GUEST COLUMNIST: Silly season gives every ‘news’ story a sporting chance
By Gerry Howlin

WE ARE down to our last hero. That has always been Ireland’s dilemma.

That is the grip of sport on the crowd. Its mass appeal provides mass escape. Epic in its individualism, it embraces countless masses.

In the arena, any man can make it; every woman can become a hero. Anyone can return home crowned with the laurels of victory, cheered by the very crowd they had before been a part of, and indistinguishable from.

When the Tricolour flies and Amhrán na bhFiann sounds out, curmudgeons burst with pride and cynics become idealists. At last, we have what we thought we could never have; a real hero again. On the dais of honour, we are all flattered, our fantasy satisfied.

In one of the worst summers in memory, those of us in the egg-and-spoon race of life — and that, dear readers, includes most of you — have permission to dream. Escape is what the Olympic Games are about. They are not about the suspension of war, but its continuation by other means.

We can all be warriors and become our childish idea of a hero. The athlete is you and I, breaking out from the crowd, achieving acclaim and ceasing to be spectators, winning the lottery of life.

If spectator sport is ancient, big-screen, high-definition television has given it another dimension. Where formerly the athlete was a distant and hardly recognisable figure, now every sinew can be seen and each bead of sweat can be counted. Not all the fantasy is as childish as it might be. Part of the modern fantasy is the sexualisation of sport.

Now, in the middle of August, the Olympics over, the summer school a distant memory. and the autumnal political party think-ins a prospect we do not yet have to consider, we are in the depths of the silly season. This is the Gobi desert of politics and the media feeds on it.

The media must be fed or it will become feral. Olympic Games, foreign wars, and US presidential elections only go so far. For years, when my more important colleagues took their annual leave, it was my duty to man the barricade at Government Buildings and dispense something that passed for news daily.

The absent government was projected every day by a minister on duty. The minister was served as an offering to the media, and girded to parry incoming fire should the need arise.

A temporarily reduced press corps with less expertise could be temporarily satisfied. Satisfied until they got a real story.

Then, with little competition for attention, a conflagration could begin and be all the harder to put out for want of other ministers to move the agenda on with other stories. The unexpected, and unwelcome, return of the Colombia Three in Aug 2005, and the withdrawal by Aer Lingus of its Heathrow service from Shannon, in 2007, were vintage bush fires. But the fracas I remember most fondly was my first.

Coming into government in Jun 1997 to the newly created Department of Tourism and Sport, the minister, Dr James McDaid, gave an interview to Frank Khan from the Irish Independent.

The interview went swimmingly well, until, in that dangerously insignificant way journalists have of asking “just one last question”, as if they weren’t remotely interested in the answer, Khan asked McDaid what he thought of the all-island tourism logo, a redesign of the revered shamrock.

Dr McDaid, a good friend of mine who never developed any capacity for political dissimulation, foolishly told the truth. It was an awful piece of hardly recognisable foliage, he said, or words to that effect.

McDaid was right. The sacrosanct shamrock had been turned into a cabbage that slugs had feasted on and defecated in, and which St Patrick would not have touched for fear of contracting several contagious diseases.

That year was not just any silly season.

It was one of the cyclical, intensely parched silly seasons that habitually arrive after the long-awaited, passionate mating season between politicians and voters that is a general election.

The poisonous variety of cabbages took root on the airwaves like a man-eating weed in a horror movie.

Venerable current affairs programmes — and some were still venerated then — opined at length about the unpleasant thing the minister had said about the cabbage. They insisted it was really an art nouveau shamrock, and that the government was in the hands of philistines who had no aesthetic sensibility. The latter point hardly marked a major change in Irish political history. But the story went on and on.

The silly season may be happy days for soft stories. But it is acutely dangerous if a vacuum occurs. Government can never manage the media, but it can command some of its attention some of the time.

Successive years of economic crises have shrunken the silly season. Politicians have responded to an anti-politician mood by having the Oireachtas sit significantly longer. It is doing nothing different. It is as ineffective as ever at holding government and officials to account, but no matter. The lights are on longer.

One of the acute weaknesses of the Irish political system is a lack of space for reflection on policy, and a lack of real engagement with expertise. Speed dating-style delegations in ministers’ offices do not count. Longer parliamentary sessions, of themselves, do nothing for better governance. But sport, the diet of bread and circus, that all governments ultimately seek to provide, has seen us more than halfway through this silly season.

Instead of chewing on our own frustrations, we have been allowed to dream.

We strode higher, faster and more fantastically than our lumpen shapes could allow. We were, if not gods, at least living among them. Our hunger for heroes was satiated. But the crowd is fickle, it is always dangerous, and the silly season is not yet over. Government beware. The scapegoat is usually tethered to a VIP seat.

* Gerard Howlin is a public affairs consultant, and was a senior government adviser from 1997 to 2007


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