Flooding and political reform were the big political issues in the first week of the new year but, as usual, the debate was characterised by overheated non-arguments and the efforts of all sides to misunderstand and misrepresent each other.
Flooding was a case in point. Instead of a considered discussion about what can and cannot be done to deal with the current hardship and alleviate the problem in the longer term it became a debate about which political leader was quickest off the mark to pose for the cameras in Wellingtons and rain gear.
Standing in flooded Bandon, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin attacked Taoiseach Enda Kenny for not rushing to the scene of the worst flooding, while Tánaiste Joan Burton got a good ducking in her overeagerness to be seen to show concern in Kilkenny.
The absurdity of it all was illustrated when Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams denounced whistle-stop tours by politicians to flood-hit areas while on such a tour of the worst-flooded areas in Clare.
What people who suffered most from serious flooding needed was not a politician dropping by for a photo opportunity but practical help to deal with the immediate hardship caused by the inundation of their homes, businesses and farms. The Government claims its response has been adequate but only time will tell.
Politicians do themselves no favours by pandering to the notion that their appearance at flood scenes does any good. They make themselves look as absurd as King Canute trying to turn back the tide.
Shannon flooding in 1916
It was fascinating to note in the
1916/2016 daily feature that Shannon flooding was an equally big problem a century ago. Regardless of the arguments over whether the Rising was justified, the Shannon has continued to behave in exactly the same way now as then.
The Irish Times midlands correspondent reported on January 2nd, 1916, that great floods in the middle reaches of the Shannon 12 feet above the normal river level as a result of incessant rainstorms and southerly gales with cattle, hens and geese being swept away.
“As to the condition of the people in the affected areas it is truly pitiful. Many of the villages are completely flooded with water flowing against walls and windows,” wrote the correspondent, who travelled a mile inland from the river by boat to visit families huddled on planks halfway up the walls of houses to escape the water.
Draining the Shannon became the great failed political promise of Éamon de Valera but, as Michael Viney wrote in his wonderful weekly column last Saturday, attempting to drain the river only damaged the environment and did nothing to stop the flooding.
In the longer term proper planning and flood defences can improve the situation but there is no way the power of nature can be controlled to eliminate the risk, particularly if rainfall increases as a result of global warming.
One issue that has been put in perspective by the flooding is the absurd objection to plans to use some of the Shannon water for a new reservoir in the midlands to supply the needs of Dublin in the century ahead. Taking water from the Shannon would not end the threat of flooding but it might to something to reduce the risk.
Point-scoring also got in the way of a rational debate about political reform in the light of the Government's decision to allow for the election of the ceann comhairle by secret ballot as well as giving the Opposition more opportunities to chair Oireachtas committees. These are things all of the Opposition parties and a range of commentators have demanded for the past few years but instead of welcoming the moves the general response was negative and cynical.
Of course the Government has decided to act because a general election is fast approaching and it wants to tick another box on its list of promises implemented but the only thing that really matters is whether the changes are welcome.
It will be interesting to see how all the parties cope with unintended consequences if the decision adds a further element of instability to the formation of a government or inhibits the functioning of a competent administration.
A shift in power from the executive to the Dáil has long been touted as the solution to the country’s problems but it will all depend on how seriously TDs take their new role. One problem is that TDs know they are likely to get far greater media coverage from irresponsible grandstanding than from hard work at Dáil committees. An example of serious work is the pre-legislative process already in operation that has given TDs a direct input into law-making for the first time.
The chair of the working group of committees, David Stanton, has pointed out how this reform has changed the Dáil more than anything else since he was first elected almost 20 years ago but it attracts almost no media coverage.
Contrast that with the high profile accorded to those members of the Public Accounts Committee who have abused privilege and specialised in McCarthyite attacks on witnesses.
Another consideration is that while giving backbench TDs of all parties a greater role in decision-making is important for democracy it is no guarantee of more effective government.
A more powerful Dáil at loggerheads with the government of the day could paralyse decision-making, as the deadlock between Congress and the executive in the United States in recent years has shown.