FERGUS FINLAY: Leo kicked off the silly season, but serious politics are back with a bang

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, left, with British prime minister Theresa May. Pic: Yves Herman, Pool Photo via AP

How do you know when the silly season has begun? When the pages of the newspapers are full of a spat between Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and the entire journalistic corps. 

And when that spat is about journalism. Not about Brexit, or the worsening homelessness crisis, or the scandal of the HSE’s attitude to disclosure, but just about Leo being nasty to journalists.

Oscar Wilde said “There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about”. 

I sometimes wonder if Leo has swallowed the entire book of Wilde quotes. 

At a time when there isn’t a lot going on in the news, when we’d all otherwise be transfixed by the shortage of water here, and by the spectre of imminent flooding of a dark and lonely cave in Thailand, Leo nevertheless manages to get himself talked about.

And he does it by picking an easy target, one that is guaranteed to rise to the bait. Oscar Wilde also said, unkindly, that “by giving us the opinions of the uneducated, journalism keeps us in touch with the ignorance of the community”. 

And let’s be honest, journalism — including good journalism — can never afford to see itself as above criticism.

Which is not to say that I agree with Leo. There was something particularly tacky about aligning himself with Donald Trump’s view of the media. 

Trump, the man who popularised the term “fake news”, doesn’t believe it himself. His purpose is far more sinister than just criticism. 

Trump is deliberately trying to shape the media and to inflame public opinion about the media. If you criticise me, you’re fake. If you call me out on my lies, you’re fake.

Of course, Leo has been at pains ever since to deny that he ever agreed with Trump about anything. But using the term “fake news” is dangerous. 

Leo kicked off the silly season, but serious politics are back with a bang

We don’t do fake news in Ireland. Of course, there’s sloppy journalism betimes, but there’s also journalism of the highest quality. 

I don’t always agree with journalistic priorities here, but you only have to look at the work of, say, Michael Clifford in this newspaper and you’ll know that we’re lucky to have a press corps of that calibre.

When I worked in politics, I spent half my time ranting about the press and how unfair it was. 

After I left, I gradually came to the view (it wasn’t easy) that politics, by and large, gets the media it deserves. 

Politicians need to suck it up — if they’re getting a hard time in the media, it’s usually deserved, and they need resilience to cope with it.

And as for the media — the relationship between journalism and politics in a free democracy is supposed to be a sort of armed truce. It’s not supposed to be cosy. 

Journalists need their own brand of resilience, and they do themselves no favours by getting all huffy when a politician has a go at them. If they’re doing their jobs, they need to see criticism as a back-handed compliment.

But to come back to the silly season. 

The summer, when politics takes its holidays, is when journalists often have to scrabble for stories, and the unlikeliest events can suddenly find themselves on the front pages. The result can be fame — or notoriety — for otherwise lesser-known citizens and politicians.

For instance, many of you won’t remember the army deafness controversy of the late 1990s.

It was sparked off by an individual who took an action against the State, because of hearing damage he had suffered as a soldier, and several cases rumbled through the courts without attracting much attention. 

Then a Labour Party TD, Michael Bell from Louth, announced, in the height of the summer one year, that he too was taking an action, because his hearing had been damaged during his service, not in the army, but in the FCA.

It became one of the great silly season episodes I can remember. Bell was roundly attacked in the media, throughout the summer, for giving credence to what many thought was a scam. But he stood his ground.

Eventually, the then Fianna Fáil government set up a compensation tribunal to take the issue away from the courts, and, ultimately, members of the Defence Forces secured something around €300m in settlements.

But here’s the thing. It’s actually only now and again that the silly season is actually silly. 

Just as I was beginning to speculate that we might have a period without real news, and that we’d all be obsessing about having to save water for the next month, David Davis goes and resigns in the middle of Sunday night.

I had been keeping a close eye on the BBC news ever since the Chequers meeting of the British cabinet last week, because we really are coming to a crunch on Brexit. 

Leo kicked off the silly season, but serious politics are back with a bang

They were calmly reporting on Sunday night that Ms May looked set fair to win Commons votes this week, and to see off any challenges from the hard Brexiteers. 

At last, the much-desired soft Brexit had won the day. Twelve hours later, all that had completely unravelled. 

Like Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell, Ms May lost two senior ministers in a few hours. No sooner had she appointed a Brexiteer to replace Davis than Boris John slipped a further knife into her back. 

There is suddenly now no incentive for the EU to enter into negotiations with a prime minister who can’t deliver her own plan, let alone enter into the kind of further compromises that the EU will want. 

All the EU officials will see a prime minister whose authority is in tatters and a British government on the brink of collapse.

And of course, the unravelling of Brexit — and the increasing likelihood that May will now end up either going to the country or being replaced by someone more hard-line — has huge implications for our politics. 

Without exception, everyone to the right of Ms May has sneered at Ireland in the course of this process, and a hard Brexit approach has enormous implications for the border on this island.

The situation is further complicated by the growing signs that Ms Merkel may not last the summer in Germany, or if she does it will be at the cost of very considerable compromise on her part, especially in relation to immigration.

What all that means is that those of us who have a sentimental fondness for the good old silly season in politics are likely to be disappointed. 

Leo might have got it off to a good start with his injudicious comments in the States, but it’s likely to be over before it has really begun.

Instead, the immediate damage to the authority of the British prime minister, and the weakening of the European stalwart who is chancellor of Germany, could well mean that we’re in for a summer of political crisis in Europe and here at home (how do you construct a give-away budget if the European outcome suddenly looks utterly uncertain?). 

Forget the silly season. Deadly earnest politics may be about to begin.

More on this topic

British MPs to consider amendments to Johnson’s Brexit deal after defeats in LordsBritish MPs to consider amendments to Johnson’s Brexit deal after defeats in Lords

How do EU, UK stack up against each other?How do EU, UK stack up against each other?

Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal suffers fourth defeat in LordsBoris Johnson’s Brexit deal suffers fourth defeat in Lords

Scottish Greens to mark ‘Brexit day’ with pro-independence rallyScottish Greens to mark ‘Brexit day’ with pro-independence rally