Get down on your knees and pray
Deaglán de Bréadún
Your humble scribe was too busy to blog this week, what with covering the Progressive Democrat meeting in Newbridge to discuss their funeral arrangements, followed by a dash to Clare – but only inches across the border from Limerick – for the two-day Fine Gael “think-in”, and then on to Tralee to check out the Greens.
Covering Irish politics is normally a more measured business: you work hard but you are not running around like the proverbial blue-arsed fly. This was hectic enough to be a foreign expedition and reminded me of past trips to the Middle East: today Tel Aviv, tomorrow Gaza, next day Ramallah.
One had a good opportunity to see Irish politicians and their parties “up close and personal” and draw some conclusions therefrom (I missed the Fianna Fail gig in Galway and Labour’s in Clonmel, but I know them well too!)
The strongest impression derived from my week’s peregrinations was the upbeat mood of Fine Gael, especially by contrast with the funereal PDs. What happened to the bright hopes of 20-odd years ago when Dessie O’Malley and his camp-followers were going to change the face of Irish politics?
Two things happened: PD radical-right policies became the new orthodoxy and the PDs threw aside the trappings of a political reform movement and became mainly a party of office. We are all low-tax aficionados now — and who is to say it didn’t work?
But the PDs are yesterday’s story and the best they can hope for is a few news items here and there as they scramble onto different lifeboats for survival. The idea of a formal merger with Fianna Fail has been mooted but the people I met at Newbridge were clearly intent on a variety of courses of action, some of them planning to adopt the “Community Independent” label, others looking to the bigger parties, still others content to wait and see.
Fine Gael, on the other hand, is a vibrant and probably thriving political party — next year’s local and European elections will be the test of that. There they were, 51 TDS plus assorted Senators and MEPs, laughing and joking as they downed pints and small ones in the Radisson Hotel (billed as the Radisson Hotel, Limerick but Enda Kenny said we were in Clare).
There were wasn’t a peep of opposition to the party leader. He won back 20 seats in the last general election and there is still a lot of gratitude around for that. He has the zest and energy of a man half his age plus that priceless asset for a succesful politician — a full head of hair (A Fine Gael handler said to me in the Michael Noonan era: “If he had hair, he’d be the Taoiseach tonight!”)
But Kenny needs to take a short sharp course in dealing with the media. He tends to respond to questions as if they were bullets to be dodged, not inquiries deserving of a straight answer such as “Yes” or “No” — “and here’s why”.
The Fine Gael chief led reporters (including the present writer) around the houses in response to the simple, legitimate, newsworthy question: “What should happen next over the Lisbon Treaty?” It was like following a will o’ the wisp through the wilder landscapes of his native Mayo. Now he alights on a sod of turf here, now another one there, now you think you see his position clearly, now you don’t.
It was not a happy experience for either side and reporters felt like going away afterwards to lie down in a dark room for a while. His speech to the “think-in” was another round-the-houses exercise which read like a classic case of “too many cooks spoil the broth”.
All the time with Kenny you are asking yourself: Where is the message? He has difficulty coming out with clear, straightforward, unambiguous political positions. It’s not a recipe for success at a time when people are looking for answers and a way forward.
Then it was on to Tralee — surely the most confusingly-signposted journey in the Irish road system. The two main parties had guest-speakers and their deliberations lasted two days but the Greens were content to talk to themselves and it was a one-night stand. Despite their protestations, one was left with the impression of a pretty shameless photo-opportunity.
All week in the background one could hear the tom-toms signalling a major economic crisis, perhaps the worst since the Wall Street Crash of 1929. As we know, that led to massive unemployment and cataclysmic political upheaval. The resulting upsurge of Hitlerite fascism and Stalinist communism quickly dragged the world into another disastrous war.
It’s not a scenario one likes to contemplate and seems almost ludicrously melodramatic in the context of this week’s polite exchanges over tea and buns in Newbridge, Clare/Limerick and Tralee. Seventy-five years ago, people were marching around this country in blue shirts and their leader, Eoin O’Duffy became the first head of Fine Gael. I did not hear his name mentioned at the party think-in and one suspects that today’s FG politicians would be very uncomfortable with the link.
Hopefully the international crisis can be damped down and extremist agendas kept at bay. The Government’s response seems to be mainly cutback-oriented although John Gormley likes to point to the California approach of taking the opportunity to develop Green technology.
Fine Gael is beating the drum for public sector reform. If that is ever to become a serious proposition it would seem to mean paying large numbers of people off in bodies like the Health Service Executive.
But the truth is that for the time being the country is very much at the mercy of international events. We can cut back and try to make savings but our economy is like a cork floating on turbulent seas*. My recipe for the current crisis: get down on your knees and pray.
Deaglán de Bréadún, Political Correspondent, The Irish Times
*”Ireland’s economy and our influence on world events is like a cork bobbing around on the ocean.” Fine Gael Finance Spokesman Michael Noonan responding in the Dáil to the Budget introduced by Minister for Finance Albert Reynolds 25 January 1989