simple because they wish they would.

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Not only would they not stop and think, they saw the furore and decided the best response was for them to double down and go on the attack.

But it all unravelled last Tuesday. That was when a member of the expert advisory group (EAG) tasked with advising on centenary commemorations, Professor Diarmaid Ferriter, scuppered Minister Flanagan's pet project.

Rather than backing Flanagan's shindig in the castle, Prof Ferriter told journalists that the EAG favoured a more academic event such as a seminar or conference and that the minister had "misrepresented the position of the EAG".

With bad grace and no hint of humility, Flanagan went on TV and radio to assert that he was still right, while saying the event would be deferred.

They say even the worst of mistakes are made one single step at a time - and such was the case here.

What makes this all so unnecessary and unforgiveable is not just that Flanagan and Varadkar imagined that simply announcing something could make it happen and make it acceptable, but that they ignored a clear step-by-step process, in place for almost a decade-and-a-half, designed to ensure that such ahistorical misjudgments could be avoided.

I know this as I was one of the people who helped put these in place and operated them for a number of years while Minister for Defence.

Back in 2006, after we had reinstated the military parade to mark the 90th anniversary of the Easter Rising, we started work on preparing for the 1916 and other key centenaries.

The structures and processes which we put in place had three key elements.

First, there was the inter-departmental committee, chaired by the Department of the Taoiseach, this handled the implementation and organisational side.

Second, was an all-party Oireachtas consultation group, chaired by me. It had representatives nominated by party leaders across the Dail and met a few times per year.

The third was the expert advisory group, consisting of academics and other specialist experts. Its task was to develop ideas on how we should commemorate social, economic and cultural progress since Independence. The Oireachtas group was asked to nominate members to this group to ensure as wide a range of opinion and input as possible.

These structures and processes expanded and strengthened as the time to mark the many events of the decade between 1912 and 1922 approached - events that Brian Cowen called "momentous and defining ones for all of the people of this island, and indeed for these islands".

But the core approach to these sometimes complex and difficult commemorations has remained the same - or at least it did until a week ago: reflect, consult, consider and at all times avail of the best expert advice.

By ignoring this tried-and-tested approach and going on an ill-informed and unsupported solo run, the Taoiseach and minister managed to please no one while offending and hurting a great many.

The Government's expert group put it best when it said, in the 2018 report referenced by Prof Ferriter, that: "The aim of commemoration should be to broaden sympathies without having to abandon loyalties… while ensuring, as far as possible, that the commemoration does not reignite old tensions."

If only the minister and Taoiseach had listened to its own experts.

But couldn't we say the same about so much of this Government's attitude to so many other areas?

Willie O'Dea is Fianna Fail TD for Limerick City

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