Liam Fay: Let us pray ... for Sinn Fein
Sinead O'Connor's dalliance with Sinn Féin will end in tears. However, it is by no means certain that O'Connor will be the first to resort to weeping and lamentation. The giddy glee with which party bosses welcomed the singer's membership application was almost touching to behold. The poor sods seem blissfully unaware of what's coming down the tracks.
O'Connor hails Sinn Féin as the best alternative to an out-of-touch government. This was music to the ears of Gerry Adams who describes O'Connor as "a wonderful singer and a great human being". Mind you, Adams' enthusiasm for O'Connor's voice may have dimmed a little. On enlisting, her first act was to call for the resignation of "the elders of Sinn Féin".
O'Connor is a born heretic - and I mean that as a compliment. Though instinctively attracted to religion, she can't abide religious authority. She loves Catholicism but, long before it became fashionable, she was denouncing The Vatican. Sure, she comes out with some desperate mumbo jumbo but what mystical-minded person doesn't? As a card-carrying Shinner, her experiences as a religious refusenik will be indispensable.
Sinn Féin is a cult. Any remaining doubts about the party's inherently cultish structure and ethos were dispelled by the chilling harmony with which its personnel sang from the same hymn-sheet in response to the Mairia Cahill controversy. "I believe Gerry," they chanted, heads bowed and eyes closed.
As Sinn Féin grows - thanks primarily to the work of the other political parties - its ranks will be swelled by individuals who won't be as easily controlled as the existing disciples.
Like the hierarchies of all establishment faiths, Shinner chiefs are obsessed with external threats. In the long run, however, the most potent challenge to the party's dogma and discipline will come from the cuckoos in its own nest.
Protest numbers games turn 'Day of Reckoning' into Day of Miscalculations
According to the opinion polls, the Don't Knows are now the dominant force among Irish voters. Growing uncertainty within the electorate is mirrored by deep changes within the conduct of politics. Wednesday's Right2Water demonstration proved that the Can't Counts are now the dominant force among Irish political activists.
The numbers games played by spokespeople for both the protesters and the Government were an unedifying spectacle which owed more to the magic of numerology than the science of head-counting. Garda estimates put the crowd which massed in Dublin's city centre at 30,000 while observers who moved between the main rally and its various satellites reckoned the turnout was closer to 40,000. But none of these tallies were compatible with the tall tales that the chief combatants wanted to tell so whole new realities were constructed. Figures were plucked out of arses with a gymnastic abandon that would be the envy of the most dexterously devious Anglo-Irish banker.
There are proven methods of assessing the size of large public gatherings. Mathematical formulae to calculate crowd density have existed for decades and the computations have never been easier in the age of phone apps and Google maps. Tellingly, however, nobody on either side of the Kildare Street barricades seemed remotely interested in ascertaining accurate figures. Believing was seeing. In their eagerness to play down the protest's significance, government sources maintained that the crowds comprised no more than 20,000. The Right2Water campaign leaders were equally adamant that 100,000 people were present.
The squabbling over turnout was a poor advertisement for the new 'seriousness' that is supposed to have descended on our politics. Everybody from Enda Kenny downwards accepts that the Government has made enormous blunders since the Troika left town last December. Campaigning for the next general election is in full swing and even advocates for the return to power of some variation on the Fine Gael/Labour coalition are promising sweeping change. At the other end of the spectrum, socialist firebrands of varying shades of red are making grandiose claims about the impending right-left realignment of Irish politics. Voters are being asked to take politics more seriously.
If only politicians would heed their own advice. The biggest losers from the risible hype and exaggeration that surrounded Wednesday's protest were the left-wing luminaries who led it, the players who should have been the major beneficiaries. Though highly adept at expressing the anger that is undoubtedly felt by large swathes of the populace, the left has been hopelessly ineffective when it comes to offering credible policy alternatives. Most of our would-be socialist firebrands are political fantasists, voodoo economists whose sums never add up. They also seem congenitally incapable of recognising triumphs when they achieve them.
By most measures, getting between 30,000 and 40,000 people out on the streets on a cold December weekday was a hefty achievement. However, by grossly overstating the magnitude of the demonstration, the lefties managed to undermine their show of strength with a display of weakness. The promised Day of Reckoning for the Coalition was transformed into a Day of Miscalculations for the wannabe revolutionaries.
As we have grown to expect, however, the folly of the opposition will always be out-gunned and overshadowed by the arrogance of the Government. Health Minister Leo Varadkar led the fightback with an intriguing little riff in which he seemed to argue that the protesters' mistake was protesting about the wrong outrage. "It really bothers me that people are out protesting about €3 per week in water charges," he declared. "We have much bigger problems in our society."
Indeed we do, Leo, and whose fault is that? Appeals for an end to anti-water-charge protests on the grounds that there are worse crises to worry about seem more than a little desperate. They also miss the point that many people are attempting to communicate to government. The €3 per week to which Varadkar refers is the figure that a household of two or more adults will pay for their water supply when Irish Water bills are issued next spring. In itself, it's a pittance. But, for citizens already teetering on the poverty line, it could become a tipping point.
Ironically, given the distracting dispute about the demo attendance figures, there are many arguments involving politics and numbers that are well worth having. Six years of relentless austerity have exacerbated Ireland's social inequality. This is not just bad for those at the bottom but for everyone. More unequal societies are socially dysfunctional across the board. There is more teenage pregnancy, mental illness, higher prison populations, more murders, higher obesity and less numeracy and literacy in more unequal societies. Even the rich report more mental ill health and have lower life expectancies than their peers in less unequal societies.
Trust is shaping up to be the decisive factor in Irish politics. The next general election will be won by the faction or combination of factions that appears most trustworthy - or, to be more precise, least untrustworthy. Silly numbers games, whether they involve economic projections or protest guesstimates, are a luxury smart politicians can no longer afford.
PS Learner and novice drivers who fail to display L or N plates are among the motorists facing tougher sanctions under new penalty point measures.
"The main purpose of the penalty points system is to concentrate minds," declared Transport Minister Paschal Donohoe as he launched the expanded rulebook.
Ironically, concentrated minds are especially urgently needed among those who operate the steering wheel of state. The credibility of the road safety regime is crumbling. Inadequate enforcement in some areas is part of the problem but there is also widespread suspicion that many of the offences which are zealously enforced have more to do with revenue generation.
The road safety advancements of recent years have been hard won. Members of a cabinet that allowed these improvements to be undermined would richly deserve to endure an old-fashioned form of alphabetic censure -involving caps emblazoned with the letter D.