Feb 2011

The contempt in politics

With 154 of the 166 seats filled and only three constituencies still counting, the results are pretty much in at this stage. Based on the the exclusions that have already happened in those three constituencies it now seems certain that Fine Gael will end up with 75 or 76 seats. This means they’ll be at least 7 seats short of an overall majority. Fianna Fáil will likely finish with 19 seats (though have an outside chance of 20), which represents the most dramatic collapse in their support in Irish history. The party of De Valera — the party of the Irish establishment — has been effectively wiped out in Dublin (retaining a single seat in the commuter belt) and beaten into a very distant third place nationally, with Labour returning perhaps twice as many TDs (they’re neck-and-neck with independent candidates in a couple of counts as I write this, but they’ll end up with between 36 and 38). The Greens have been entirely removed from national politics in Ireland. They failed to secure election for a single candidate and my prediction – soon after they joined the last government – that they’d “end up as little more than Fianna Fáil’s new scapegoat” seems to have been reasonably correct. Certainly, Fianna Fáil didn’t escape damage by using them as a scapegoat, but the Greens have clearly suffered a similar fate to the PDs, who were the last party to get savaged by the electorate as a result of joining FF at the top table.

Enda Kenny Poster - Thanks, Suckers

It’s worth making the point that I’m far from happy at what’s happened to the Green Party. On the one hand, the individuals who helped prop up such a disastrous Fianna Fáil administration certainly did not deserve to be returned to the Dáil. On the other hand, the wider environmental movement in Ireland can’t help but be harmed by what’s happened.

With regards to the other parties and groupings, there’s part of me that acknowledges that Sinn Féin and the other genuinely left wing candidates have done well relative to their position prior to the election. But there’s also a (probably bigger) part of me that wonders why they didn’t do even better. Given the current situation Ireland finds itself in, the left should arguably have been able to carve out a much bigger place for itself. Sinn Féin will probably end up with 15 seats, a trebling of their current representation. While at the same time, there will probably be at least 8 or 9 other left TDs in the guise of 2 from The Socialist Party, 2 from the People Before Profit Alliance plus a handful of left wing independents. It’s questionable whether they’d be able to work harmoniously enough with Sinn Féin to form a strong alliance, but if they managed it, they could end up as the the official opposition. Which would be a good thing for the country.

Of course, it’s still not absolutely certain that the next government will be a Fine Gael / Labour coalition. There may be enough independents willing to prop up a minority Fine Gael government to save Enda Kenny from having to give away precious cabinet seats to Labour and ensure he doesn’t have to compromise in any policy areas. On the other hand, Fine Gael may well want the security of a large majority (it would be the largest majority in the history of the state were they to form a coalition). Though given the possibility of economic disaster and the internal strains that might create, Kenny could also be concerned about Labour pulling their support when the going got tough, rather than risk the fate of the Greens. I wouldn’t like to predict how that’ll turn out; and neither a minority Fine Gael government nor a FG/Lab coalition would surprise me.

Such contempt

Now that the campaign is over, however, and before we know the final outcome one way or the other, I’d like to make a couple of observations about the last few weeks. About the way the media dealt with the situation, and the way the political parties dealt with the public. While I’ll be making specific reference to Irish politicians and issues, be very clear that these are general and widespread problems that affect modern politics the world over (or at least, in countries that are ostensibly “democracies”).

From my perspective, one of the most frustrating things about the recent election campaign was the ham-fisted media management engaged in by the political parties. This was far and away most prevalent in the Fine Gael camp where their party leader was wrapped in cotton-wool and effectively insulated from potentially antagonistic interviewers.

The most famous example, of course, was his point-blank refusal to take place in the first leaders debate because it was to be chaired by Vincent Browne. In September of last year Browne suggested that the best thing Kenny could do for Ireland would be to “go into a dark room with a revolver and a bottle of whiskey”. A week later, after an outraged reaction from Fine Gael and suicide victim support groups, Browne issued a comprehensive on-air apology. Five months later, in the midst of arguably the most important election campaign in the history of the nation, Enda Kenny seized on that grudge to avoid being questioned before the Irish public.

It was political cowardice. And it demonstrated a contempt for the Irish electorate that he would compound time and again over the next few weeks. It also suggests that Kenny just doesn’t have what it takes to lead a nation in a time of crisis. If he petulantly refuses to talk to someone for a 5-month old slight that’s been apologised for, will he be on speaking terms with anyone outside his party in a couple of years? Because frankly, he’s going to have much worse said about him in the months to come.

Kenny’s strategy appeared to be “say as little as possible and try to look superior”. Bizarrely, when questioned on his policies in the midst of the campaign, he consistently refused to elaborate and instead referred the interviewer (and by extension, the Irish people) to the Fine Gael website. This became so prevalent that it became a point of satire. Opposition politicians (including the Fianna Fáil leader) would often refer to Fine Gael policy by intoning “double-yew double-yew double-yew dot fine gael dot i e”.

The first thing to point out about Enda Kenny’s strategy is that the most recent statistics suggest that 34.2% of Irish people do not use / have access to the internet. That no interviewer challenged him on this fact is a disgrace (you can be bloody sure that Vincent Browne would have!) They were letting Kenny express open contempt for more than a third of the population without drawing any attention to it. The other point to make is that by allowing Kenny to effectively ignore questions about policy detail, the “friendly” media figures he’d allowed to interview him were actively helping Fine Gael be elected. It’s a travesty and RTÉ should be investigated for such craven complicity.

It’s also worth pointing out that Fine Gael’s website doesn’t actually carry the kind of policy detail that Kenny insisted was there. It just doesn’t. The much-vaunted 5-point-plan wasn’t a plan at all. It was five bloody aspirations. Nothing more. “Get Ireland working again” isn’t a plan! Dear God, do they think we’re fools?

Actually yes. They clearly do. And by awarding Fine Gael almost 50% of the seats in the Dáil, the Irish people appear eager to vindicate that opinion.

It should be noted that the majority of people in the media didn’t hold the other parties to much greater account, but the media strategy of the others didn’t involve quite so much overt evasion. Well, not this time. I suspect during the next election, the others will have learnt a lesson or two from Fine Gael and our national broadcaster will have played a large part in ushering in a glorious new era where politicians cherry-pick their media appearances so that they only ever get interviewed by people prepared to lob softballs in their direction and show them in a positive light. Which wouldn’t be a problem if it didn’t leave so many people in the dark.

The ‘No Plan B’ issue

There’s another thing I really want to get off my chest, because it’s frustrated me ever since I started taking notice of politicians. It happens in every election campaign I’ve watched, whether in Ireland, the UK or elsewhere. It’s the point-blank refusal of political candidates to respond to “hypothetical questions”. Sometimes it reaches surreal proportions. A question is asked… “Candidate Joe Bloggs, if your party gets into power will you implement Policy A?” To which the response is… “Well, the election is still some weeks away and it’s up to the people to decide who is in power or not. I’m certainly not going to presume anything at this stage. In fact, I think it would be dreadfully wrong for anyone to be so presumptuous as to assume to know which way the people will vote!” A tenacious interviewer will object… “but Candidate Joe, I asked if you get into power” only to be interrupted… “I can’t answer hypothetical questions”.

Now, obviously that’s an exaggeration, but I suspect everyone reading this recognises the pattern.

In this recent campaign, it was used time and again (by all parties except those on the left, who were very up front indeed on the issue) regarding the IMF/EU “bail out” and the obscenity of the debt transfer. It was a very simple question, and probably the single most important one during this entire campaign. That anyone cast a vote in favour of a party that refused to answer it is utterly scandalous. Yet most of us did. The question goes something like this…

Right now, pretty much everyone accepts that, when combined, the bank debt and sovereign debt will simply bankrupt this country. Nobody sane believes we are capable of bearing such a massive burden. It will crush Ireland. Every party is determined to renegotiate the terms of the deal that saddled us with the bank debt, as well as the levels of interest we must pay on the funds made available to us in the “bail out”. However, if the negotiations do not reduce the burden to a sustainable level, what then? What is Plan B?

The left has a simple response… we default on the bank debt while honouring our sovereign debt and restructuring the economy in such a way as to repay it. At that point, you can argue back and forth about the merits of default, or the details of restructuring. You agree or disagree with the proposal.

But Fianna Fáil, Labour, Fine Gael and even the Greens all refused to answer the question. “The negotiations have not happened yet”, they tell us. “The stress tests on the banking system won’t be complete until the end of March”, they tell us. “it would be wrong to presume the outcome of the negotiations / stress tests”, they insist.

I wanted an interviewer — just one of them! — to bellow into their complacent faces “No it damn well wouldn’t be wrong! In fact, it’s your job to presume! We want a government that already has answers to the obvious hypothetical situations, not one just making it up as they go along. Any fricking idiot can do that! Is that what you are? A fricking idiot!!?”

In fact, I’d want the interviewer to use even more exclamation points and italics than that.

How are these fools and charlatans allowed to get away with either not having plans for critical potential situations, or else not telling the electorate what those plans are, so that we can vote in an informed manner? It’s not democracy if the agenda is hidden.

UPDATE: The Jim Bliss 5-Point Plan for Recovery

  1. Free jet-packs for everyone
  2. Top grades for every child in school
  3. A cure for cancer
  4. The winning lottery numbers mailed to every home the day before the draw
  5. Get Ireland Working!

Vote Jim Bliss in 2014. I guarantee nobody has a better 5-point plan.

Posted in: Opinion