Fianna Fáil's petty drama reported as if it matters


THE SURREALISM of the past week speaks eloquently of the tendency of the political system, and those who report on it, to normalise even the most grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented situations.

Although the economic situation is the worst since independence, self-government has to all intents and purposes been suspended, and the people contemplate the incipient haemorrhaging of another generation of Irish youth, the sense emanating from the political system has been of the constancy of the political “game”, in which nothing really makes sense as it had to in the real world.

The events of the past week, culminating in the extraordinary debacle of yesterday, could not have occurred but for the complicity of the storytellers, which is to say the media, who extended to the internal squabbles of a dying party a credibility that nobody else outside the ranks of Fianna Fáil would consider proportionate or reasonable.

Consider, briefly, the strut of Brian Cowen as he entered the hall last Sunday evening for the press conference at which he would announce that he was to subject his leadership to a confidence motion.

Having observed in despair his performance as Taoiseach, I had expected some element of diffidence, reticence or humility. Instead, he sauntered into the hall, scanning the serried rows of waiting journalists with something approaching condescension, looking for all the world like someone with something to be proud of.

Of course, we know that, at the time, he felt assured, on the basis of contacts with members of his parliamentary party, that he could see off any internal challenge.

This was not exactly something worth writing home about, but Cowen seemed almost drunk on the notion of his imminent victory and, as he would subsequently characterise it, his “vindication”.

Brian Cowen leads a dispirited party which, having presided over the greatest period of failure in Irish democratic history, contemplates the coming general election with foreboding and no little trembling.

To be leader of such a body at this moment is a dubious claim to fame. And yet, the drama of the heave that wasn’t was presented by those who tell us what it is we should become exercised about as if it mattered who leads Fianna Fáil into or after the coming general election.

Cowen was elected Taoiseach in 2008, but in a technical sense only. He had no moral mandate and was never required to justify his claim to be leader of the Irish people. Indeed, such was the sense of his entitlement within Fianna Fáil that he was never even called upon to set out his stall as would-be leader of his own party.

Had he been subjected to a contest in the summer of 2008, it might have made a difference to something. But he sought no mandate then, acquiescing in an ill-judged coronation. He inherited the leadership because he was an able party animal, a good number two to Bertie, and above all because it was his turn.

He has been an appalling Taoiseach. For nearly three years, he has lacked the confidence to stand up and speak of the country’s difficulties in plain English, to offer to the people reassurance, contrition or hope.

And yet, last Sunday evening, in the dying moments of his administration, albeit in the context of an internal party set-piece, he seemed confident and almost dynamic. So well did it all go that he was impelled to even fuzzier heights as the week progressed, thinking to reconstruct his Government in a stroke that, had he pulled it off, would have gone down in history.

It strikes me that, had Brian Cowen been required to be leader of Fianna Fáil only, without the added responsibility of leading the country, he would have been an unqualified success. This is what he is good at: manipulating and tweaking in the rooms that, before the advent of Micheál Martin, were invariably described as “smoke filled”.

And had Cowen been able to summon up just the merest hint of last Sunday’s strut while negotiating with the IMF and the ECB, we might be looking forward to the future with lighter hearts and heavier pockets. But leadership of that kind is not his strong suit.

It is not original to note a disconnection between the skills required for politics and those required for dealing with the stuff politics is about.

More interesting is the way our public conversations about politics appear always to consign these two elements to separate tracks.

For the past week, political journalists have been reporting events within Fianna Fáil in a manner more in harmony with Brian Cowen’s strut than with their own analysis of the state of the country, entering fully into the surreal notion that it matters a damn who leads Fianna Fáil. Normally acerbic commentators spoke about the twists and turns of the FF family romance as though it mattered.

Reporters enabled Cowen to reclaim his confidence by following the surreal logic of his party in its terminal panic. For 30 months, our media has been presenting an unmitigatedly negative view of the performance of the FF-led Government, and yet could find no way of presenting the death throes of that party other than in a way that seemed momentarily to imply that the apocalypse is just another fleeting plot twist.

No matter how bad things get, our collective sense of what is important can always be diverted into the drama of politics, which we are prone to mistake for reality.

If we wish to understand why nothing ever changes fundamentally, we might do worse than reflect on this phenomenon.