Whatever happened to the revolution?

The Government’s reform of politics has been negligible, writes Michael Clifford

Whatever happened to the revolution?

AT TIMES like these, the media can lose the run of itself. All week the chatter out of Leinster House was “will he, won’t he, call a November election”. Does anybody who lives beyond the political bubble really care?

Sure, there is a cohort that can’t wait to rush to polling booths to express their anger or disappointment at this Government. There is another grouping that want the damn thing out of the way so the present incumbents — or at least the senior coalition party — can bag five more years and continue as they have started.

Most people though are disengaged with the speculation, and will only sit up and take notice when a campaign gets underway. If anything, the media-driven obsession with the date reflects the paucity of real political ideas in the system. In such a milieu, personalities, dates, and process all fill a vacuum.

If Enda Kenny does opt for a November election, he will be demonstrating the customary indifference that successive governments, and particularly his own, have had for the Oireachtas.

Last Tuesday, Mr Kenny agreed to an extension to the Oireachtas banking inquiry for publication of its report. The inquiry was originally scheduled to report next month, but the huge volume of work it has undertaken has unsurprisingly resulted in the need for an extension.

“The chairman has requested more time and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be granted,” Kenny told the Dáil on Tuesday. Publication has now been pushed back to the end of January.

Since beginning its work last year, the inquiry’s staff of 45 has parsed through 42,000 documents, containing half a million pages, which the various institutions were required to hand over.

The 11 parliamentarians which constitute the inquiry have met for 413 hours. All members were present for the questioning of all 131 witnesses. This was required of them to ensure they would be in the best position possible to determine what went wrong, but even more crucially, to make recommendations.

If an election is called before the report is published, the whole inquiry falls. All that work will have been for nothing. No recommendations on what needs to be done to avoid a repeat will see the light of day. Even more importantly, a basic function of parliament will have once again been usurped.

Is there a functioning democracy anywhere that would have gone through what this country has over the last eight years without an inquiry into what exactly happened? Yet, that will be the ultimate outcome if Mr Kenny decides to cut and run in the name of snaffling an extra seat or two for his party.

Some among us, including this columnist, were sceptical about the whole notion of a banking inquiry during its torturous conception. Initially, it looked to be designed as an electoral tool to excavate Fianna Fáil’s chronic governance failures during the building boom. The composition of the inquiry was manipulated to ensure that the Government had a majority of members.

There is plenty reason that we should not forget the culpability of the Soldiers of Destiny, but using a parliamentary inquiry to do it is little short of depressing at this stage of a democracy’s evolution.

Yet, to the credit of those involved, the inquiry managed to stand tall. There was no “Gotcha” moment. Former senior politicians drew on lifetimes in politics to present evidence in a light most favourable to themselves. Bankers said sorry, but offered plenty of excuses and pointed fingers elsewhere. Regulators did likewise.

If there were hopes in Government that the inquiry would deliver a blow to Fianna Fáil’s solar plexus, that evaporated pretty quickly. Ironically, the senior politician who probably came off worst from giving testimony was Enda Kenny.

He was unassured and hesitant in his recollection of his walk-on role back in the bad old days. His evidence also conflicted with that of another witness.

He told the inquiry that a conversation he had with Anglo Irish banker Matt Moran in 2009 did not include any reference to the future of the then listing bank. Moran last told the inquiry that the matter was discussed between them.

So the inquiry did not fulfil any grubby political aim, but it certainly did some good work, adding detail to the overall picture and doing so in full view of the public. Recommendations on how to proceed in future will be welcome, if it ever gets that far.

Is it possible that Mr Kenny is factoring in the collapse of the inquiry in his musings on a date? For instance, now that the inquiry did not perform as a political tool for the Government, could it be that he would prefer shot of it?

Any recommendation that reflects badly on the system of governance that still persists might not be welcome in the Taoiseach’s office, as wouldn’t any further references to the conflict of evidence in which he was involved. After the fall-out from the Fennelly report, from which he emerged with his credibility bruised, he might be inclined to run a mile from anything that might impact negatively in a year of election.

Irrespective of that, his seeming indifference to the fate of the inquiry is symbolic of how far he and those around him have come from the days of the “democratic revolution”.

That was the laughable phrase used during the general election of 2011 and even included in the preamble for the Programme for Government drawn up weeks later. “On the 25th of February a democratic revolution took place it Ireland,” it began. “Old beliefs, traditions and expectations were blown away. The stroke of a pen, in thousands of polling stations, created this political whirlwind. The public demanded change and looked to parties that would deliver the change they sought.” And what did the public get? Ultimately, more of the same. The coalition government deserves credit for putting the economy back on an even keel. It did so by accepting and following through on the dog-eared plan fashioned by Fianna Fáil and the Troika.

In reality, Mr Kenny’s government has done precious little outside of its managerial function in implementing the plan it inherited.

Reform of politics has been negligible. The ballooning of social problems, particularly in housing and health, reflects badly on a government that promised a break with the past.

The theme Fine Gael intends to use in the forthcoming election says it all. “Stability versus chaos”. Or, to put it more bluntly: ‘You think we’re bad? You should see what the other crowd would do in power’.

It’s all a long way from the democratic revolution, and it also explains why the Taoiseach appears to have such a cavalier attitude to the completion of the banking inquiry.

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