Biteback time: Simon Harris v Eamon Dunphy, Alan Kelly v Peter McVerry

Stephen Collins: ‘The Coalition parties have clearly decided to be much more robust in their response to attacks from political opponents and media critics’

‘In the event Simon Harris (above) ran away with the contest (with Eamon Dunphy on Claire Byrne Live) not only because of his ability to marshal the facts but because of his ability to mix it in the verbal exchanges and poke fun at his opponent without losing his cool.’ Photographer: Dara Mac Dónaill / THE IRISH TIMES

‘In the event Simon Harris (above) ran away with the contest (with Eamon Dunphy on Claire Byrne Live) not only because of his ability to marshal the facts but because of his ability to mix it in the verbal exchanges and poke fun at his opponent without losing his cool.’ Photographer: Dara Mac Dónaill / THE IRISH TIMES

 

As the election inches closer the Coalition parties have clearly decided to be much more robust in their response to attacks from political opponents and media critics.

The improving economy has given them ammunition to defend their record in office and hit back at those who have kept up an unrelenting barrage of political abuse over the past four years.

The new approach was typified by the performance of Minister of State Simon Harris, who wiped the floor with commentator Eamon Dunphy on Claire Byrne Live on RTÉ last Monday night.

Harris is still only 28 but his command of the facts and the aplomb with which he dished out some devastating put-downs showed why some of his colleagues have dubbed him “the white Obama”.

Taking on an experienced media performer such as Dunphy, whose stock in trade is populist rhetoric, represented a challenge that might have intimidated a far more experienced politician than Harris. The presence of a studio audience made things even trickier.

In the event, Harris ran away with the contest not only because of his ability to marshal the facts but because of his ability to mix it in the verbal exchanges and poke fun at his opponent without losing his cool.

Tour de force

On the Labour side, Minister for the Environment Alan Kelly has performed a similar service for his TDs. His approach is blunt and direct but he has stamped his authority on his department and impressed colleagues, many of whom were initially sceptical about his abilities, since his promotion in last summer’s reshuffle.

Kelly made a good fist of sorting out the mess he inherited over the introduction of water charges. That issue threatened to do permanent damage to the Coalition and while its impact will inevitably linger the worst now appears to be over.

During the week Kelly had the nerve to take on the homelessness campaigner Fr Peter McVerry, who is rightly regarded as the nearest thing we have to a living saint in Irish public life. Responding to criticism of Government policy from McVerry, Kelly said: “I haven’t heard him say one thing positive yet in relation to anything. Which is unfortunate because many members of his staff work with us and would have contrary views, or express contrary views. I’d rather if people were more constructive.”

In response McVerry acknowledged that Kelly was doing a better job than his predecessors but insisted there were still huge gaps to be addressed and the number of homeless people was going up.

It took some nerve to criticise McVerry, but Kelly’s approach should embolden his party colleagues to go out and defend their record in office pointing out the things they have done rather than apologising for what they have failed to do.

In the Dáil, the Opposition kept up the pressure on the Government on a number of fronts but its approach also highlighted the continuing struggle for advantage going on between the various parties and groups.

The response to the Private Members’ Bill on abortion tabled by Independent TD Clare Daly illustrated some of the Opposition tensions. Sinn Féin abstained on the basis that party policy had not been decided, while Fianna Fáil decided to allow a free vote because there are divided views in the party on the issue.

Real rivalry has now developed between Sinn Féin and the various Trotskyist factions in the Dáil in the contest for the hearts and minds of disaffected voters in deprived areas.

In the recent byelection in Dublin South West and last year’s contest in Dublin West Sinn Féin was pipped for the seat by hard left candidates Paul Murphy and Ruth Coppinger.

Murphy’s arrest last Monday in connection with the incident in Jobstown in which Tánaiste Joan Burton was trapped in her car by protesters generated huge publicity and this has left Sinn Féin in something of a dilemma.

The party was the main organiser of the anti-water charge protest outside the Dáil in December and it ensured the main event passed off peacefully without incident. It stood in marked contrast to the smaller but more aggressive protests mounted by the hard left.

Political policing

If anything, Government Ministers and TDs would have preferred if the incident was quietly forgotten about, but it is the job of the Garda to pursue an investigation if they believe the law has been broken.

A bizarre aspect of the Dáil exchanges on the issue was the way Government TDs took umbrage and claimed Coppinger was insulting the gardaí when she referred to “calling out the dogs”.

The use of this time-worn expression did not suggest that Coppinger was calling the gardaí “dogs” as the Government side claimed.

Mind you, the abuse dished out to gardaí at some of the protest would make “dogs” sound like a polite term of abuse.

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