McGrath’s politics are no laughing matter

Independent Alliance TDs often operate as though they are not part of the Government, even though they are at the heart of it, writes Special Correspondent Michael Clifford.

McGrath’s politics are no laughing matter

There is a temptation these days to crack open a big, wide smile any time one of the Independent Alliance goes off reservation.

But the latest contribution to national politics from Finian McGrath is unfortunately no laughing matter.

The raggle-taggle bunch of disparate TDs who prop up the Government frequently operate as if they are, indeed, independent from the government rather than in the heart of it.

They are incapable, to a large extent, of abandoning their impulse for righteous indignation at how the Government is running the country.

That’s a cost-free stance on the opposition benches, but hilarious when issued from inside the tent. How can a politician credibly be angry and indignant at oneself?

Their raggle-taggle leader, Shane Ross, is as angry and indignant for Ireland today as he ever was in opposition or as a columnist.

He is angry that the system of judicial appointments in this country is “rotten”. He is indignant that he is apparently the only person who believes this.

Mr Ross entered government to smite the cronyism and insider politics he despises.

He was even willing to present himself as an example of this discredited carry-on by interfering in national policing to secure the reopening of Stepaside Garda Station, his local pet project.

His colleague, junior minister John Halligan, just wanted everybody to get along. To that extent, he proposed a summit with Kim Jong Il to see if this oul’ nuclear stuff could be sorted out in the name of world peace.

Last year, we had the spectacle of two other band members, Sean Canney and Kevin ‘Boxer’ Moran, falling out over who would be the longer-serving junior minister for something or other.

And so it is with these boys who tore open a lucky bag when the polls closed at the last general election.

Notwithstanding Mr Ross’s interference in garda operations, much of what the raggle-taggle band get up tends to provide a bit of levity. Then along comes Finian McGrath and the laughter dries up.

Last weekend, Mr McGrath told the Sunday Independent that new drink driving laws, brought in by his friend and colleague Minister for Transport Mr Ross, were not being policed without fear or favour.

“If you’re a public servant, you’re working and you’re paid by the State and you’re paid by the taxpayer, you stay out of any subtle kind of thing, whether it is a garda checkpoint, say, ‘oh I blame that Shane Ross, that’s his fault’,” Mr McGrath opined.

That is being said at checkpoints. That’s not good enough. That would not be tolerated in any other profession.

The inference from the above is that members of the gardaí are effectively telling the public that their hands are tied and it’s all the fault of poor Mr Ross.

This would amount to political policing. The charge was ludicrous and dangerous, but said plenty about Messers Ross, McGrath, and the rest of the raggle-taggle band.

Despite his best efforts, Mr Ross has done something positive in ministerial office.

The drink driving laws he championed, reducing the level at which a ban is imposed from 80mg to 50mg, have been controversial.

There was strenuous opposition inside and outside the Dáil. Myths have grown that the gardaí frequently conduct morning checkpoints to bag offenders who had a few pints the night before.

Rural Ireland has been badly hit, although the prominence given to this issue, above other issues affecting rural Ireland, is curious.

There have been reports of complaints around the cabinet table about the policy and its implementation.

This is the cost for acting in the national interest, of bringing this country into line with other developed western democracies in the area of drink driving.

Until about a decade ago, publicans held power over life and death on the roads. Mr Ross’s piece of legislation is the final nail in the coffin of that power.

Change is painful, and not just for vested interests. Naturally, ire over that pain focuses on the Government.

In this instance, the focus can be narrowed down, because Fine Gael didn’t show great enthusiasm for the change, and there is a history of turbulence between some party figures and Mr Ross.

Few among the Blueshirts are rushing the ramparts to defend him.

Mr Ross is a populist who must baulk at the prospect of being unpopular with swathes of the populace.

Being a populist minister means handing out goodies but never having to take the heat.

He can’t deflect the ire towards “the elites” in this instance. He can’t blame it on “insiders”.

Neither can he suggest that it’s all down to the judges in their rotten system. There is nowhere to turn, no one to shield him from being unpopular.

And then up pops his sidekick, Mr McGrath. It’s the cops wot done it. The gardaí are out at checkpoints telling the public to blame Shane Ross for their woes.

The gardaí are interfering in democracy, advocating against the political standard of Mr Ross and his raggle-taggle band.

The gardaí are spreading the muck about poor Shane, telling the angry breathalysed that he is the man to blame.

For populists such as Donald Trump, this is standard fare but Mr Trump is perfectly comfortable dragging democracy into the gutter. Irish politics has not sunk that low yet.

The immediate reaction from ministerial colleagues, and the swift retraction of the spurious and dangerous allegations, was a small consolation.

However, Finian McGrath’s desperate attempt to use the gardaí as a political foil for the unpopularity of his buddy Mr Ross is a bad day for politics.

There remains some depths that should not be plumbed in the name of self-serving populism.

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