Fianna Fáil biding its time before going over the top


Taoiseach Brian Cowen may be floundering on the economics but he hasn’t lost his political instinct

IT’S EASTER 1970 and rioting has broken out in the Ballymurphy estate in Belfast. Catholics are furious that Orange marches have been allowed into the area and begin throwing stones, then rocks and finally petrol bombs at the British army troops who have sided with the Orangemen.

Ed Moloney in his book The Secret History of the IRA writes: “The troops replied with CS gas which seeps through the housing estate disabling old and young, rioter and non-rioter indiscriminately.” Nearby, Gerry Adams, commander of the Ballymurphy Provos, is holding another IRA armed unit at gunpoint. The unit from the Lower Falls Road had been ordered into Ballymurphy to protect residents, but now their guns are stacked against a wall while Adams forces them to sit out the riots. Why?

Adams wanted ordinary Catholics radicalised by getting involved in the rioting. Early IRA involvement would scare off the residents and end the riots. His plan worked. The street fights went on for four days and the troops cracked down hard on the Catholics. It affected thousands of residents in west Belfast leaving them angry and willing to take up guns in their own defence. Membership of the provisionals surged.

Adams was implementing an old communist theory variously described as “worse is better” or Nadir-Leninism. The most effective way to persuade the people to your side is to allow the worst to happen. When public opinion is screaming for action, then the smart politician will step forward.

Only the rarest of leaders manages to persuade the people to accept unpalatable truths when they aren’t ready. Most are cowards who sit back and wait for the consensus to emerge before acting. Others are, like Adams, smart enough to engineer events so that the consensus is created or accelerated.

Some historians cite FDR’s operation of lend-lease during the second World War as an example of a leader who did the right thing in the face of opposition from his people. On the other hand, conspiracy theorists say the same president provoked the Japanese into war. Pearl Harbor was a disaster but one that finally forced American citizens to agree with their president. The American people finally agreed to join the war they wanted to ignore.

The war was won and so worse was better.

As our economic crisis deepens day by day, my occasional panic that the Government has no idea what to do next gives way to a certain confidence. Brian Cowen might be floundering on the economics and leaving all that business to Brian Lenihan, but the Taoiseach hasn’t forgotten his politics.

As the master Bertie Ahern consistently demonstrated, he knows that the most successful leaders are like Gilbert and Sullivan’s Duke of Plaza Toro from The Gondoliers who “In enterprise of martial kind/

When there was any fighting/He led his regiment from behind/He found it less exciting.”

In enterprise of the political kind, leading from behind is the safe bet. The only issue is whether it’s done out of conservatism, cowardice or caprice. In Fianna Fáil’s case, it’s safe to assume the latter. Though the myth that they can manage the economy is finally undone, their ability to manage public opinion has not waned.

The Cabinet knew perfectly well in October that public sector pay had to be tackled. The economics demanded it but the politics simply wasn’t right.

I still cling to the belief that Brian Lenihan has the integrity to press ahead with the policies he knows are needed, but is he being held against the wall while the riots rage? If so, by whom? I think the ones to watch are Cowen, Ahern, Martin and Dempsey. These tough guys at the table are playing Ballymurphyism.

They will not go over the top until they have political cover. If the public sector unions represent the British army, then the private sector workers are the residents. The stone throwing has started and another four weeks of redundancies should do the trick. But that’s not enough.

Since we’re playing “Fianna Fáil First, Country Second”, the rules say that while every delay worsens the crisis, the political consensus to “Slash and Burn” must include Fine Gael. Ideally the Opposition would conveniently propose rather than oppose the harshest of measures. Every time the Government faced attacks on public spending cuts, they could simply point out that the Opposition demanded them. That way the pain is spread and the political hit coming in June might be reduced.

Watch out then to see what forces are co-opted in this strategy to force Fine Gael into providing the cover they want. The ever co-operative Sunday Independent obliged last week. Its chief writers, Senator Eoghan Harris and Jody Corcoran, were kind enough to write separate pieces complaining that Fine Gael’s policies aren’t hardline enough to save the economy.

Lads, Enda Kenny is the leader of the Opposition – not the country. Unlike 1987, Fianna Fáil commands a majority and does not need the Opposition’s consent to exercise power. Kenny might be no orator but neither is he a fool and he is not going to do the Government’s job for them.

This endless wait for public opinion to catch up with reality is a game and the time for games is over. If worse is better, how much worse does the Government want? We get it. We are at war. We’re ready to fight. Let’s on with it before we’re all blown to pieces.