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Waffle invades Aras debate

On Start the Week on BBC Radio 4, petty day-to-day politics are ignored in favour of discussions of big concepts such as "capitalism" or "China" or "sculpture".

This week the topic was "empire" and host Andrew Marr introduced Jeremy Paxman, who said something like: "The British Empire: it was bad, but was it really that bad?"

"Yes!" said everyone else. The consensus from historian Richard Gott, African activist Marieme Jamme and Chinese filmmaker Suyun Sun was that Britain's old hobby of invading countries, stripping resources and crushing natives, was, at the very least, rude.

"As bad as the Belgians?" asked Paxman, probably wearing a pith helmet and sprouting a handlebar moustache.

"Equally as bad!" protested Jamme.

Soon, even Andrew Marr could relate to the colonised peoples of the world as an interjecting Paxman slowly colonised his programme. By the end of this exploration of Britain's colonial legacy, Paxman had control of Start the Week's trading routes and was flying a flag featuring his own face over the control desk.


The British colonial legacy was also apparent during the Last Word's presidential debate when the candidates disagreed on what exactly they would be elected president of (Norris: the 26 counties. McGuinness: the 32 counties. Mitchell: a place called "Eire". Davis: a governmental quango circa 2005. Michael D Higgins: Atlantis/Tir na N'Og/Rivendell).

For the most part, the participants waffled about mother, country and apple-pie (or, if you don't have US citizenship: mammy, land and red lemonade) and Matt Cooper tried to catch them off-guard with questions like: "What do you dislike most about the Irish character?"

"I hate the Irish. They're a bunch of whingeing bastards," said nobody (I think we'd have seen the truth in this and been impressed).

No, they all seemed to think we were great. Although Davis did say: "We talk ourselves down too much." Which is a bit like telling an interview panel: "My biggest fault is that I'm a perfectionist who works too hard."

Michael D approached the question from leftfield. "I don't subscribe to the idea of national character," he said, before suggesting we do more self-analysis but that we were, nonetheless, brilliant. He also left the debate early because there was somewhere else he needed to be (Aras an Uachtarain to meet his interior decorator, I suspect).

They were also asked about their relationship with God (a good chum to all), the vanity projects they would undertake as president (a forum, an expo and some sort of mono-rail), their celebrations for 1916 ("inclusivity" was mentioned), their opinion on presidential pay (fierce high), and who they would vote for themselves.

They shuffled uncomfortably at this, until McGuinness revealed he didn't have a vote in the south. "That's the best get out of jail free card I've ever heard in my entire life," guffawed Norris (he couldn't have meant it literally, otherwise McGuinness would have used it in the '70s to get out of jail).

Cooper punctuated the whole debate with an air of mild exasperation. He ended by asking why they often seemed surprised by questions about their past (on Monday Dana gave a strikingly bad-tempered interview to Pat Kenny).


Mitchell raged against negative campaigning. Davis championed financial transparency. So did Norris ("Would you not publish a few letters to go with those financial statements?" asked Cooper).

Gallagher subtly likened suspicion of his Fianna Fail past to an attack on democracy (on Wednesday's Drivetime he tackled trickier questions about the non-repayment of an enterprise grant).

Dana dithered. McGuinness joked about 1916. Michael D was tucked up in bed wearing a nightshirt and a nightcap with "future president" embroidered on it.

On Monday, Cooper got his teeth into a real, non-presidential issue when he asked Eamon Gilmore about tax-exiles being invited to the Global Economic Forum: "Are you going to bow the knee effectively to those who are so wealthy that they can actually base themselves overseas, while continuing to live largely in this country, to own an extraordinary amount of assets and to have an enormous amount of influence . . . you're happy with that on the basis that we're so broke that we have to put up with it?"

Great question. Gilmore's answer, incidentally, amounted to "yes".