Significant political lessons to be taken from response to McAleese report
The historical implications of Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s speech and apology this week to those who spent time in Magdalene laundries will play out primarily in the realm of social affairs.
It marks another milestone in this country’s tortuous journey towards achieving real insight into the social consequences of what happened in various State and religious-run institutions.
In the short term, however, there are a number of significant political lessons arising from the response to the McAleese report that are worth emphasising.
The first lesson is that politicians need to take the time to read complex public reports before responding to them. In this era of 24/7 news, short news cycles and social media rapid messaging, leaders should resist the temptation to deliver instant responses.
Kenny’s primary error when the McAleese report was published 2½ weeks ago was to respond on the hoof.
While Minister for Justice Alan Shatter had most of the report for about a week beforehand, Kenny and his other Cabinet colleagues had seen the report only on the morning of its publication.
They had the benefit of a personal briefing from Martin McAleese, but then Ministers had just an hour on an otherwise busy day to absorb the implications of the report.
The need to do so carefully arose not only from its length and the volume of statistical data it included, but because its content, in some ways, displaced embedded notions of what occurred in the institutions concerned.
Later that afternoon the Taoiseach faced one of his twice-weekly question times in Dáil Éireann and, although the Opposition could not have had time to consider the report before that moment, Kenny would have known that he would be pressed for a response to it.
When he was asked about the report Kenny’s initial response was appropriate. He promised a debate on the issue in two weeks. However, he then went on to extemporise an immediate response and did so in inarticulate terms.
He should have held his counsel until he, as head of government, could respond in a structured and informed way when the promised full Dáil debate took place.
Politicians should be more comfortable with the sound of silence. Too often too many of them are too inclined to rush out soundbites or quickfire rapid 141-character reactions to reports which themselves generally run to many hundreds of pages.
To borrow some thinking from the advocates of the slow food movement, I would argue that time taken to prepare a proper response leads to more substantial and healthier public debate.
The second lesson is that when someone seeks to respond to the needs of those affected by particular social problems, that is best achieved by meeting directly with the people affected.
While that should be self-evident it is unfortunately common for Ministers and others to leave it to officials and advisers to do the outreach to such groups.
By taking the time to meet personally some of the women directly involved both in Dublin and London, Kenny not only managed to assuage the anger at his initial response but to hear and internalise their stories.
By listening to the wishes of the women articulated by the women themselves, rather than through lawyers or activists making the case for them, the Taoiseach got an authentic first-hand assessment of how much an apology matters to them and how further redress might be framed.
The fact he met the women also explains why much of Kenny’s speech on Tuesday was shaped by their experiences and indeed crafted, in large passages, in the words of the women themselves.
It also probably enabled Kenny to sweep aside the caution which some in officialdom might have being urging upon him.
The third lesson from the reaction to the Taoiseach’s speech is that our leaders should not to be afraid to speak in emotional terms. In our recent history only our presidents have stood out amongst our political leaders as appearing comfortable addressing the emotional aspects of issues and problems.
In Leinster House many of our politicians are capable of melodrama and more than capable of anger or exaggerated anger but seldom are they comfortable addressing social trauma with practical empathy. Real empathy was a central feature of Kenny’s speech and indeed those of other party leaders during this week’s debate. Instinctively many in this country may cringe when politicians tell us they feel our pain. Sometimes, however, empathy is the correct political response and in situations like this it is more than appropriate.
The other lesson from this week is that the Dáil chamber should be the venue for significant national occasions such as this.
To hear the Taoiseach say these words at some press conference or specially designed media event would have been worthwhile but to hear them said in the national parliament, with those to whom his remarks were most relevant listening and watching in the public gallery, carried far more weight and significance.
It would serve our political system well if some of the outdated rules which operate within the Leinster House complex were modernised to allow, for example, visual media access right up to the chamber door and, where appropriate, even to the public gallery. However even those rules and rigidities could not take from the impact of Tuesday evening’s events on Kildare Street.
Taking the time to absorb and reflect, engaging directly with those most affected, not being afraid to communicate in emotional terms and responding from within the national parliament were key aspects of Kenny’s response to the McAleese report. They are lessons worthy of further and frequent application.