Terry Prone: Politicians must always be tuned in, especially to their own words

The thing about Eoin Ó Broin, and indeed all of Sinn Féin, is that they have done a superb job of opposition
Terry Prone: Politicians must always be tuned in, especially to their own words

Eoin Ó Broin of Sinn Féin had a peculiar interaction with Shane Coleman on Newstalk's breakfast programme.

TWO politicians, half a world away from each other, had interesting and significant moments this last week: Our own Eoin Ó Broin and New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern.

Ó Broin has been a major asset to Sinn Féin. The acceptable face of the formerly unacceptable. The neat-dictioned, ever-calm, always-expert (particularly on housing) spokesperson ready to grace anybody’s microphone, even at short notice, competent to disagree in detail and presenting evidence when a Government spokesperson makes an assertion. The scholarly yet quirky look of him. The self-control: Never flustered, never aggressive, never anything less than on top of his brief. 

In a party with more than its fair share of good media performers, Ó Broin has tended to be la creme de la creme. Turn on your radio and he was, first of all, immediately identifiable, because he didn’t sound like anybody else, inside or outside his party. Then he was interesting to listen to, because of his mastery of his portfolio. 

Broadcasters have tended to give him space before coming to the inevitable twin questions they always put to opposition spokespeople: “How would you fix it?” and “What would your solution cost?” 

That’s what made Eoin Ó Broin’s encounter with Shane Coleman on Newstalk’s breakfast programme so astonishing. Almost from the moment where the broadcaster introduced him, he was ratty. Within a few minutes, he had told Coleman he was wrong three or four times, interrupting Coleman to do so. The fact that he did it quietly was oddly disquieting because it made him sound like a snake, hissing in the background.

Ducks in a row

Now, there’s a strong case for telling broadcasters when they’re wrong. A strong case, also, for interrupting them if need be to ensure that an item doesn’t start on the wrong premise and get off on the wrong foot. Indeed, let us go further. Many broadcasters — the more opinionated ones with a strong bent for monologue — could do with frequent correction and interruption. But Coleman isn’t red-in-tooth-and-claw aggressive and he usually has his factual ducks in a row.

The impression Ó Broin gave was that, not only were the ducks NOT in a row, there was a likelihood they weren’t ducks at all. Way out of his usual character, his performance was, to such an extent as to ensure someone hearing him for the first time would be imprinted with a radically different impression than someone used to hearing him over the past few years.

The Fourth Estate should always be wary of the telltale myth and its first cousin, the revealing moment myth. That’s where someone — most likely a politician — says something in a moment of pressure which is assumed to sum up their entire character, if not their gender, family, political party, eating habits, and possibly type of pet. 

We tend to attribute more significance to such moments than they deserve, particularly when they play into our pre-existing prejudices, but also because we in journalism have to convey the complex in a simple, immediately accessible way and the “telling moment” helps us in that task.

The thing about Ó Broin, and indeed all of Sinn Féin, is that they have done a superb job of opposition. 

It is the task of opposition to find the sand in the machine, point to that sand repeatedly, articulate the damage it is doing to the machine and the machine’s users, and blame the Cabinet member responsible for sand-clearance. But now Sinn Féin is looking at the possibility of being in charge of sand-clearance and at the same time finding themselves at the receiving end of more sceptical interviewing. 

Ó Broin’s targets for provision of additional houses, when/if voters put him in that job, have been revealed by this more sceptical interviewing to be on the hairy side, with him including “recategorised” houses in his total.

The sudden change in him might suggest a new leg to Lord Acton’s stool. Acton posited that: “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Perhaps prospective power changes people, too. 

Anticipation has some unexpected effects, as author of the 5m copy bestseller Atomic Habits, James Clear points out: “Dopamine is released not only when you experience pleasure, but also when you anticipate it.” Maybe the anticipation of power is behind Ó Broin’s performance last week. 

If it is, it is out of kilter with Sinn Féin’s new interest in being more widely relatable, manifest in them meeting captains of industry and reassuring them that they’ll be all right under a Sinn Féin government. Ó Broin’s telling moment rather runs counter to that corporate direction.

Global admiration

Meanwhile, over in New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, the premier who locked her country down and achieved remarkable control over Covid-19, also had a moment. 

This wasn’t a moment like the one she had a little while ago, which involved her muttering (right into a live microphone) that a politician from an opposing party was an “arrogant p***k”. 

New Zealand Prime Minster Jacinda Ardern announced she would resign as New Zealand's Prime Minister last week. Picture: Dave Rowland/Getty Images
New Zealand Prime Minster Jacinda Ardern announced she would resign as New Zealand's Prime Minister last week. Picture: Dave Rowland/Getty Images

From the woman who would win an award for empathy, that previous comment was interesting, suggesting her emotional range was somewhat wider than had been suspected. But last week’s moment wasn’t sweary. Teary, certainly, but not sweary. 

Ardern had led her country to global admiration during the Covid crisis and responded magnificently to terrorism. When she decided to chuck in the leadership of her party, all she had to say was, to paraphrase: “This has been the greatest honour of my life. Having delivered X and Y I feel the time has come to hand over the mantle. I am eager for new challenges and forever grateful to the people of New Zealand.” 

After setting a lovely example for what young women can achieve and be, she ends her tenure by reinforcing every Victorian misogynistic stereotype by weepingly declaring that she is drained and now she can get married and spend time with her child.

Perhaps she’s not read Betty Freidan’s The Feminine Mystique, which, in the ‘70s, blew a permanent hole in the myth of female fulfillment through constant presence in the lives of their children and wearing frilly aprons while filling the home with the scent of baking.

Perhaps, too, despite the adorable empathy which has characterised her premiership, she didn’t think much about the thousands of young mothers let go by Twitter, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon, whose delight in being newly free to take their children to school may be somewhat diluted by the fear of being too short of cash to provide them with a good breakfast.

The key difference between Jacinda and those made jobless by big tech is that while they’ve been rendered downwardly mobile to poverty she can figure on being upwardly mobile to riches: The book, the speaking tours, and more.

She doesn’t have to watch what she says any more. Eoin Ó Broin does. He really does.

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