Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Nothing to Say

The things that are preoccupying US politics at this moment in time.
1. When will Eliot Spitzer resign as New York Governor after being linked with a prostitution ring?
2. Will Obama take Mississippi (the last deep south state) with a double digit margin?
3. Just how dirty is the war of words going to get between Hillary of the steely lips and Obama of the silken tongue?

The things that are preoccupying Irish politics at this moment in time?
1. The same things as last week
2. which is the three reports into breast cancer misdiagnosis
3. and, erm, where all the Ministers are jetting to for the annual St Patrick's Day exodus.

So how has politics been shaping up this week? The good news is Irish politics has been moving as quickly as a sports car on a motorway since coming back in January. The bad news is that the motorway in question is the M50.

This week has just seemed so slow and so pedestrian. Leaders' questions today was dominated by the reports on Portlaoise and the (yes, very serious) issues of governance and management of the HSE.

Incidentally, for really good analysis of how that came to be check out Sara Burke's excellent two-part series in the Irish Times. Part one is here and part two is at this address.

But following the debate today was like reliving last week, thought-by-thought, word-for-word, phrase-for-phrase replay of last week especially in the way Bertie Ahern batted back the questions. It was the exact same kickaround as last week, somebody had punctured the ball in between. The debate just seemed flat, dead, deflated. And it reminded you that for all his virtues in other areas Enda Kenny is only good at spontaneity when all of his lines have been carefully prepared beforehand.

There are mitigating factors. It's the last week of a short term (because of a very early Easter) in which the only two things of note to happen were the Taoiseach's tribunal evidence and the publication of the reports into the Portlaoise breast cancer scandal.

And probably lay too much store by Leaders Questions anyway. There is a notion that somehow this twice-weekly slot in the Dáil gets to the nub of politics in Ireland... that in each seven or eight minute segment, some great untold truth will be uncovered, that rigorous questioning and probing will expose cant or hypocrisy or empty promises.

But the reality is more prosaic. It can often be a formulaic and pro-forma exercise. More often than not, the Taoiseach (as Tony Blair has done in England) will read his answer from a script prepared by civil servants and special advisers who have anticipated every possible question from the opposition leaders. Only occasionally does it generate enough heat to allow us political hacks to bask in the warm glow.

The slot has lost a lot of its spark and its unpredictability by the big change in the Dail's power block since the election. The fragmented nature of the opposition between 2002 and 2007 meant that there were three opposition slots instead of the two (one of which was regularly occupied by the great Dáil performer Joe Higgins).

Now Sinn Fein (whittled down to four) and Tony Gregory are the only other opposition TDs besides Fine Gael and Labour. And it has meant that proceedings have become more uniform, less predictable. In fairness to Eamon Gilmore, his non-dramatic but sharp questioning has been arguably as effective as Pat Rabbitte's colourful contributions - in that they have tended to put Bertie on the back foot more.

There's a lot of talk about Dáil and Seanad reform. There's been a lot of talk about reform since the foundation of the State. There has been a corresponding lack of any meaningful reform. And I can safely predict that a commendable report will be drawn up by some committee or other during this term which will be carefully placed on a shelf that's heaving under the weight of all the other reports that have been compiled over the years.

I was reading a report from one of the American dailies today about the ratcheting-up of the row between Hillary and Barack. Wow. The sledging was impressive. And it was all about policy. Detailed scrutiny of voting records, claims and counter-claims about their records on Iraq; whether Obama had backed laws supportive of big oil companies; and if Hillary had over exaggerated her influence on foreign policy when First Lady between 1993 and 2001 (she claims to have played an instrumental role in the Northern Ireland peace process - well, if she did, she certainly hid her light under a bushel!)

Ok, it's an election campaign and it's full-blooded and it's America. And I know that we're in the difficult doldrumish first year after the election of a third-term government. But without the parallel soap opera that is the life of Bertie Ahern we would be so depleted of subject matter that we'd find screwing on the tops of the tubes in a toothpaste factory a far more intriguing and interesting occupation than political reporting.


Anonymous said...

Cynical hacks is the other thing that's predictable about Irish politics!

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