Fergus Finlay: President should speak up more and politicians must start listening

Fergus Finlay: President should speak up more and politicians must start listening

'Don’t give me that guff about how the President should be seen and not heard, like a well-behaved child. He has taken an oath to serve the welfare of the people of Ireland.'

It was elevated schoolyard bullying in the Dáil last week, while grownups were trying to draw attention to some real problems and failures elsewhere. Pearse Doherty was having a few underhand digs, to try to annoy Leo. Leo rose dutifully to the bait and tried his hand at oppo politics. Meanwhile, Michael D at last spoke out about one of the great social issues of our time.

Oppo politics had its origins in the USA and reached its current scientific basis around the time of the first Clinton campaigns. It was used extensively against him, and he and his people became adept at using it on his behalf. One of Clinton’s first campaign managers James Carville — the one who coined the phrase “it’s the economy, stupid”, was a strong believer in the relentless nature of oppo politics.

You put your boot on your opponent’s back, he used to say. And you do what you can to grind him into the dust. And then, when you’re absolutely certain that there’s no possibility he can get up to fight back, you grind some more.

Abuse and invective

Dirty old business that. But of course, abuse and invective have always had their place in politics. The former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating was famous for his viciousness. He described one opposition speech attacking him as like “being flogged by a limp lettuce”. Another opponent was compared to a “shiver looking for a spine to run up”. He dismissed the leader of the opposition as “all tip and no iceberg”.

That sort of spontaneity in politics — which can veer between witty and cruel — has been around forever. It’s different to oppo. Oppo is characterised by three things. First, it involves a huge amount of research, aimed at digging out as much unknown information about your opponent as possible. Second, it’s used sparingly and only when needed. Timing is crucial. Thirdly, it works best when your opponent is already under pressure.

Leo Varadkar and Pearse Doherty had a very counterproductive argument.
Leo Varadkar and Pearse Doherty had a very counterproductive argument.

What happened between Leo Varadkar and Pearse Doherty in the Dáil last week was an example of oppo politics — on the Tánaiste’s part. Doherty took a couple of swipes at Leo, using material already in the public domain. Leo in reply used a much less well-known fact (I didn’t know it, for instance) to attack back. It was clearly something that had been planted in the Tánaiste’s shirt pocket for just such a moment.

There will be those who thought Doherty had it coming, others that the Tánaiste had belittled himself by joining the fray in that way. My own guess is that it was entirely counter-productive for both men. They were (supposed to be) debating a crucial subject, and neither had the grace to stick to the matter at hand.

For what it’s worth, the clumsy use of a piece of research like that did more harm to the Tánaiste in my view. Without producing something lasting and shocking about his opponent, he just demonstrated that Doherty could get under his skin.

Negative politics

What it may have told us is that we’re heading into a period of intensely negative politics. That’s happened in Ireland before, but never on a sustained basis. 

If we’re going to confront a period of campaigning that’s exclusively around personalities and secrets, it’s going to be deeply disillusioning for a lot of the electorate

The row started the other day, of course, when both men stood up to debate the cost of living crisis. It was entirely forgotten in the process, and barely got a mention in the coverage. Though you wouldn’t know it from the behaviour of the two schoolboy bullies, these issues really matter.

I’ve written here before about both the cost of living battle and the housing catastrophe. The worst thing about the inflation we’re experiencing now is that it’s going to get worse. There’s a cruel winter ahead of us. We’ve been there before, but this time there won’t be the “safety valve” of inflation. We’re going to have to figure it out ourselves.

Doom and gloom

And that’s going to require imagination and creativity, not endless repetition of tired old mantras. I sympathise with a government perspective that says we need to do a lot of the heavy lifting in the Budget in October, but I also know that this government could be entirely doomed by then if it doesn’t do a few things in the short term.

For example, it would cost around €50 million, probably even less, to ensure that no parent in Ireland had to worry about schoolbooks ever again. That’s not a difficult financial pill for the government, but it needs to be swallowed now. It would enable tens of thousands of parents all over the country to heave an enormous sigh of relief at a time of considerable pressure. With a tiny bit more investment directly in schools, parents could also have the additional pressure of the so-called “voluntary contribution” lifted off them.

Those kinds of things won’t wait for the budget. Neither would they break the bank. But they would demonstrate seriousness about helping people right now. (And hey, Leo. They might even be popular. More popular than the negative stuff.) 

President goes political

Meanwhile, as the two lads were having a farmyard brawl, Ireland’s first citizen was turning up the heat on the other major issue of our time. And he was absolutely right when he called it our great national failure. Because that’s exactly what it is.

President Michael D Higgins was embroiled in controvery over his remarks on the country's housing crisis.
President Michael D Higgins was embroiled in controvery over his remarks on the country's housing crisis.

If I’m being honest, I was a bit surprised when the President started his quoted remarks by saying that he had taken to speaking “ever more frankly” about the housing issue. If he has, he’s been doing it under his breath. It’s long past time, to be honest, that he spoke out.

Don’t give me that guff about how the President should be seen and not heard, like a well-behaved child. He has taken an oath to serve the welfare of the people of Ireland, and he simply can’t stay silent indefinitely. 

I could wish that he had offered a few solutions as well as criticism, but if all he succeeds in doing is refocusing the conversation, to inject a heap more urgency into it, that’ll do me for now

When we had nothing, in the 1930s and 40s and 50s, we built houses. Not just houses, but towns and villages and suburbs. When we were crippled by an oil crisis in the 70s and riddled with debt in the 80s, we built houses. Then suddenly we became wealthy, and we could afford to build in huge numbers. But that was the moment we stopped. Not because we believed houses were no longer needed, but because we wanted to turn housing into a private marketable commodity.

I know from direct experience that local authorities want to get back to building on the scale they used to. But they are prevented at every turn by a deep bureaucratic malaise that erects far more obstacles in the way of public development than it ever did in the way of private money.

Here’s my humble suggestion. Speak up a bit more, President. Shut up and listen a bit more, bickering politicians. Then maybe we might start getting a few things done.

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