Bobby McDonagh: Nothing wrong with thinking sometimes our politicians get it broadly right

Rare for any political development to be presented as a reasonable attempt to grapple with complex reality

A mural by Brazilian artist Gabriel Marques near the Grand Canal in Dublin. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

A mural by Brazilian artist Gabriel Marques near the Grand Canal in Dublin. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

 

Goldilocks famously came across three bowls of porridge. The first was too hot. The second too cold. The third was “just right”. It is a feature of contemporary public discourse, in Ireland as elsewhere, that there seem to be only two bowls of porridge on the menu.

Everything is judged to be either too hot or too cold. This is especially the case on social media. Every political decision is lambasted, often from both sides of the argument at once. Nothing ever seems to be “just right”. It is rare for any political development to be presented as a reasonable attempt to grapple with complex reality in real time: imperfect but creditable. Few policies are considered simply to pass reasonable muster. Few outcomes are deemed to reflect unflamboyant competence.

Trenchant views attract more attention and generate better media stories

This phenomenon, far from unique to Ireland, is widespread here. On no issue has this been more obvious than in the ongoing public discussion on Covid. Policies to combat the pandemic are criticised as both too tough and too weak. The lockdowns, it is said, have been both too lax and too restrictive, too short and too long. The quarantine arrangements have been both hopelessly unambitious and pointlessly draconian. The Government has listened to too much scientific advice but also listened to too little. Often it is the same commentators, those who once insisted that some aspect of the Covid porridge was too cold, who later insist that it is too hot.

Bobby McDonagh is a former ambassador to London, Brussels and Rome

Arguments have been made for moving groups up the priority list for vaccination because the order is deemed to be unjust or muddle-headed, but responsibility is rarely taken for the inevitable consequence of moving other groups correspondingly down the list. The possibility that the evolving priority list for vaccinations may be getting an incredibly complex and evolving challenge broadly right is given less credence than it deserves.

Opinion polls relating to Covid, as on other issues, by inviting people to plump between stark alternatives, may tend to encourage a sense that any middle course is a cop-out.

Strong views

The Government here, like every government, has made mistakes on Covid, including some significant ones. It is clearly right that people should express whatever strong views they have about that in a forthright way. The media must report those views and provide an outlet for them. Overall, Irish journalism has served the country well during the pandemic, as indeed it does more generally. Moreover, it is essential for democracy that Opposition politicians should hold Government to account by challenging its policies and its performance.

The question is whether the necessary compromises with complex reality get enough of a look-in in our public discourse. Trenchant views attract more attention and generate better media stories. The ubiquity of radio phone-in programmes may tend to encourage a culture of complaint. Lines of questioning can sometimes downplay the unavoidable intricacies of the issues under consideration, the trade-offs that they require, and timing issues that cannot be wished away. If Goldilocks were to try to understand contemporary Ireland through the stark posturing of much of our public debate, I suspect she would find only chairs that are too big or too small, and beds that are too hard or too soft.

Given a choice, it is far better to have public discourse in which criticism is too sharp rather than too blunt

It is not only Government decisions, but also Opposition stances, that are deemed to be too strong or too weak, or both at once. For example, the leader of Sinn Féin recently offered a form of apology for the murder of Lord Mountbatten at the hands of the IRA. Many, like me, would wish that the expression of regret had come much earlier and were more forthright. Perhaps, however, the statement should be seen as an imperfect step forward by Sinn Féin, the best they could offer today in all the historical and contemporary circumstances.

Challenging assumptions

Ireland is fortunate to have a media culture that challenges assumptions and works hard to hold politicians of all parties, as well as other public figures, to account. It stands in sharp recent contrast to our neighbouring island which, despite having some of the best newspapers and broadcasting organisations in the world, also boasts many popular outlets that have more interest in peddling an infantile political agenda than in anything that could accurately be described as news or serious commentary. The net effect of the overall media environment in the UK is that its government gets a remarkably free ride on issues that would put an Irish Government under immediate, intense and sustained pressure.

Given a choice, it is far better to have public discourse in which criticism is too sharp rather than too blunt, in which the political porridge fluctuates between extremes of temperature. But it is no harm to recall gently that sometimes our politicians may be getting it just about right.

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