TERRY PRONE: Tough questions have to be asked if we are to nail this Irish mythology

BEFORE we get stuck into the coming week, how about we nail some of the myths that sprouted from the events of last week?

Because never did so many myths sprout as quickly as happened following the Taoiseach’s Morning Ireland interview, many of them arising from Fianna Fáil’s understandable desire to defend their leader. But myth is a poor basis from which to move forward. So here goes:

MYTH 1: The question about alcohol represented a new low in Irish journalism.

Contrariwise. It represented an inevitability. Two years ago, on this page, I wondered why it was that journalists in Ireland thought it was OK to ask intrusive questions of politicians when the subject matter was something like an extra-marital affair or whether or not they were gay, yet felt it was somehow unseemly to ask about alcohol consumption.

Until recently, questions about alcohol consumption were beyond the pale. It was considered “their personal life” rather than a crucial contributor to their public life.

The fact is, however, that being a bit of a lech on Sunday night doesn’t impair the lecher’s judgment on things political on Monday, whereas getting outside several pints on a Sunday night sure as hell impairs the drinker’s judgment on Monday.

If we try to make sure drivers don’t take the wheel of their car the morning after a night’s drinking, why on earth would we be happy that a politician – especially a minister and particularly a taoiseach – would take the wheel of the nation, or at least talk to the nation via a national broadcaster the day after a like celebration?

And, as a consequence, why would a journalist not ask a question about the cause of a performance perceived to be poor? It was only a matter of time before the question was asked.

Oh, and one other thing. If texts, tweets and radio programmes ask the question within minutes of the start of the interview, as they did in droves, what principle of decency should prevent mainstream media asking the same question an hour or so later, given that mainstream media on the spot knew when Mr Cowen had retired to bed the previous night and what he’d been doing before he retired to bed?

Social media was gossiping based on aural evidence and a considerable background of anecdotage about the Taoiseach’s leisure time, including a question on the Late, Late Show. Mainstream media, with much more direct evidence available to it, could not have ignored the issue.

MYTH 2: It was disgraceful to shock the Taoiseach in that way. The question which has to be asked, here, is why the Taoiseach seemed so genuinely astonished by the question.

From before nine o’clock, the internet and the airwaves had lit up like Christmas trees with people speculating about the interview. By half nine, it was major public currency. It is unimaginable that a Fianna Fáil party gearing up for an election did not have someone monitoring Twitter, Facebook and radio programmes. If the Taoiseach wasn’t warned about that reality and the possibility of a query arising from it, internal questions should be asked.

Not only the Taoiseach, but every minister should have been reached and flagged about the emerging controversy, even if this had robbed us of one of the few funny aspects of it, that being the arrival into the media melee of Minister Micheál Martin, fresh, no doubt, from a breakfast of fruit and unsweetened yoghurt, blissfully ignorant of the Morning Ireland problem.

When the microphones were jammed in his face, the minister developed the stunned look of a first holy communicant who’s just discovered pornography in his prayer-book.

MYTH 3: It was all a Fine Gael conspiracy.

Between FG and who? If you believe that Fine Gael, inside an hour, can opportunistically orchestrate an army of tweeters, texters, journalists and international media into believing something that’s not true, then you see strengths in Fine Gael none of the rest of us see in them.

MYTH 4: Media are out to get Brian Cowen.

Not true. Media were delighted when Brian Cowen succeeded Bertie Ahern. Less of the make-up and spin, more of the straight-talking. They saw him as clean and incorruptible. Individual media people each have a list of politicians they don’t like because those politicians are arrogant, ignorant, sexist, untruthful, slithery, self-absorbed or just plain nasty by nature. Cowen rarely, if ever, figures on those lists. Most journalists were saddened by last week, not gleeful.

MYTH 5: He’s just not a morning person.

To be sure, figures in history, like Churchill, rarely got out of bed before midday. Today, professionals in all walks of life who hate mornings nonetheless get up early enough to clear their heads and do a good job.

MYTH 6: He’s not PC. He’s authentic; he’s true to himself.

Since when has authenticity been defined by the ability to skull pints? If a man’s expression of truthfulness to himself is skulling pints, he has a problem. If a man, in the face of two years of Nob Nation presenting him as a drunk, doesn’t remove any and all justification for such presentation, he has a problem. If, after the Late, Late Show question, he still equates socialising only and inevitably with alcohol, then he’s missing a lot of opportunities to learn how to protect himself, his reputation and that of his Government.

MYTH 7: He suffers from congestion.

That has damn all to do with what he was accused of. Those of his Cabinet who came out with the congestion excuse are clearly and admirably loyal to their leader.

The question, however, is if they’re wisely loyal to his best interests. Or the best interests of their party. Or the best interests of the nation. Which is not to say that they didn’t believe it. When you’ve worked as long and as happily as they have with Brian Cowen, of course you seek – and believe in – a benign explanation.

MYTH 8: It’s over – he apologised.

Public and media will decide when it’s over and not even nice Brian Lenihan has the right to decide when we should stick a sock in it. Neither did the Taoiseach apologise. What he did was a conditional self-exculpatory gesture towards mollifying his critics. His separate apology to the golfer was along the same lines: “If there was hurt, it wasn’t intended.”

Nobody ever accused Brian Cowen of intent to hurt a sporting hero. Intent is not the issue. A soldier shot by friendly fire is just as dead as if the bullet had come from an enemy gun.

Further, if the Taoiseach is the clever, committed, modest man his friends know, he will already have realised that promising to conduct his socialising with more caution in future is not a firm purpose of amendment. Last week presented him with the opportunity to do what’s right: be a sober, dignified, communicative respectable personification of what it is to be an Irish Taoiseach. Not to be more wary.

A true apology is not only unconditional, but changes the one who gives it. Sometimes very painfully.


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