THIS week there was a perfect example of how some elements of public life are conducted in a manner that is unhealthy for democracy. It involved a spat between a student leader and the chief executive of Dublin City Council.
UCD students’ union president Ruairí Power last month wrote to council chief Owen Keegan about a planning decision to change the use of purpose-built student accommodation in the city to tourism.
Students nationwide are having difficulty accessing a place to live and Mr Power’s concern was entirely valid. The lack of student accommodation is symptomatic of the wider housing emergency.
In his letter, Mr Power made some serious accusations about Mr Keegan.
“To prioritise the profit margins of private purpose-built student accommodation providers over the public good is a shameful act which will push young people into precarious living circumstances over the coming months,” the student leader wrote.
This was a political charge, being made against a public servant.
Mr Power also told Mr Keegan how he should be doing his job.
We seriously question the mentality of the council executive who have elected to bend over backwards to facilitate the profit margins of a private company to the detriment of the public.
Mr Keegan replied in a three-page sober, comprehensive letter, setting out in detail how the council had followed various national guidelines and Government policies to reach its decision to change the use of the accommodation. He pointed out there had been no objection to the application.
The student leader came back with further complaints. He ended his second missive: “A vacuum of leadership from the council executive during a period of significant challenge for students impacted by the supply and affordability is most unfortunate. We sincerely hope more regard is shown to protecting the public interest above facilitation of crisis profiteering going forward.”
In the letters, Mr Keegan was accused of acting in a shameful manner, abrogating his responsibility to serve the public, and being incapable of leading the local authority. The charge of serving private interests over those of his employer, the public, could be interpreted as one of corruption.
This evaluation came from a student representative who has no experience of running a local authority and appears unfamiliar with the details of planning law, but who quite obviously gives good anger.
Mr Keegan replied again, outlining his duties and obligations. At the end, he had a sarcastic dig.
“Finally, if you genuinely believe that excess profits are being made in the PBSA [purpose-built student accommodation] market I am surprised that the students union has not entered the market itself and provided lower-cost student accommodation for its members.”
The parting shot from Mr Keegan was ill-advised. He is a public servant and was writing in that capacity. He should have kept his emotions in check, notwithstanding the silly lectures and baseless accusations thrown at him.
However, under the circumstances, in the face of such provocation, was it a capital offence? The bear had been poked. The bear responded with a playful slap. Time to send in the clowns.
Twitter went into overdrive on Monday, after Mr Power posted the offending paragraph on the social medium. Naturally, there was no place for perspective or proportionality.
An early Twitter response came from Simon Harris, the higher education minister. “Sarcastic & dismissive comments don’t help,” he tweeted in relation to providing student accommodation.
No, they don’t, but neither does the policy employed by Mr Harris’ Government.
The pressure built up into Tuesday, with a succession of politicians joining the Twitter storm on and offline to declare Mr Keegan unclean.
The next senior Government figure to weigh in was Darragh O’Brien, the housing minister.
“Very surprised and disappointed at content of this letter and don’t agree with it. I issued guidance to all local authorities 2 + weeks ago on this very issue and I expect it to be adhered to,” he tweeted.
The guidance he mentioned was referenced in Mr Keegan’s letter, where the council manager said he would be following this. Quite obviously, the senior minister didn’t read the correspondence before publicly criticising a public servant for following Government policy. You couldn’t make it up. Sinn Féin carried the ball with demands for Mr Keegan to resign, perhaps treating the issue as a dry run for when they’re in power and want rid of some unfriendly public servants. Other parties oscillated between resign and apologise.
On Wednesday, a protest took place at the council’s office on Wood Quay.
“Keegan, Keegan, Keegan, out, out, out,” the 100 or so students chanted.
Ludicrously, the protestors linked the lack of provision of student accommodation to Mr Keegan’s comment.
Mr Power, who had fired insults at Mr Keegan, was in attendance, but had transmogrified into a snowflake. Asked by reporters how he was coping in the aftermath of the sarcastic attack carried out on him, he said he was “shocked” and “felt belittled” by it.
In the Dáil, Mr Harris made a further pitch for Twitter ‘likes’, describing the sarcastic comment as “reprehensible”. He really needs to get out a little more to see how big and bad the world can be.
Leo Varadkar said Mr Keegan should never have written the letter and Micheál Martin weighed in also.
Later on Wednesday, the council manager succumbed to an apology and the mob was sated.
Serious issues arise. One is that politicians are scared stiff of social media and its polarising power. Opposition figures surf it and will continue to do so until they occupy governmental office. Then they will reap what they helped to sow.
In the past, in a scenario like this, government figures would have found out the full details and faced down the hysteria. Today, the modus operandi is to hop aboard and join in lest social media call them out for not displaying sufficient anger, empathy, and righteous indignation.
Democracy is the big loser when faux emotion trumps reason and, inevitably, the quality of people entering public life will diminish in such an environment. Maybe that’s what some people want.
Mr Keegan is a controversial figure. Recently, he made comments about homeless people and tents that were, in my opinion, way off the mark. His plan for a white-water rafting centre in the city rightly attracted widespread criticism.
However, he also has a reputation among colleagues of being an effective administrator. He did not deserve that to which he was subjected this week but, ultimately, he is not the biggest loser. That distinction goes to public life, having arrived at another port of call, en route to the shores of Trumpland.