Coarsening of Irish politics in nobody’s interests

Appalled reaction to protest outside Simon Harris’s home may offer ray of hope

Minister for Health Simon Harris. ‘The appalled reaction of the public to the attempted intimidation appeared to have a moderating impact on political debate.’ Photograph: Tom Honan

Minister for Health Simon Harris. ‘The appalled reaction of the public to the attempted intimidation appeared to have a moderating impact on political debate.’ Photograph: Tom Honan

 

The sinister attempt to intimidate Minister for Health Simon Harris and his family at their home in Co Wicklow last weekend is a direct consequence of the way Irish politics has been coarsened over the past decade or so. Politicians and the media have contributed in equal measures to the decline of civil debate.

The cycle of political outrage and accompanying media frenzy, often fuelled by blind ignorance of the facts, took off during the financial crisis and has hardly abated since. One controversy after another is greeted with hysteria and demands for ministerial resignations with the worst possible motives being attributed to people who often were simply trying to do their jobs or muddle through difficult situations as best they could.

If the consequences were limited to the political theatre, with the odd minister being forced out of office or even governments falling, it might not be so bad. After all, politics is a cruel trade and nobody asked them to put themselves forward for election in the first place.

Bondholders

The problem is that the lack of balance in so many controversies has consequences for everybody in society. If the system had buckled 10 years ago in the face of demands to default on the national debt and burn the bank bondholders this country would be a very different place today. Just compare our situation with that of Greece where it took so long for good sense to prevail.

As former International Monetary Fund director Donal Donovan pointed out in this newspaper earlier in the week, events have proved that Brian Cowen was right a decade ago to resist burning bank bondholders but the former taoiseach paid a high political and reputational price for doing the right thing.

On the media side the agenda is often set by the most sensationalist reporting

A more concrete and recent example of how the quest for political advantage can combine with the media’s thirst for excitement to create a dangerous situation for real people is illustrated with the response last year to disclosure of problems in the cervical testing programme.

Opposition politicians and the media immediately went into overdrive; the facts were grossly misrepresented, and the Government panicked. The Minister for Health offered a repeat test as reassurance and this offer was taken up by more than 90,000 women. The net result as it emerged this week is a massive backlog which means that about 80,000 women are waiting up to 27 weeks for results.

More seriously for women’s health in the long term was the rash of legal actions generated by personal injuries lawyers, who seemed to have unlimited access to the airwaves and were interviewed as if they were objective experts. That could threaten the future of the cervical and breast cancer screening programmes.

Dr Gabriel Scally, the outside expert called in to investigate the CervicalCheck affair, delivered a speech in Dublin last week which attracted very little publicity, probably because he was unsparing in his criticism of the media as well as politicians and health professionals.

He detailed what he described as a toxic mix of political, legal and media involvement in the controversy which created a fevered atmosphere that ultimately put further pressure on the women affected. He described some of the reporting on the issue as “terrible, deeply misleading and wrong” adding “the media need to back off and stop the sensationalist and inaccurate stuff”.

He was also unsparing in his criticism of politicians: “I have never seen anything like the Public Accounts Committee. Talk about a bullying culture, it’s just incredible.” As for the legal system, he expressed surprise at both the cost and increase in medical litigation in Ireland. “The legal system is setting itself in opposition to what is in the best interests of patients. Their best interest is to have their problems resolved.”

Vested interest

It appears, though, that all of those criticised by Scally appear to have no awareness of their shortcomings and have a vested interest in continuing their bad behaviour. It is no accident that the politicians who scream the loudest for heads on plates at every opportunity are the ones who get the most media coverage.

On the media side the agenda is often set by the most sensationalist reporting. Calm and measured coverage emerges only when the storm has died down and by that stage it is usually too late. While it is tempting to blame the cesspit of social media for the nastiness of political debate the mainstream media has been only too willing to follow on.

One ray of hope arising from the incident at Simon Harris’s house last weekend was that the appalled reaction of the public to the attempted intimidation of a young Minister, his wife and three-week old baby appeared to have a moderating impact on political debate.

While there was justified political pressure on the Minister to explain his mishandling of the information about the cost overrun on the national children’s hospital it did not spin out of control in the Dáil. If anything the episode helped to get him off the hook as there was a generally rational debate about why the hospital cost had overrun so badly and what can be done to avoid similar things happening in the future. Is it too much to hope that some lessons have been learned?

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