The people have failed politicians, who are just trying to appease us

Finian McGrath TD., Minister of State for Disability Issues in his Dail office. Photograph Moya Nolan

Finian McGrath is an able cynic, not an amiable fool, writes Gerard Howlin

“We have the worst prime minister since Anthony Eden”; “the worst leader of the opposition in the entire history of the Labour Party”; and “the worst parliament since Oliver Cromwell”, said the former deputy leader of the Conservative Party, Ann Widdecombe, on BBC’s Newsnight on Monday.

She has had a magnificent political afterlife and proves Susan Sontag’s view that pure Camp is always naive. Widdecombe’s salsa on Strictly Come Dancing in 2010 was her career transformation from a Tory MP of predictably strict and Brexit views to becoming an enjoyably loose cannon.

“Camp which knows itself to be Camp (‘camping’) is usually less satisfactory,” said Sontag.

That contrived knowingness spotlights Finian McGrath, the Independent Alliance minister of state who sits at the cabinet table. There is nothing naive about McGrath. He is an able cynic, not an amiable fool. His attack last Sunday on the politics of breathalysing for drink driving was a deep dig into a staple of Irish political populism. Gardaí did enough self-harm to create the stereotype which the minister then happily reused.

He knows that Fine Gael in Government sees his Independent Alliance ally, Shane Ross, as a bugbear politically in rural constituencies. A scapegoat was required. Politicalised policing was pointed to. Worse was the functional use of an immediate apology, countermanding views which he voiced veritably in his previous breath.

McGrath’s aptitude for functionality was more seriously deployed in Ireland’s ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. In a knowing way he has mastered to make it look almost like innocence, he promised ratification, before the legislative basis was in place. He positioned himself not as the minister responsible for ensuring Ireland is compliant, but as the politician determined to have the kudos of ratification, regardless of how reality free it is.

So, because he insisted, and those around the cabinet table who knew better, wouldn’t face him down, we did ratify. But we haven’t complied. Required mental health legislation protecting the rights of people who are involuntarily detailed is still deep in the ether. It is an essential pillar of the ratification McGrath insisted on, but utterly lacked a sense of responsibility as a minister with collective responsibility to deliver on.

On the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Ireland is occupying a parking space for which we don’t have a permit.

Amid Irish hubris about Britain’s difficulty, and I admit it is a test of restraint, another conniving knowingness looms into focus. If the State is so able at Brexit, why is it so awful at almost everything else? This bent-out-of-shape wire hanger is brought from the back of the wardrobe to rehang its author’s single transferable political position that we are the victims of a failed state. We are let down repeatedly. No matter that we move on from one apology to the next with such regularity that we can arrive at the fluency of a Finian McGrath. We are held to own innate victimhood and there is a “they” who are the “them” who can do Brexit to beat the band, but can’t give us a country we can be proud of. That level of cynicism almost allows a McGrath genuinely enjoy naivete.

The connivance required is to enable the commentator perfectly imitate the politicians he excoriates, by adapting the same populism they deploy. Except it is vulgarised by an intellectual overlay and poisoned with censorious contempt. There is nothing of the happy warrior which some politicians have the self-awareness to know and shamelessness to enjoy. That at least makes them good company. There is the redeeming fact, too, that every politician must be elected. But from those who as a class professionally scorn them, their scent is the perfume of self-regard.

A deeper truth is that Irish governance, perhaps bizarrely, is marked by conspicuous success.

Why?

The truth that won’t be faced is that, by and large, we, the Irish people, have gotten exactly what we asked for. If the consequences are often appalling, it’s a bit rich now to package it up in hindsight and, unbelievably, as a failure of governance. Failures of governance are symptomatic. Our democratic choices are the systematic cause. If another apology is called for, it should be from the people to politicians, who force them, for fear of eviction from their seats, to tell half-truths because it is as much as we are prepared to digest.

Yesterday, the joint committee on finance discussed Sinn Féin’s No Consent, No Sale Bill. It has a catchy title and passed second stage in the Dáil. It means mortgages can’t be sold from one financial institution to another without the consent of the debtor. It is to protect the vulnerable from the vulture, apparently. But the facts are more complex.

Borrowers’ contracts explicitly allow the lender to sell on mortgages. Unpaid mortgages are paid for by every other variable rate mortgage. In putting assets out of reach of lenders, in this case, Irish banks, who internationally would then lend to them? Those Irish banks who could lend if this bill is passed will factor the additional cost on top of what are already high Irish variable mortgage rates.

What this is, like opposing water charges and Finian McGrath’s political policing and grandiose ratification of UN charters, is not politicians failing the people, but appeasement of them. This is how Brexit began. A culture of commentary around versions of a failed state, the EU there and our republic here, and nonsense about lions led by donkeys led us via Widdecombe’s demarche from parliament to dancing to her damning analysis on Monday.

If destabilising the mortgage market in a housing crisis is this week’s example, think of last week’s. Bríd Smith’s bill to ban all further exploration for oil and gas in Irish waters, from people who oppose carbon charges on you and I and which had been bottled up in committee, was unleashed again.

And as I write, a report from RTÉ suggests the Cabinet is considering postponing for yet another year a review of the local property tax. It’s less than 1% of our tax take. In a country with no water charges, no effective carbon charges yet, and a burgeoning but top-heavy tax base dangerously revolving around dependency on corporation tax, this is, in truth, more about us failing our politicians, than them failing us.

But, if in a republic you put responsibility where it lies, on the people, you would have to abandon your old tropes about failed republics and tell home truths. But who would “first, remove the beam out of your own eye” so that “then you can see clearly to remove the speck out of your brother’s”?

Brexit too will pass, or at least eventually become past tense. It is a long stultifying interlude, however. Hubris is not patriotism. Neither is offloading responsibility for our wrong on politicians we delegate to do our bidding.

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