Politicians face crisis of trust as cynicism holds sway


INSIDE POLITICS: A negative view of politicians makes it difficult to generate a consensus in support of difficult decisions

THE GOVERNMENT and, for that matter, the entire political system was dumbfounded by the bombshell dropped on the national children’s hospital project by An Bord Pleanála. Leaving aside the rights and wrongs of the decision, it illustrates the dilemma faced by politicians on a regular basis.

The quandary facing the Coalition is that no matter how it responds it will alienate one or other powerful interest group. The parents of sick children and their doctors will be up in arms if the project is delayed or abandoned, while environmentalists and residents will be outraged if it proceeds.

The fact that the location itself was so controversial adds another layer to the debate with competing locations now able to push their case again, even though the whole project will be delayed by up to 10 years if has to start again from scratch. To complicate matters further, the decision to locate the hospital at the Mater was made by the previous government and many in Fine Gael and Labour were suspicious about the motive from the start.

Yet, when all is said and done, the Coalition will have to make a decision quickly and the interests of sick children should come before all other considerations. The most likely outcome is that the project will go ahead at the Mater site with some modifications to deal with the concerns raised by An Bord Pleanála.

Such a decision will provoke a storm of outrage from a variety of disappointed interests but that is politics. All that can be hoped is that our political leaders will try and make the best decision in the interests of the common good. That usually involves the least worst option as perfect solutions that will please everybody are rarely available.

In fact one of the reasons the country got into such a mess in the years running up to 2008 was that political leaders took decisions designed to please the maximum number of people in the short term rather than catering for the country’s long-term interests. We all know how that ended up.

One of the problems politicians face in trying to do what is right rather than what is popular is the intensity of the inevitable criticism. The media by its nature is inclined to reflect the concerns of angry and disappointed vested interests rather than providing balanced comment on the pros and cons of particular decisions.

This in turn fuels a negative view of politics and politicians which makes it even more difficult to generate a national consensus in support of difficult decisions.

In the Seanad during the week Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte had some reflections on what he termed an insidious trend in which certain sections of the media promoted a “politics of anti-politics” which involved the denigration and rejection of all politics. “This approach feeds on understandable frustration, discontent and, nowadays, genuine fear on the part of the electorate. But it operated just as strongly in the boom-time years. The practitioners, as often commentators as genuine news reporters, have as their chief weapon an unyielding cynicism.”

Rabbitte made it clear he was not talking about robust media criticism of politicians, which is vital in a democratic society. His party colleague in the Seanad, John Whelan, a former journalists himself, raised an interesting point about people with vested interests and conflicts of interest of all kinds being presented on television programmes as if they were impartial commentators.

One of the things that has become the staple diet of the media over the past couple of years and has fuelled cynicism about politics has been an unremitting focus on the pay and expenses of politicians. The pay cuts taken by politicians and their attempt to provide a transparent expenses regime has only given the media more sticks with which to beat them.

Both sides are at fault for this entertaining but ultimately silly diversion. At the onset of the economic crisis in 2008 the last government needed to take the initiative and slash ministerial salaries and eliminate a range of expenses to set a good example for everybody else. As the crisis unfolded it did cut politicians’ pay significantly but an angry public hardly noticed.

On taking office Enda Kenny gave a lead by cutting the Taoiseach’s pay to €200,000 and reducing the salaries and perks of his Ministers. However, the initial good impression was undermined by some of the salaries paid to Government advisers and the very large pensions that continue to be paid to well-known former office holders.

For its part much of the media has now developed such an obsession about politicians’ pay and perks that all perspective has been lost. That some of RTÉ’s star presenters, who are paid far more than the Taoiseach, often lead the pack in whipping up public anger about politicians’ pay is a reflection of how trivial political commentary can become.

They could learn something from the behaviour of former taoiseach Liam Cosgrave, 92 this year, who handed back a portion of his pension to the State at an early stage in the crisis. There was no media announcement or any fuss. Cosgrave simply wrote to the then minister for finance, the late Brian Lenihan, requesting that his pension be reduced and offering to take any further cuts that were deemed necessary.

Others like Maurice Manning, president of the Human Rights Commission, and former Labour Party minister Eithne FitzGerald, who left public life in 1997, did the same. It might have been expected that other former politicians, particularly those who are still earning large salaries, might have offered to forgo at least a portion of their pensions but surprisingly few did so.

Nonetheless, some perspective needs to be brought to the issue of politicians’ pay. If we want politicians who represent a cross-section of society we have to pay them a decent salary. Otherwise we will be left with those who are rich enough to support themselves or those who seek political office as a means of making money through the peddling of influence. That is something nobody wants.