Saturday, February 17, 2007

INSIDE POLITICS - The Hurricane of Hype

WHO is the star of this week’s column? Take a wild guess. If you happened to die and are now pushing up daisies, you might not have noticed him this week.

Of if you happen to be an anchorite monk living on a remote island sometime in the 6th century, there’s a slim chance that he may not have crossed your path.

For everybody else, there was no escape. From the moment he choked on his Corn Flakes last Sunday morning, Michael McDowell has reacted to Labour’s tax coup by invading our every waking moment, policing our thoughts, and trying to wash, like rain, the trashy Labour promises off the pavement.

On Monday, he introduced the techniques of Sumo wrestling to Irish political discourse. In a matter of mere seconds, his ferocious and fierce onslaught removed Pat Rabbitte from the ring. The winning technique? Haiku. “I want to say this about the speech that Pat Rabbitte made the other night. That speech proves that he is now admitting that he has been talking rubbish for 20 years. He has attacked every aspect of our tax policies. He’s voted against them in every Finance Bill.

“He has denied our argument that tax rates matter. And here he is now saying, after 20 years of empty, unsuccessful, hypocritical rhetoric, that he accepts he is wrong. What a sadmoment for him.”

This outburst came during a so-called doorstep interview, where the politician takes questions (usually on the street) from reporters. There were no questions here. McDowell walked up the reporters, delivered his broadside, said “I’m finished” and walked away again. A few reporters sniggered. But for McDowell there was nothing funny about this.

For this was a Labour leader having the cheek to encroach on his territory. Though what came across washumorous, what bubbled inside was toil and trouble. This column has said it before: McDowell is a one-man walking Atlantic weather system. This week, it was storm force 10 stuff coming in furiously with no respite.

The really scary bit is that all this is just the lead-up to the Progressive Democrats national conference this weekend. You might have noticed the sly reference above to Travis Bickle, the anti-hero of Martin Scorsese’s classic film, Taxi Driver. On Tuesday, McDowell did his own bit of scary “you looking at me” stuff when he announced a package of anti-crime measures. The Tánaiste has a tendency to announce his measures in the manner that Twink introduced John Bruton at a Fine Gael Árd Fheis a long time. You initially think, great stuff, and then you think, this is over-the-top, and then you think, oh, God, this is going to finish up badly.

His crime package sounded very impressive on first hearing. Suspects could be detained for seven days. There were tighter measures for bail; further curtailments of the right to silence, as well as provisions to introduce the long-awaited DNA database.

But then we found out it was all based on an interim (and rushed)report of the expert group charged with re-balancing the law.

Not only that, but the package of measures didn’t include legislation — only an intention to legislate.

So what was that all about then? Optics? In reality, by the time that package becomes law, the general election will be but a dim memory.

McDowell wanted to give the impression he was being tough on crime (as usual the “crisis” has been hyped up by politicians and the media). Now he has come up with illusory measures to remedy an illusory crisis.

For one thing hit me between the eyes in the recent Frank Luntz focus group exercise for RTÉ. Crime was identified as a huge issue. Yet, not one of the group had been a victim of crime in the past five years, save for one guy who got his chainsaw nicked. And why were they all scared to walk the streets, leave the key in the door etc? They said it was because the media told them so. That’s a self-fulfilling prophecy if there ever was one.

Of course, the Tánaiste didn’t leave it there. He was just warming himself up. On Wednesday, he took on the Mahon Tribunal, claiming its legal bill could top €1 billion. By Thursday, that row deepened into a full-blown crisis. Characteristically, he robustly stood by his word that night, setting up the second grave stand-off with the judiciary in as many months. And that was the same day, he promised he would big it up at the PDs’ conference in Wexford, with his own proposals on tax cuts and stamp duty.

Batten down the hatches folks. A hurricane of hype and histrionics is fast approaching from the South East.

(This is my column from today's Irish Examiner)

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