There must be a return on our trust in the Taoiseach

Tue, Oct 21, 2008, 01:00

The Taoiseach sought "time and space" to sort out the medical card dispute, which might also be translated as "What do we do now?", writes Elaine Byrne 

THE GOVERNMENT listened. Aspects of the income levy and eligibility thresholds for over-70s' medical cards will now be altered. It is not that the Government is deaf, but rather that Irish public life cannot see.

Our ability to respond to successive crises this year has shown that our eyesight is defective. One eye has overwhelming myopia, also known as short-sightedness, where the capacity to focus on distant objects is blurred.

Unfortunately, the other eye has a hint of hyperopia, or long-sightedness, causing an inability to focus on near objects (commonly referred to as the "little things in politics that trip you up").

The political term for this particular combination of short-sightedness and long-sightedness is contradictory-itis. When left undiagnosed and untreated over a long period of time, soul-destroying sentiments such as "patriotism be damned" can become rampant.

Those who grew up in the 1980s may recognise this Irish strain of political contradictory-itis from the RTÉ children's television drama Fortycoats. This classic good versus evil tale involved the main Fortycoatscharacter wrestling against the wicked Whilomena, the Whirligig Witch, and the equally evil Pickarooney, from the confines of his flying sweet shop. Fortycoats was ably assisted by Sofar Sogood and Slightly Bonkers, two incredibly contradictory characters who had conflicting approaches to the crises they continually found themselves in. Fortycoats (and his 50 pockets) often lost patience. The flying sweet shop was small, those evil-doers were unpredictable and his two young cohorts went through the same rigmarole each time, neglecting to see the bigger picture.

Fortycoats, Sofar Sogood and Slightly Bonkers reverted to their own special language when evil was about, which complicated matters. Flim-flam worked entirely on the basis that you said the exact opposite of what you meant.

The Taoiseach has appealed for "time and space" to find a solution to the medical card controversy. In the aftermath of the Lisbon Treaty debacle, he similarly asked for "a period of reflection". Translated from flim-flam, this loosely means: "What do we do now?"

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross's five stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Ireland has had plenty of practice with the first three grief stages this year, also known as the DAB (Denial-Anger-Bargaining) phenomenon. Shocked by the loss - of, let's say, a budget surplus and popular support - disbelief induces paralysis and a refusal to accept facts. Frustrated and exasperated, the finger of blame is firmly pointed towards things like the international credit crunch, the Government's mismanagement of the public finances and the financial regulator.

Backbenchers then frantically engage in bargaining, attempting to find a way of avoiding reality and the vain hope that the bad news is reversible.

Inevitably, there is acceptance. This ability to rationalise and take ownership allows agreement to find a way forward. The Government is currently waiting for its backbenchers to speed up with the grief process.

This process is not helped when those supposed to be ahead of the curve are the source of additional confusion.

The Minister of State for Finance, Martin Mansergh, admitted as much in relation to the medical cards issue on last Thursday's TV3 programme, Nightly News with Vincent Browne- "It is often the case that outline proposals are announced in a budget and are then fleshed out in . . . the legislation. It was clear that it wasn't fully fleshed out."

That makes me nervous. I want to trust the Taoiseach. To do so, implies a value judgment on my part that the discretion he is given to fulfil my trust is not misspent through incompetence. My leap of faith involves an element of risk. It makes me vulnerable because I must completely depend on him and believe in him. There must be a return on our investment of trust in the Taoiseach.

On Sunday's RTÉ Radio One This Weekprogramme, Brian Cowen told Gerald Barry that Ireland was in "totally new economic territory". It's bigger than that, Mr Cowen. This is totally new political territory.

In these new territories, public debate on the fundamentals should now replace distractions of personality and piecemeal-based discourse. In the week that Sofar Sogood and Slightly Bonkers engaged in opaque flim-flam, details of the €500 billion bank guarantee scheme were revealed with little scrutiny.

Potentially, this has long-term implications for nationalising aspects of the Irish banking system when recapitalisation issues are finally addressed.

Instead, we became absorbed in one aspect of the universality principle - that of medical cards for the over-70s. Access to "free" education and child benefits are also universality-based schemes which deserve honest debate on the sacrosanct assumption of our low taxation system.

This is not Boston and Berlin, but Boston or Berlin. You cannot have your cake and eat it without ideologically knowing how that cake is made. The Celtic Tiger years temporarily protected us from the consequences of indefinitely postponing the acceptance of responsibility.

Events over the last week demonstrated that local radio talk shows and the RTÉ 1 radio programme, Liveline, were more relevant to voters than Dáil proceedings. Radio has proved to be a real-time snowball conduit of public anger and hostility.

The traditional dynamics of Irish politics has changed, changed utterly.