Wednesday 16 February 2011

Election 2011: Has the Indo Flipped? Again?

In the run-up to the 2007 General Election a private meeting took place between Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen (the then sitting Taoiseach and his successor) on behalf of Fianna Fáil on the one hand, and Tony O'Reilly, owner of Independent Newspapers on the other. The meeting took place at O'Reilly's home in Fitzwilliam Square in Dublin.

According to Matt Cooper in his book Who Really Runs Ireland? Brian Cowen was questioned about the meeting afterwards at an election campaign press conference:
[He] refused to say what had been discussed. 'Any meetings that are private are private. It wasn't about anything other than Fianna Fáil putting its position formally to a proprietor of newspapers to see what way we can get our message across.' This raised the question as to why, given his insistence that he did not interfere with the editorial policies of the newspapers, O'Reilly failed to direct the politicians to his editors when they sought a meeting for such purposes. - see Matt Cooper cited above. 
Given the present political situation, to where do Tony O'Reilly and/or Independent Newspapers turn, now that their proteges seem to be facing political meltdown? To Fine Gael it would appear if the headlines are anything to go by.

A kind of Darwinian 'reversion to type' seems to have taken place at Independent Newspapers, who first deserted to the Fianna Fáil camp during the Bertie years; an event marked by a now famous (or infamous depending on your allegiance) editorial that was accorded top billing on the front page of the Irish Independent on the day before polling day for the 1997 General Election.

An indication of where the Indo's current allegiance lie, might be discerned from the way that every opinion poll is hailed as 'further proof' of the 'unstoppable momentum' behind Enda Kenny's bid to be next Taoiseach.

Another opinion piece published last week by Fionnan Sheahan (One week, 10 myths: the dross peddled by parties), gives a broader insight into how this election is being viewed by Independent Newspapers (and possibly those vested interests who support them; although apparently they don't interfere with editorial policies).

Proceeding on a 'takes a thief to catch a thief' kind of logic it seems fair to assume that the Indo, given its record, is a newspaper that should be able to recognise dross when it sees it. It is worth examining Fionnan Sheahan's claims and the logic that informs them.The preamble reads like something that could have issued from the Fine Gael press office:
Unlike previous general election campaigns, the parties are being put under greater scrutiny on their policy announcements. Fine Gael has adopted a refreshing attitude to the development of substantial policies and is actively encouraging intense examination of its documents and figures. The example of transparency set by the likes Richard Bruton, Simon Coveney and its backroom economic policy adviser Andrew McDowell has spread through most of the party. - Irish Independent 8/2/11

No other party comes in for praise of that magnitude (or indeed praise at all) but it is also fair to point out that Fine Gael, like the other parties, does come in for criticism too. However Sheahan's main gripe is that "costings have been mysteriously absent in some cases from the text of policy documents" and goes on to cite some examples.

The problem I have with this approach is that the issue of costing is being held up as the only consideration, without debate as to the relative merit of the various proposals. Is the proposal desirable? Is it new, imaginative, innovative, etc? Will it benefit the country in the short, medium and long-term? The normal course of events, in a participatory democracy, is for a proposal to be considered from these respective standpoints. Costing will also inform the debate, just as the debate itself may throw light on how the project is to be funded.

Really what this election is about is whether the demands of the Irish people or the demands of money-lenders will be given priority and emphasis. Which side is Independent Newspapers on in this debate? It seems rather abrupt to take the view that a proposal cannot be be seriously contemplated on the grounds of 'cost issues' alone. In any case, it is both unfair and unrealistic to insist that a broad and very diverse range issues, be fully and finally thrashed out in the course of a three-week election campaign. Consultation between people and public representatives is an ongoing matter, not confined to elections. 

In a similar vein Sheahan lampoons Fianna Fáil political reform programme: 
In the surreal world of 'new' Fianna Fail, the party seems to believe everybody has already forgotten it was in power the best part of the last 14 years. Micheal Martin's sudden commitment to political reform is less than convincing when the party didn't act before -- and won't be in a position to act again for about a decade. - Irish Independent 8/2/11

Again a strange, indeed somewhat arrogant and insulting logic is permeating here. We are being asked to accept the premise that because a party of individual didn't act or speak up before, they are prohibited from doing so now. Hmm! 

In fairness to Fianna Fáil no-one else acted before either, least of all Independent Newspapers who would have had a chance to raise it with the two most senior figures in that party, when they arrived for that famous 'private meeting' in a certain gentleman's house in Fitzwilliam Square back in 2007. Actually, going by Matt Cooper's account, the only significant issue that Independent Newspapers raised on that occasion was reform of Stamp Duty on sale of residential property. The fact that they were successful in their representations, probably only served to artificially inflate the Irish property boom beyond it's natural expiry date. This in the process could be said to have contributed to Ireland's present economic woes.

Most likely, the reason why Fianna Fáil didn't raise the issue of political reform during their fourteen years in government was because the existing system suited them fine - which goes just as much for the other parties in opposition who didn't raise a squeak. I would suggest that the cross-party consensus stretched to that issue too. 

Incidentally, I'm not entirely swept away by any of the proposals for political reform that have emanated from any of the political parties. While every proposal has its respective merits and de-merits, one gets the feeling that what is involved - when you consider the packages in their entirety - are proposals to make the political process more exclusive, not less and less accountable, not more. 

Sheahan also takes a swipe at People Before Profits for their proposal to bring in a 70pc income tax rate for people on income over €100,000. 
Introducing utterly punitive tax rates would act as a disincentive to work 
 - Irish Independent 8/2/11
Maybe, but incentivising work involves more than just increasing the hypothetical take-home pay for people who are hypothetically working. In fact the problem right now is much more fundamental than creating incentives - it's about creating jobs. It is fair to say that the vast majority of the country's c.500,000 unemployed would gladly take a job paying a €100,000 even if they had to pay 70% on anything they earn in excess. I know I would.
[In case anyone missed that I would now like to put it firmly on the record: Attention employers, I'll work for €100K!]
But Fionnan Sheahan doesn't see things that way. His is a kind of modern day Jeffersonian idealism. He believes that people on high earnings are naturally the most talented in society, endowed with the greatest gifts of knowledge, insight, benevolence, etc. By this logic our present crop of politicians, bankers, civil servants, etc must be the best in the world and woe betide us all if we ever lose them! Taxing them would simply drive them away - to our shame apparently, even as many of them are taking their golden parachutes and jumping (well you can't stay here forever)! Yeah right, Think again.

Incidentally I don't necessarily endorse People Before Profit's policy platform. But they've made a proposal which in the current circumstances strikes a chord with a lot of people and therefore is merits consideration. 

On the same basis I don't necessarily endorse either Sinn Féin's bailout ditching which Sheahan says is "spurious". He doesn't really explain why it's spurious except to say "if you reject the bailout and run down the rest of your reserves, you'll run out of money to pay nurses, teachers and gardaí."

Imagine a country without nurses, teachers and gardaí. We would just have to make sure that nobody gets sick; we all read lots of books to keep our minds sharp and also be on the look-out for anyone who might be contemplating committing a crime, so that we can stop it before it happens. But what if in addition to all that, we also lost the services of our politicians, judges and senior civil servants? Why that would be unfathomable. Why the country wouldn't be able to function. Just as well we have media barons and their compliant journalists to keep everything in check!

But aren't we running down our reserves anyway? Or to put the question more correctly, is not the EU running down its reserves to bailout not just Ireland, but Greece, Spain, Portugal and anyone else who gets into difficulties? There are reliable reports that the EU's stabilisation fund will have to be augmented. 

My own guess is that Ireland will ditch the bailout, not because of any astounding election success that Sinn Féin and similar parties might experience at the next election. The bailout was designed primarily to calm international markets - it hasn't done that. If my understanding is correct, Ireland hasn't actually drawn down the money yet. For all we know Brussels may already be telling us to ditch it, but to hold off on the announcement, to avoid panic and also to save the money for the bigger fish they have to fry. 

As Fionnan Sheahan himself say in relation to FG/Labours pledge to renegotiate the bailout:
Any changes will be made solely on an EU-wide basis, with the agreement of all countries. Having an old or new Irish government won't be the deal breaker.
 - Irish Independent 8/2/11
I'd like to sign off by recommending this video I came across on YouTube the other day. The ideas contained therein have informed much of my thinking on some of the matters discussed here; though I should add responsibility for any errors, of judgement or fact, rest solely with me.

Copyright © Oscar Ó Dúgáin, 2011

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