MacGill's Big Thinkers keep asking the same question

Miriam Lord: In terms of news interest Burton was relegated to second by Frank Flannery

Frank is on track to become Fine Gael’s version of Bertie Ahern. Photograph: North West Newspix

Frank is on track to become Fine Gael’s version of Bertie Ahern. Photograph: North West Newspix

Tue, Jul 22, 2014, 01:00

If there is such a thing as a bottomless navel, the MacGill Summer School has found it. Some 34 years gazing into it now. And always more fluff to mine, more wonders to see.

It’s the same crowd every year – natural wastage notwithstanding – clustered around the edge, gazing contentedly into it while throwing out clever ideas about saving us from ourselves.

Here’s this year’s theme: “Fundamental Reform of our Politics and Institutions: Can we meet the Challenges Ahead?”


The speakers – bar Tánaiste Joan Burton, who thinks Labour’s input into the programme of priorities agreed in the wake of her recent election will help voters regain their trust in politics – wallowed in a retrospective of past government calamities and concluded that we seem doomed to repeat them.

It was spookily similar last year when the theme was “Looking to 2016 – How Stands the Republic?” Then there was the previous Glenties jamboree. Micheál Martin delivered a paper entitled “Our Society Needs Fundamental Political Reforms.”

The Fianna Fáil leader is one of the many repeat MacGill offenders. He’s back again tonight. This time, addressing the question “How to Restore Trust Between Governors and Governed?”

In 2011, after the general election, it was time to ponder “The First Hundred Days, The Next Five Years.” Reform was the watchword. Again. It was all about “Reforming the Republic” in 2010. There’s a pattern here.

If speakers at this celebrated summer school are so smart – apparently Ireland’s crème de la crème of political, economic and academic Big Thinkers – how come they have to keep returning every year to answer the same questions? Have they not found a solution yet? Of course they have. It’s just that the great unwashed keep ignoring them.

Dr Theresa Reidy of UCC put her finger on it for her listeners in a crowd top-heavy with retired civil servants and teachers: “The audience at MacGill is not reflective of the rest of the electorate.”

As for the panels: think of a typical Sunday gathering on the Marian Finucane Show and you’ve got a good idea of the type of people who tend to populate the panels at the MacGill Summer School.

Terrible tragedy

It would have been a terrible tragedy for the organisers had Fine Gael’s promised “democratic revolution” come about. Reform is their bread and butter. Although there’s always Europe, thank God.

Tomorrow morning, former tánaiste and minister for foreign affairs Eamon Gilmore was scheduled to consider the following question: “In the wake of the European Elections and in the Context of Disillusionment across Europe, what now for the European Dream?”

But now he’s a mere backbencher, he doesn’t have to bother anymore. Happy Gilmore.

The woman who took his job was on speaking duty yesterday. But in terms of news interest Tánaiste Joan Burton was relegated to second place by Frank Flannery, who was due to tog out in the afternoon session to talk about “The Political Landscape – Has All Changed Utterly or Has Anything Really Changed at All?”

Well, it has for former top Fine Gael strategist Frank, who used to be an access all areas guy in Government Buildings until he ran into difficulty with the PAC last March.

Both the Taoiseach and Tánaiste recently expressed the view that Flannery should appear before the committee if the invitation still stands. “For anyone to suggest that I could go in [to the PAC] is an extraordinary thing to do and utterly and completely out of order.”

He can’t see himself returning to Fine Gael now. “It is becoming a less attractive option by the day.”

Damning verdict

His return will also be seen as a less attractive option to the party after Frank’s damning verdict yesterday on their local election performance.

He hasn’t been seen or heard much since his departure from FG. But he returned with a bang on a couple of radio shows last week before his stint in Glenties yesterday.

At this rate Frank is on track to become Fine Gael’s version of Bertie Ahern – formerly cherished, but now out in the cold.

Needless to say Garth Brooks was mentioned by some speakers. Barrister and Irish Times columnist Noel Whelan was particularly shameless, comparing the current popularity of the main political parities in terms of percentage numbers of Brooks tickets sold.

Independent TD Stephen Donnelly was a bit overwhelmed by his first visit to the summer school. “I’m a MacGill virgin,” he admitted, once he got over the shock at being introduced to the audience as such. Stephen sat through the morning session. We could sense he found it heavy going, particularly when we saw him racing away at lunchtime with a hotel bath towel under his arm, off for a swim at Nairn beach. It’s jellyfish central at the moment, we hear. But Deputy Donnelly didn’t care.

He’s not too happy on the reform front either. “If you dropped a TD from the 1940s into the Dáil now, he’d probably say ‘What are all these women doing here?’ But apart from that nothing has changed.”

Whelan earned the absent Leo Varadkar his second round of applause of the day. ”I would watch Leo the lion . . . he talks straight: that’s liberating in Irish politics.” Management consultant Eddie Molloy also lauded the straight-talking Minister . Varadkar is in Glenties tonight. At this rate he’ll be mobbed.

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