Politics, during the summer, is as dead as vaudeville. Of course at the same time we need to ink our pages, even during the most taciturn and underwhelming days of silly season.
Since the dawn of civilisation, government ministers tend to disappear during August leaving one or two ministers on duty during the month.
On very slow weeks, somebody will mention at a news conference that the Taoiseach is out of the country.
That will lead to the inevitable question from a senior editorial person: “Well if he’s abroad, who else had skived off? And who has been left behind to run the country?”
Occasionally, fate will deliver a golden hand and intelligence will come back confirming that the only minister who’s still around is the most junior, gaffe-prone, incompetent, ill-regarded and generally hated minister.
The next step in the process will be to find a crisis of some kind– no matter how unimportant or infinitesimally small – and then take the silk purse (a marginal rise in unemployment figures; some hospital cock-up) and make a proper pig’s ear of it.
CRISIS AND LOOK WHO’S LEFT RUNNING THE COUNTRY? will scream the (totally unjustified and totally over-the-top) headline, the following morning.
Yes, it’s cynical and it can be a cheap shot. But it can also be highly effective. John Prescott was Tony Blair’s deputy prime minister and the man in charge of the country when the PM was abroad. But the man who was nominally running the country was photographer playing croquet with his staff in his summer residence. That did untold damage to the country.
Last Sunday we saw this at the worst when the Sunday Independent launched Scuds of outrage and bombast in the direction of Tánaiste Brian Cowen. His crime? He had gone off on holidays to the Algarve. The crisis? The housing market had collapsed and the economy was in freefall. I don’t know about you but somehow I didn’t notice Armageddon last weekend. It just seemed to pass me right by.
The fact is that crises during the summer are more manufactured than real. The last really deep crisis to beset a government here happened in the summer of 1982 with the sensational news that a double murder suspect Malcolm Macarthur had been staying in the flat of the then Attorney General, Patrick Connolly. The A-G was due to fly out on his holidays to the US the next day and refused to alter his plans. The Taoiseach, Charles Haughey, was on his holiday island of Inisvickilaun and either at the end of either a very bad line or a very good wine. When first contacted he didn’t grasp the depth of the crisis. The following day – when all hell broke loose – he cottoned on very quickly.
Then just when we though silly season had reached its nadir, along comes a real crisis. Not only did it catch the Government completely off guard, it also found both main opposition parties with their eye off the ball – their transport spokespeople were nowhere to be seen (or heard) earlier this week.
What was extraordinary about the Aer Lingus story was that, for once, the ‘who’s left running the country?’ attack was valid. Since the its announcement on Tuesday, the Government has given us the benefit of one full sentence. The Taoiseach won’t speak. The Minister for Transport won’t speak. The Minister for Enterprise won’t speak. The Minister for Finance won’t speak. And only belatedly did the Minister for Defence speak. Willie O’Dea said he was aghast at the disgraceful decision. Sure, wasn’t everybody in the mid-west similarly aghast.
The question for O’Dea is: what is the Government going to do about it? It’s all very well for Willie O’Dea to criticise Aer Lingus but if the Taoiseach and the relevant government ministers are not going to do anything, or not even going to say anything, all he’s involved in is a exercise to give him political cover.
The Government made a huge play about safeguarding Heathrow slots and ensuring balanced regional connectivity when it allowed Aer Lingus to cut the apron strings. Was this part of an under-the-table deal? Did senior Government ministers really only learn last Friday? Why didn’t the Government use its 25.4% shareholding as leverage?
The capitulation of deed and word has been a disgrace. And the Government’s continuing silence is an insult to the people of the mid-west and also to its back-bench TDs. The problem with third-term governments isn’t that the citizens begin to grow indifferent to them; it’s that they begin to grow indifferent to the citizens.