Time we learned to hear things we don't like


The country has good politicians – but we must open debate with the right questions and listen to hard answers

I SWEAR I keep expecting Brian Lenihan to say “Crisis? What crisis?” It’s bad enough that the IMF is here, but he and the Taoiseach are still pretending we’re not being bailed out.

They’re probably looking up the thesaurus for words that aren’t bailout. Poor Dick Roche tried out “arrangement” on Prime Timethe other night. Any odds on preceding that with “temporary little”?

And there I am still waiting for one of them to say the immortal words: “I was wrong.” Because they have been wrong. About everything.

About the guarantee, about Croke Park, about AIB, about Anglo, about lame budgets and the likelihood of bailouts (which has been inevitable all along). But that’s just since September 2008.

There was all the wrongness that preceded that. The condescending tripe that Fianna Fáil were the great managers of the economy. The moral superiority and desperate naivety of the Greens who put them back in power.

The danger of keeping one party in power for 20 years with the same set of comfortable mandarins protecting each other in their palaces of permanency. The insanity of benchmarking. The auctioning of votes with hard cash. The sneering at honest men who just didn’t understand the necessity for cute hoorism and populism. The deluded masses who voted for men who they knew – knew – were dishonest because they thought they could pull off one last stroke and avoid our fate.

So where do we go from here? The geo-political storm in which we find ourselves will rage above our heads while we get on with the day-to-day functions. The sun will rise, children will be reared and we shall do our jobs. There will be a serenity to be found in the obligation to keep going.

There must also be firm resolve to change our ways. Psychologists and psychoanalysts will tell you that in order to progress there must be self-awareness. We have to know where we went wrong and why, before we can put things right.

We can start by asking why we attacked so vehemently and personally those who disagreed. Everyone from the Morgan Kellys to the Declan Ganleys were not just told they were wrong but had their characters attacked and dismissed.

On Tuesday morning Pat Kenny had David McWilliams in studio. He played back David’s contribution to a Marian Finucane show 18 months ago. At first you thought it could’ve been made on Sunday because he was describing precisely then what is happening now. But David, Cassandra-like, is never believed. Partly it’s because he’s too far ahead of the curve.

He’s right but too far in advance. Sometimes his solutions, like leaving the euro, seem off the wall and maybe they are. I still can’t bring myself to believe everything that he – or Morgan Kelly – says. But if we’re keeping score, it’s Cassandra 5, Establishment 0.

It leaves me more convinced than ever that people simply believe what they want to believe. Why? Partly I think this is due to the human condition. A few weeks ago Melvyn Bragg’s wonderful In Our Time series on BBC Radio 4 discussed the Delphic Oracle. For a thousand years, an older woman of blameless character was chosen to be the oracle where she sat at Delphi, inhaling volcanic gases and declaring her prophesies.

The intellectuals of the age were sure of her integrity but Greeks knew well her ravings could be interpreted in many ways. So they were careful to ask the right question. In one incident, Xenophon asked to which god he should make a sacrifice to aid the success of an expedition. He got an answer, but Socrates told him off: “Why didn’t you ask if you should go at all?” A point on which Xenophon had opportunity to reflect when he found himself trapped in southern Turkey surrounded by enemies.

The oracle told Croesus (as in “richer than Croesus”) that if he attacked the Persian leader Cyrus, an empire would be destroyed. Croesus duly proceeded to attack and thus was his own, and not the Persian Empire, destroyed.

He heard what he wanted to hear.

There is some comfort in these tales. They tell us we may not be as flawed as any other people in any other time.

But Kevin Myers made an interesting observation a few weeks ago. He wrote about the perversity of the Irish Moral Order and reflected on The Playboy of the Western World. The hero Christy Mahon enjoys great social status because the locals believe he has killed his father. Riots were the reaction to these revelations by Synge – this admiration for the rogue.

It’s twisted but consistent. It’s why people could openly sneer at Garret the Good and laugh at all those funny stories about Charlie. Not everyone insists on holding these perverse views; just enough to bring us all down.

So it’s not enough for our leaders – politicians, civil servants, cheering commentators, business and union leaders – to admit they were wrong.

Those who joined in have their own admissions to make, even if privately.

There will have to be an election now. There are good people and good politicians in this country. If we’re prepared to conduct debates where decency is respected and platitudes dismissed: if we’re prepared to ask the right questions and to listen to the hard answers, then there can be hope.

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