Pre-election tension rules OK


IT wasn't the most pleasant of weeks in here, and it is not going to get much better. We had all best resign ourselves to that fact of life.

The immediate cause of this week's distemper was the debate surrounding the establishment of the Dunnes tribunal, but the underlying cause is what the Speaker in a neighbouring jurisdiction has taken to calling PET - pre-election tension - and from now on we can take it that "PET rules OK".

In Drapier's view it is all very unnecessary. Apart from not doing anybody any good we are still months away from the election, though to look at some of our warhorses pawing the ground, waiting for the "off" this week, you would never think so.

Anyway to the Dunnes tribunal. We are only two months into 1997 and we are already on our way to our second tribunal. It reminds Drapier of nothing so much as 1947 when we had two tribunals one on the heels of the other, the Ward tribunal, which needlessly destroyed the career of a good and decent man, Dr Con Ward, and the Lockes tribunal, of which the less said the better, except that a news-starved public lapped them up and did great damage to de Valera's government.

Today the stakes are higher and the game is dirtier. Drapier watched with fascination Thursday's Dail set-piece. John Bruton opened, oozing gravitas and reason, seeking to play the whole thing down, only to be followed by Bertie Ahern who put the boot in as he never has before.

Drapier watched Bertie carefully. His body language told it all. He was not comfortable and did not particularly relish the task in hand and being the decent person he is he did not do it very well. But clearly tactics had been decided, a pre-emptive strike was necessary, and he did as he did.

Mary Harney by contrast was feline, almost silken in her approach. But then she has been putting the boot in all along, so she could afford to sit back, make clear that all parties, including the saintly PDs, did indeed solicit corporate and individual donations and this was "perfectly legitimate". As of course it is.

JOHN BRUTON was clearly stung by Bertie's assault and, deprived of an opportunity to reply in the Dail he repaired two hours later to disturb the Olympian calm of the Seanad and call upon Bertie to go and talk directly to Mr Big.

In Drapier's view neither intervention was particularly helpful and both would have been better unmade, but that's the way it is going to be.

As for the tribunal itself, Drapier believes we can expect surprises. But not necessarily the predictable ones.

Tribunals have a nasty habit of taking on a life of their own and given that the Price Waterhouse report contains only those transactions Dunnes Stores chose to highlight and the surprisingly wide terms of reference, Drapier has a feeling that the sky may be the limit and anything may happen.

One intriguing aspect of the tribunal will be the role of the media. Clearly some journalists have a story to tell. The question being asked this week was: will they tell it? Or can they tell it? Will we have a situation of politicians and public figures forced to bare all while journalists shield behind their own code of privilege, a code which has no legal basis?

Will we then have the spectacle of one journalistic martyr after another, refusing to testify, being carted off in the tumbrels to the sound of mournful dirges on RTE, black-banded editorials in this and other papers and a general air of gloom enshrouding the nation, with streets being renamed and squares rededicated?

Ah well, Drapier can indulge his imagination, and such a prospect would cause him great sadness, but he has no doubt the question will arise over the coming weeks and some of the allegations so loudly made may have to be stood up with the odd fact or two.

One way or other we are where we are, and Drapier hopes that some good will come of it all and that, if cleansing is needed, then cleansing we will get. Drapier is sick and tired of the collective branding of all politicians, the easy generalisations, the often baseless charges. He wants to get on with the job of being a politician, a job he loves, and he cannot wait for the air to be cleared.

Meanwhile the treatment of Maire Geoghegan-Quinn in some newspapers last weekend, and two extraordinary tabloid stories on Michael Lowry, neither of which had any real news content and one of which was a gratuitous invasion of family privacy, raised again the whole question of privacy and what the legitimate boundaries are between genuine public interest and shameless prurience.

IT is not an issue on which either politicians or serious journalists can afford to be indifferent. We have the example of the British gutter press and we have to be clear whether we want sections of our media to go that untrammelled, unaccountable and irresponsible way, or a set of guidelines and practices which can find genuine acceptance.

Drapier certainly does not think the privacy issue requires legislation. The fact is that most journalists and newspapers are decent. But not all, and it only requires a few to do a great deal of damage and inflict a great deal of hurt.

As things stand we are spiralling downwards. Marital problems have become fair game, as have problems of family members which may have nothing to do with the TD in question. Recently a colleague who refused to comment over the phone to a journalist he didn't know on the state of his marriage, had his denial headlined in a tabloid and then broadcast all day on his local radio station.

Other colleagues have been subjected to rumours and allegations, usually without foundation, but one way or other never proven, and have found newspapers carrying thinly veiled references or "denials" where no denial was necessary.

In Drapier's view John Bruton got it right the other day when he said it was really a question of judgment and decency, not of legislation. When these qualities are lacking, all the legislation in the world will make no real difference. Drapier thinks there is a real problem here and one which is better tackled by the parties talking to each other.