MICHAEL CLIFFORD: Out-of-this-world answers to Ireland’s woes

Mick Wallace and Clare Daly at Shannon Airport

IT’S that time of year again. The great and good of public life pack their buckets and spades and head off to the wilds of Donegal to muse over the road less travelled.

The Magill Summer School convened last Sunday in the lovely little town of Glenties, and, for the following few days, generated enough hot air to refloat the Celtic Bubble.

As the assembled guests stepped into a parallel world, two members of parliament headed in the other direction, popping up in Shannon airport, ploughing towards confrontation with the might of the US armed forces.

Mick Wallace and Clare Daly might not pass muster as Summer School patrons, but as for an engagement with the real world, they took the cigar last week.

First, to Donegal. Each year, in the week after the Oireachtas shuts down for summer, a path is beaten north by those who govern, want to govern, or have governed.

All offer perfectly sensible solutions for a parallel world, if only the governed would take note and let them at it. Dispatches suggest the school’s as popular as ever. Magill has even survived the intrusion of the real world, where councillors are no longer able to claim expenses for travelling to have their political souls replenished.

There is no past or future in Magill, only the present. Hence, the Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin can deliver a speech about how the current government is obsessed with spin and control.

“We have to reform our system, so that policy cannot be driven by an overwhelming obsession with public relations,” he said. “We must develop a politics which values expertise and independence.”

Nobody should be a prisoner of their past, but Martin served for 14 years in governments that specialised in PR and cynicism. Fine Gael and Labour merely tweaked the formula.

Now, Mr Martin wants us to believe that if he was returned to power he would be born again. The audience in Glenties might buy that, but, back in the real world, the jury will be out for some time.

And here’s Lucinda Creighton, with some stirring stuff: “There are many people, both within and outside the political system, who believe in a better Ireland, who believe that politics can be less cynical, more honest, more transparent, and who believe in an economic vision which empowers Irish people, making them masters of their own destiny rather than slaves to the market or the State. Those people must soon stand up and be counted.”

Ain’t that the truth? The school offers people like Lucinda the opportunity to set out their stall. Until a year ago, she served faithfully in government.

According to the world of Magill, she wouldn’t serve again unless she’s allowed to transform politics. The summer school’s cocoon was best exemplified in an address from Professor John McHale, chair of the Fiscal Advisory Council. He told the assembled that the next budget had to include the original plan for €2bn in cuts and taxes.

At the same time, down in Dublin, Michael Noonan and Brendan Howlin were briefing their Cabinet colleagues to be ready for choice tax cuts to sway the electorate. Strict fiscal rectitude is a great idea, but, in the real world, the next election is the main priority.

Michael McDowell is another Glenties recidivist. He told the assembled that the Government was wrong in how it intended to reform the Gardaí. He doesn’t believe an independent policing authority is a good solution, in the wake of the garda controversies of recent months.

Only problem is, back in the real world Mickser was the minister who brought in the Garda Síochána Act, 2005 — the very piece of legislation that was exposed in the controversies as being hopelessly deficient.

The former minister also used the occasion to hold out the tantalising, if fast disappearing, prospect that he might be persuaded to lead a new party to the promised land.

Another to speak on garda reform was acting commissioner, Noirín O’Sullivan.

Usually sensible people, like cops, give Glenties a wide berth. But Ms O’Sullivan is on a long job interview trail, and Magill is the place to rub shoulders with decision-makers.

She told the school she was committing the Force to “explosive” change, insisting that gardaí at all levels were impatient for reform.

In a previous life, which only ended a few months ago, Ms O’Sullivan was perfectly happy to serve in a Force that was obviously dysfunctional. What a difference a promotion makes. She may well get the top job, and she could turn out to be a fine leader in a time of change, but only in Magill can the past be expunged with such panache.

Reform, of course, is the meat of Magill. Everybody there has ideas about it, about what they should have done, what they’d like to do, and what they would do, if given the chance.

Somehow, though, on the road back home, the ideas are thrust out of car windows, lest they contaminate the real world. While the good visitors to Donegal cocooned themselves from reality for a few days, two absent TDs couldn’t get enough of it. The photos of Wallace and Daly en route to confront the Yanks at Shannon evoked images of resistance and revolution.

This could have been the stirrings of an Arab Spring, near the banks of the broad majestic.

As the pair tripped through the long grass, that big, bad bird of war in the background, they resembled nothing as much as the Torvill and Dean of anti-establishment politics.

What fate awaited them? On arrival at the belly of the plane, would a hatch be drawn back to reveal a uniformed Jack Nicholson snarling “you can’t handle the truth”?

Or would they be cut down by a sniper, before getting within an ass’s roar of Uncle Sam’s flying machine? Thankfully, they were intercepted and collared by obliging cops.

Of course it was a stunt, but so what? The stunt drew attention to the relationship-that-dare-not-speak-its-name. In the real world, politicians from successive governments have declared that they don’t need to examine what the Americans are transporting through Shannon, because the Americans have told them there’s nothing to see.

There may be grounds for believing that heavy arms have been transported to, and from, the various playgrounds of American foreign policy. There may be reasons to suspect that men and women have been bundled through Shannon towards a fate that involves torture, or worse. None of it matters to the body politic.

In the real world, the economic power of the USA outweighs any other considerations, even those that might render this State complicit in activity contrary to basic human rights.

Maybe, against their natural instincts, the crowd up at Magill might consult Wallace and Daly on what’s really going on out there, and how it might be addressed.

That would involve intrusion, from the real world, on the displaced ideals being addressed, but, sure, wouldn’t it at least be a change?


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