'Old politics' evidently alive and kicking

 

Nothing makes people quite so cynical as the spectacle of elected politicians adopting attitudes like uniforms, writes FINTAN O'TOOLE

See how yond justice rails upon yond simple thief . . . Change places, and handy-dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief? –King Lear

POLITICIANS complain about public cynicism. They’re not wrong – universal cynicism is as bad for democracy as blind faith. But if you want to make people cynical, nothing works quite as well as the spectacle of elected politicians adopting attitudes like uniforms, wearing one in opposition, another in office. This “old politics” is alive and kicking. Consider three examples from the past week.

I had a close-up view of one of them myself. I took part in a debate on TV3’s Tonight, about the use of our natural resources. What made the experience surreal was not the substance of the matter at hand but the line-up of party views. Pat Rabbitte, now the Minister in charge, was stoutly defending the old Fianna Fáil line. Éamon Ó Cuív, Fianna Fáil’s deputy leader, was distancing himself from the old Fianna Fáil line, demanding that Rabbitte not issue any more exploration licences until there has been a radical review by the Oireachtas.

Had the same debate taken place during the general election campaign in February, however, each man would certainly have been arguing the other’s case. Pat Rabbitte would have put the Labour view: “We propose a review of the tax regime relating to oil and gas companies.” He would have gone further and supported Labour’s specific proposal that the tax rates applicable to the Corrib gas field be raised, even though the field was developed on terms more favourable to the energy companies.

Indeed, in 2005, when Pat Rabbitte was leader of the party, his energy spokesman took an even stronger line, denouncing the “return to Irish citizens for what is a critical national resource” as “extraordinarily low”.

The same, though, is true of Éamon Ó Cuív. Whatever private reservations he may have on this issue, he was a member of the cabinet for eight years, including the period when the terms were last reviewed. Had he been asked to debate the issue during February’s election campaign, he would undoubtedly have told the public that the current terms are the best available.

For one or other of these gentlemen to have reversed himself on this rather important issue might be accidental. For both to have done so looks uncomfortably like the politics of the revolving door.

A second example last week was Alan Shatter’s insistence that the reduction in Garda numbers to 13,000 will not affect the fight against crime. When precisely this cut was announced last December, Shatter told the public it would “greatly obstruct the battle against crime . . . I predict that tonight drug gangs will be toasting justice minister Ahern’s craven capitulation and incompetence and extraordinary failure to ensure that Garda numbers were fully maintained. We presently have 14,500 members of An Garda Síochána and it is of crucial importance that the number be maintained.” Or not, as the case may be.

The third example concerns the production in a US court last week of documents showing that Shannon airport was a major hub for the secret flights that “rendered” terror suspects. Shannon was a “pivotal stopover point, featuring in at least 13 itineraries”. Wind back to 2006, when Eamon Gilmore responded to a Council of Europe report that raised questions about such flights. He said the report “decimates the legitimacy of the government’s line”. That line was that the government relied on US assurances that no suspects were being rendered through Shannon. Gilmore said that “Ireland is among those countries who simply chose to ‘ignore’ these flights, rather than confront their brutal and ugly reality”.

Now fast-forward again to last week, when we got much more detailed and specific evidence that Shannon was (and for all we know, may still be) used for rendition flights. Eamon Gilmore’s response? “The Government has in the past sought and received assurances from US authorities and we have no reason to doubt those assurances.” The difference between 2006 and 2011? Eamon Gilmore was in opposition then and is in Government now.

I know the response of many readers to all of this will be: so what? “Politician says one thing in opposition, another in power” is hardly up there with “Bertie takes the blame” in the ranks of sensational headlines. But just because a mode of behaviour has become utterly predictable, it has not become harmless. The fact that this is the way we expect it to be is part of the problem. Public cynicism and political cynicism feed off each other.

Even in Hollywood movies, “changing places” is becoming a tired and clichéd plot device. In Irish politics, it’s a worn-out plot that reduces conviction to posturing and the responsible use of power to an exercise in role-playing. What you say depends, not on what you think, but on which role you’ve been assigned in the permanent political improv: “Angry opponent” or “Smug office-holder”.

Except, of course, when politicians on all sides agree that it is the media’s fault that people get cynical. On that, they are perfectly sincere.

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