Pat Leahy: Anger over old farts’ convention shows what Government could face

Fallout over Clifden gathering of old guard proves accountability is possible in Irish politics

The Station House Hotel in Clifden, Co Galway, where The Oireachtas Golf Society event was held. You can detest everything about the affair, but you can’t say that the miscreants did not pay a price. Photograph: Hany Marzouk/PA Wire

The Station House Hotel in Clifden, Co Galway, where The Oireachtas Golf Society event was held. You can detest everything about the affair, but you can’t say that the miscreants did not pay a price. Photograph: Hany Marzouk/PA Wire

 

Three windows on Irish politics have been opened by the extraordinary events of the last 10 days: First there was a window on the past. The Oireachtas golf dinner was a throwback to the politics of the past, no more representative of how Irish politics works now than the anniversary teams of 25 years ago introduced at half time on All-Ireland final day are reflective of the teams on the field.

The hyperventilating about closed golf gatherings of the elite who run Irish society and so on this week was faintly ridiculous when you looked at the list of attendees.

Don’t get me wrong – the event was a disgraceful and almost certainly a deliberate violation of measures in place for everyone’s benefit, and those who attended should have known better.

The resignations and sackings were entirely appropriate, though I suspect they wouldn’t have been forced without the outpouring of public anger that was less – to my eyes anyway – a lynch mob than a genuine and spontaneous expression of the public’s view on the matter.

But it wasn’t a secret meeting of the political elite. It was a Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil old farts’ convention.

As Kathy Sheridan pointed out this week, there were two TDs there (out of 160), and seven Senators (out of 60). Walk into Doheny and Nesbitts pub near Leinster House any night – in normal times – and you’re likely to find more “lawmakers”, as international press reports described them.

No doubt some of the attendees think they are the creme de la creme; that doesn’t mean they are.

And there may well be secret gatherings of the powerful and influential in Irish society where backs are slapped, deals done, arms twisted and economic agendas pushed. But I don’t think they are organised by Donie Cassidy.

Golf and pints

Second, it opened a window on the present.

It’s not all about the past; it’s about the present too. The golf and pints, beef or salmon, Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael character of the event in a way highlighted how much about our politics has changed since the days when these were all that mattered.

There wasn’t a single Sinn Féin TD there, of course (though golf is an all-Ireland sport), nor one of the new wave of left-wing Independents and small parties that have added a new dimension to Irish politics since 2011.

Perhaps left-wing people don’t like golf, or don’t like the people they meet in golf clubs.

More likely the old farts don’t want them around the place polluting the banal chumminess of the good ol’ boy atmosphere.

Well, tough. They’re not going away, you know. There are chunks of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael that have difficulty accommodating themselves to this fact.

Yes, yes, Sinn Féin’s commitment to coronavirus restrictions was not very much in evidence at the funeral of Bobby Storey in Belfast last month. The party’s response this week was that you couldn’t compare a funeral and a golf shindig. Public health experts will be interested in this analysis of viral transmission preferences, no doubt.

But that was hardly the point. Sinn Féin’s criticisms and demands for accountability – along with those of others – were not only justified, they were shared by people far beyond the party’s supporters.

And this in turn tells us something else important about the politics of the present: it can and does achieve accountability. Not always, of course. But it did this time.

The politicians present have all resigned or been sacked from important roles. You can detest everything about the affair and the politics that begat such events, but you can’t say that the miscreants did not pay a price.

Our politics now has little patience for the hubris of great men. Roman generals, riding through the city in a triumphal procession, had a slave holding a laurel wreath over his head but also whispering in his ear: “memento mori”; remember you are a mortal. The Romans always have something to teach us.

There is a further point. I understand that a fierce lobbying campaign to save Phil Hogan was organised, involving some wealthy and influential people and organisations. It was entirely unsuccessful.

What about the window on the politics of the future?

The episode also tells us something about what is to come. The anger expressed by people this week is a taste of what is to come for Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael if this Government fails in its essential tasks – managing the pandemic, sustaining our society during it, and promoting an economic recovery that can protect public services and living standards into the future.

One of the most important parts of that – the reopening of the schools – is already under way, and will swing into gear fully next week. It would be impossible, I think, to overestimate its political importance. It will be followed by the Leaving Certificate results.

If all that goes acceptably well – maybe not perfectly, but well enough for most parents to feel the whole thing has largely worked out – then the Government can look forward to the budget, the recovery plan and the medium-term plan for managing the pandemic, all in various stages of preparation in government.

But if the reopening of the schools goes badly it will colour the context in which the Leaving Cert results are judged, making it more likely people will look and say: they’ve screwed that up as well – can’t they do anything right?

The fierce and unmistakable response of the public to the golfing and dining fiasco is a sign of the pent-up public frustrations that are a part of our politics now, and will be turned on parties and politicians they believe have failed them in the future.

What will matter most of all is that the substantive business of government decisions and the implementation of them is seen to work, and make a difference in people’s lives.

Fail, and the Government parties now know what awaits them.

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