As Dáil resumes, so does pressure for that democratic revolution

“EVENTS, my dear boy, events.” Harold Macmillan’s truism recast as cliché, ranks with the often inaccurately quoted aphorism of Enoch Powell about all political careers ending in failure as the great barstool platitudes on politics.

What Powell, lest we forget an Irish MP, actually said was “all political lives, unless they are cut off in the midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs”.

‘Time’ is the four letter word that forcibly sums up the natural law of politics. The largest object, figuratively at least, in any minister’s office is the clock. On arrival it generously predicts vast expanses of time to achieve policy ambitions, and enjoy the spoils of office.

Insidiously it creeps forward, at first imperceptibly and then more rapidly. Time always runs out, the job is only half done, a sell-by date is passed. Almost inevitably the manure heap of failure awaits. The composting of power back into the soil from which it sprang is as degrading as it is democratic.

The end, in a trade where survival defines success, is irrespective of what came before an unavoidable, inevitable failure. The only Irish politician of the first rank who in my adult lifetime walked off the stage of his own volition, at a time of his choosing and who still enjoys his reputation intact is Ray MacSharry. Others, carried away wounded or worse, may enjoy a reputational revival in history. But history like the clay we are buried in, is cold, comfort. The book worms of posterity can’t compare with the roaring crowds, and outstretched sweaty palms that backslap political success in the ascendant. Departure in contrast is inevitably attended by a smaller retinue and a ghoulish media spouting told-you-so’s, usually starting with the one authored by Enoch Powell.

Mortality if glum must be faced. It must especially be faced by the Government, and may be as much by the opposition, as the Dáil resumes today. The Government is three years in office next May. It faces its first major electoral test in local and European elections that same month. Time has already quickened its step. The second half of its elected term is well underway. And the end if still a distance away, is now a horizon that can be clearly seen. One advantage enjoyed by this government is the reputational and electoral collapse of its predecessor. It is not just that its parliamentary majority is accordingly larger and its honeymoon was longer. Its overarching narrative was more convincing, at least initially.

For once, the refrain about it being all their fault wasn’t just a clapped out chorus, it was believed with gusto. If the sentiment is still widely believed, the gusto is gone. Time has marched on.

This has not been a happy New Year for the government. It is not just, to reheat a cliché, that events, dear boy, events cropped up. It is that ominously a time line has been crossed.

Limerick City of Culture, pylons, and Irish Water share common antecedents as live political issues in the lifetime of this government, and not its predecessor. The city of culture furore won’t matter much to most people. But it was a gratuitous waste of political capital and an entirely avoidable, self-inflicted injury. It was also the final bursting of an already deflated balloon. There clearly now is no genuinely enhanced political commitment to our arts and culture. Culture could and should have been a core part of our national calling card, something understood and appreciated firstly for its own sake. Instead it is still just confetti, occasionally thrown in the air before it is walked into the ground again.

The growing row about pylons and the emerging one about Irish Water is of a different order in terms of appreciable political consequence. Irish Water have a chance to retrieve what has been an excessively corporate approach to its wider engagement. It is not a Plc. It is a public body. More to the point it is a public body set up to implement a highly contentious political project. In my opinion, though maybe not yours, there are several compelling reasons for water charges and a water authority. But before they can be realised there is an ugly truth. This project is initially about levying new taxation, the benefits from which can only flow thereafter.

Those benefits will likely flow eventually, but only after the bare knuckle boxing is over.

This is not a technocratic exercise. It is raw politics and if anybody in Irish Water doesn’t understand that, they need to send out for the smelling salts immediately.

Pylons are potentially a more seriously vexed issue. The current hiatus exposes again how flawed our planning system is. It is ludicrous that a development body in charge of major national infrastructure development is expected to be in charge of, instead of a constituent part of, the consultation process on its own proposals. Inevitably there will at the very least be scepticism that any consultation is inadequate or just window dressing. On health issues the proposer is put at an acute disadvantage in having to promote its own case. A separate public body, perhaps the Radiological Protection Institute should be asked to take submissions from all concerned including EirGrid, put in place a panel of experts, and adjudicate impartially and credibly in the public interest.

The planning process for major infrastructure as currently organised is a cul-de-sac leading usually to conflict that is then difficult to back out of. And so it has proved again. As a veteran, in the EirGrid interest, of the public consultation process on the East-West Interconnector I know of what I speak.

THESE apparently disconnected issues are signs of the stalled, spluttering democratic revolution we were promised but have not realised. In fact we have a counter-revolution returning us to where we left off before we were rudely interrupted. The underlying issues behind Limerick, pylons and Irish Water are either actual or perceived deficits in accountability, embedded in failed systems that remain unreformed.

In government the single most important imperative in any electoral strategy is to avoid land mines exploding before polling day.

On that basis their campaign for the local and European elections has not got off to a good start. There is time but not a lot. If the narrative of the past two weeks becomes embedded over the next two months the consequences will be felt by government councillors across the country. Whatever serious reluctance there may be for now about seeing Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin or independents in national government there will be far less concern about electing them to local government.

Issues that cannot be palmed off on the past are starting to crop up. Time, once an ally, is becoming a relentless task master. MacSharry’s genius of course was not that he was greater, it was that he left “in the midstream” and “at a happy juncture”.

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