Fergus Finlay: Nobody wants an election to fix this shambles

The people who attended that dinner were there because they didn’t care. They’re a disgrace, the bloody lot of them
Fergus Finlay: Nobody wants an election to fix this shambles

EU Commissioner Phil Hogan has provided his full report on the controversial Oireachtas Golf Society dinner, and his possible violation of Covid-19 restrictions, to the President of the Commission, Ursula von der Leyen. The Government will now await Ms von der Leyen’s judgment on the report. Picture: Arthur Carron/Collins

Two things are abundantly clear after Clifden. First, the people who attended that dinner were not there because they didn’t know. They were there because they didn’t care.

Even their apologies sound smug — a sort of aristocratic noblesse oblige, where the entitled recognise that the ordinary folk might be a bit upset. They’re an absolute disgrace, the whole bloody lot of them.

The second thing that’s clear is that this government has less and less authority left.

They’ve only been in office a wet week, and they are a complete shambles, incapable of communicating clearly — or even avoiding the most basic mistakes.

A couple of weeks ago I quoted my old friend Pat Magner’s saying that every government needs a map of the minefield — because you’re less likely to step on a mine if you can see it ahead of you.

If you gave this shower a map, they’d see the mines — and then step on them anyway to test whether they’ll blow up.

Right now, I’d be 95% certain that they will make a dog’s dinner of the Leaving Cert results when they’re made available to students next Monday week.

As far as we’ve been told — because they’ve refused to release everything — an algorithm is going to be applied to the marks teachers have predicted.

The purpose of this algorithm is to arrive at a 'national standard'. It appears — and no-one has contradicted this — to be heavily based on the UK version.

But the UK version caused outrage — in considerable part because it was so badly designed that it discriminated against students across the country on class and socio-economic grounds.

The Station House Hotel in Clifden, Co Galway, Ireland where The Oireachtas Golf Society event was held last Wednesday. Picture: Hany Marzouk/PA Wire
The Station House Hotel in Clifden, Co Galway, Ireland where The Oireachtas Golf Society event was held last Wednesday. Picture: Hany Marzouk/PA Wire

Our government is so bereft of cohesion and leadership that it is perfectly capable of sleep-walking into the same catastrophe. Whatever shred of political authority they have would be utterly destroyed by allowing an algorithm for God’s sake to decide the futures of 60,000 young people.

Every government minister knows that risk is there. The mines are in plain view. But still — and what a commentary that would be — it’s more likely, right now, that they will step on the mine rather than avoid it.

But let’s go back to the golf. I should probably begin by saying that I am not now, nor have I ever been, a member of the Oireachtas Golfing Society. I am an avid, if dreadful, golfer, but I came to it late in life.

In the days when I worked in politics, it was pretty full-on, every day of the week. The least acceptable thing I could do, back then, was tell my kids that I was going to devote the few spare hours I had available to chasing a little white ball around a field.

I love it these days, although I’ll never be better than I am now. I especially love playing golf with my grandson Ross. He’s 12 years of age, and has largely taught himself how to play — as he told me once, by watching Rory McIlroy on the television.

And he beats me every time.

In Coolattin Golf Club on Sunday morning, he had 20 points on the front nine to my 16. He could have had even more if a few putts hadn’t gone astray. So I offered him a little advice about possibly exploring a heavier putter.

He said he’d think about it, but then added 'mind you, I’m not sure that 16 points should be offering advice to 20'. Funny how you can go off your grandson, isn’t it.

But here’s the thing. Every member of a golf club in Ireland is Covid-19 aware.

Golfers are among the privileged few whose participation in their sport was allowed to be resumed, in very strict conditions, that every golf club has to observe. All the normal etiquette and courtesies have been changed to facilitate social distancing.

Tanaiste Leo Varadkar (left)and Taoiseach Micheal Martin TD before the post cabinet press briefing. Picture: Julien Behal Photography/PA Wire
Tanaiste Leo Varadkar (left)and Taoiseach Micheal Martin TD before the post cabinet press briefing. Picture: Julien Behal Photography/PA Wire

Course layouts are different — bunkers out of play, no touching of the flag — all that sort of thing. There’s signage everywhere to remind people to stay apart. Access to the clubhouse, the toilets and showers, and especially the bars have all been eliminated.

Golf clubs all love their little rituals. This is the season of captain’s prize and president’s prize competitions, and since time immemorial they are always accompanied by dinners and prize-giving ceremonies.

Every single one of them, that I know of, has been cancelled.

So let there be no misunderstanding. Every golfer who attended that dinner in Clifden knew full well that it wouldn’t be happening in their own golf clubs. That the risk was too great.

That bringing home a prize from a golf competition is utterly meaningless and futile if you bring a virus home to your family or community as well.

The excuse of ignorance is actually less valid for a golfer than it is for almost anyone else, because their pastime is surrounded by rules and regulations caused by the pandemic. No. The only possible conclusion is that these public representatives and officials believed in their hearts that the rules shouldn’t, and therefore wouldn’t, apply to them.

I actually don’t really care who resigns or who doesn’t.

I’m pretty clear that all of these people need to be removed from public discourse for as long as this pandemic lasts. We need advice, leadership, and decisions from a government that works.

And that’s the fundamental problem. We are on the cusp of a much bigger crisis in terms of this pandemic than we were at the start.

Winter is approaching, and it could make things an awful lot worse. As well as our health system has performed, it’s fragile. The demands of testing and tracing as schools reopen, the needs of elderly, vulnerable and disabled people, and the risk of a 'flu outbreak alongside the pandemic — all of these are immense. And so — it ought to go without saying — is the Brexit risk.

They all demand a government that speaks with one voice; a government that doesn’t seek to speak to the people in management consultant jargon; a government that never seems tetchy or bad-tempered; a government that speaks with one voice and whose message is clear.

This government, right now, has none of that. It actually needs, badly, to welcome the Dáil back, and pretty well immediately. It needs to find the language to acknowledge a lack of coherence and leadership, and a way of reassuring all of us that they will be clearer in the future.

It needs to spell out, in as much detail as necessary, the public health measures that lie ahead.

Behind the scenes, the leaders of this government need to agree, without equivocation, that they will support each other and work together to see us through the pandemic and the economic recovery. The three of them should lock themselves in a large (socially distanced) room for a day, if that’s what it takes, to forge a plan that will be communicated openly and honestly to all of us.

If they can’t do that, they should go. Nobody wants an election. An election isn’t in the national interest.

But no national interest is being served by this shambles.

Fix it, or bring it on.

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