Oliver Callan: Ireland, where paradox is the political norm
It’s a system that sees the Taoiseach accept the findings of the Moriarty Tribunal but then pose happily next to the man damned by it
Taoiseach Enda Kenny: “The contradiction means that a Taoiseach elected in 2011 with a mandate for change so huge he could have done anything, leaves having altered little.” Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Politics has a clear set of goals in theory but is a paradox in practice. Political language, as George Orwell noted, is “to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”. The most basic contradiction is how we elect individuals to be legislators but they operate as politicians. They’re paid to enact new laws to do the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people, yet really they use their time for oneupmanship: over one another.
Those in politics derive their power from paradoxes. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil give each other a reason to exist. They’re like the same poles of a magnet, repelling each other because they are identical.
Leo Varadkar made a telling comment on Marian Finucane’s radio show at the weekend, warning voters not to expect any differences between his policies and those of Simon Coveney, because they share a party.
Yet it was the fact he admitted such similarities that sets him apart from his rival. The leadership contest is a race between two underachieving Ministers desperately searching for anything to sever their sameness.
We accept political paradoxes to be so normal, we barely see them any more. It’s where Enda Kenny avoided a heave by forcing his Fine Gael colleagues to give him the sort of “gentlemanly” compassion he refused to offer others. Just ask Lucinda Creighton, Alan Shatter, Martin Callinan, Brian Purcell, James Reilly, John Perry and more. You can’t betray the betrayers in Ireland, no more than you can guard the gardaí.
It’s the anomaly that sees Fianna Fáil order us to “move on” from their horrible past, yet demand Sinn Féin is held to account for its history. Fianna Fáil’s bombs were only economic but the lives it cost were by disappearing generations overseas, through lost homes, poverty and depression. If their economic atrocities led to loss of life, it was only at the victims’ own hands. It’s in the contradiction of a Wicklow man joining the same party his voters gave him the mandate to replace. It’s also in how Sinn Féin can oppose austerity in one jurisdiction and impose it in another.
It’s the paradox of how Fine Gael and Labour implemented the Fianna Fáil policies they so fiercely condemned, like the setting up of secretive Nama to facilitate tax-avoiding vultures. And how they blamed painful budgets on a trio of foreign forces they already knew were in charge when they made promises they could never deliver.
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It’s how a man can enter office promising reform of powerful and unaccountable institutions, yet leave that office over a scandal resulting from too much power staying in the hands of too few. The contradiction means that a Taoiseach elected in 2011 with a mandate for change so huge he could have done anything, leaves having altered little.
Enda Kenny’s career will follow a hackneyed cycle. Leader makes it to the top, tries to balance public promises with those made to insiders who put him there. Over time, friends and allies dissipate, promises are broken and the leader lives in the mythical universe of their own ego. Now only appearances matter, creating a varnish of greatness by standing next to more important people and iconic buildings while disengaging from governing, lest it blot their memoirs. By the time the end nears, with nothing to lose and no election to face, a vanity tour ensues.
Retirement brings lump sums and pensions but later feelings of irrelevance encourages the ex-leader to reappear, promoting records no-one cares about and a legacy nobody believes. They watch as the memory of their scandals fade thanks to a generation of disgraces that are new. The memory wipe brings the status of elder national sage. By then the ultimate political paradox is complete, and another cycle can start anew.