FERGUS FINLAY: Gallagher’s uncomfortable, shifty reaction was unpresidential

I SUPPOSE one of my claims to fame, from now on, is that I’m not like my beloved Irish rugby team.

At least I can say I was beaten by the winner in the presidential election.

A lot has been written and said about our new President since the weekend, including by me, so I won’t add anything to that, except to say I’m looking forward to a challenging presidency.

It’s less than 140 days since Michael D Higgins won the nomination. When I spoke to the selection convention on that Sunday in June, I talked about the three phases in a presidential election process.

We were in the middle of the first phase then, when cynicism dominated the commentary. It was all about the meaninglessness of the office, and the various candidates who had emerged by then were all dismissed as indulging in “happy-clappy” politics.

But, I said, “that phase will change soon into one where there will be a real sense of contest and engagement. If history teaches us anything, it teaches us that presidential elections have the capacity to excite passionate argument about who we are and where we’re going. It’s already safe to predict that the closing phases of this election will be tense and exciting, and that careers will be made and damaged by the outcome.”

That turned out to be an understatement, didn’t it? Last Sunday week, when the final polls were published, I texted a few friends in the party that the Sean Gallagher vote looked really soft, as it was made up of thousands of voters who could be won back to their own parties. I had no idea of just how soft it was, because it crumbled from under him before the Frontline programme was over.

I’m sure there’ll be books about that last few days. A lot of the people associated with the Gallagher campaign feel now that he was done in by a lie. We may never know the truth of his involvement in the infamous fund-raising function in the Crown Plaza Hotel, but it doesn’t matter. He wasn’t done in by the facts and circumstances surrounding a particular event; he was done in by how he reacted. His body language, his face, his choice of words — they were all, at the vital moment, self-destructive.

It may be that, under a bit of pressure, the man behind the mask came out. Gallagher had carefully constructed a narrative about himself, using bought-in phrases from motivational speakers. The only thing that didn’t fit into the narrative was his Fianna Fáil past.

Gallagher couldn’t bring himself to repudiate it, because that would alienate Fianna Fáil voters, and he couldn’t admit to its influence on him, because that would alienate everyone else. So the fine line in his narrative — the line between where the past ended and the present began — became a fault line that opened up into a large hole.

There was another important story last weekend, the defeat of the 30th amendment to the constitution. I’m sorry that I was among the many commentators who ignored that amendment until it was too late. I voted for it, but it needed more people to come out and support it.

Reform of the Oireachtas is not just important, it is urgent. It is vital to our functioning democracy that parliamentarians have the authority to conduct inquiries into areas where there is a fundamental public interest.

Not only does that happen in most democracies, its absence here is one of the reasons why parliament is so ineffective.

And yet this issue was seen and debated in precisely the wrong terms. We should have been talking about enabling our parliament — the one we elect to represent us — to get to the truth of things.

Huge decisions of public policy, in relation to banking especially, have been made in recent years, and they have been made in secret.

We don’t know what advice was given, what influences were brought to bear. We do know that some of those decisions have had disastrous consequences. We are entitled to know how they are made — in other words, the truth behind the decision.

That’s just the banking side of things. It would have been so much better, over recent years, if the national parliament had been able to conduct a real enquiry into the relationship between business and politics — especially the construction business. That relationship hasn’t just had a major influence on national economic policy, but also on local planning throughout the country.

We’ve had the Mahon Tribunal running for years now, looking at a number of allegations, but in the same time (and at a fraction of the cost) it would have been possible for a parliamentary committee to have had a detailed investigation of how the planning process operates in every part of the country, and whether improper influences have been brought to bear.

These are the kind of things we could have been discussing during the course of the referendum, around the net issue of “how do we find out the truth?” Instead, the debate was conducted around the question of whether we can trust parliamentarians with the power to investigate.

We all know that unfettered power tends to be abused eventually, but there was nothing unfettered about the changes proposed in this referendum.

There is a danger, of course, that the power to investigate could be used in a partisan way, but that hasn’t happened in other parliaments. What has happened, instead, is that a much less partisan culture has developed around the whole issue of investigation.

We saw that happen here in the DIRT inquiry, just as it happened most famously in the US Senate committee that investigated Richard Nixon.

WHAT everyone seemed to forget, on both sides of the argument in the referendum, was that there is a set of fundamental rights in our constitution. Article 40 sets them out, and Article 40.3 says “the State shall, in particular, by its laws, protect as best it may from unjust attack and, in the case of injustice done, vindicate the life, person, good name, and property rights of every citizen”. Nothing in the referendum could or would have changed that.

But the referendum has been defeated. I hope the subject is revisited in a future referendum (and, I suppose, every living former attorney general had better be consulted the next time).

There are people who think that asking the people the same question twice is undemocratic, but we’ve done it before. And not just about Europe, either — it took us a few goes before we arrived at what you might call a constitutional consensus on proportional representation, abortion and divorce.

In politics, whenever you have to choose between doing something fast and doing it right, you should set out to do it right.

For the sake of a properly functioning and genuinely effective and representative parliament, let’s do it right the next time.


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