Note: Sunday’s column. Regulars will see some recent themes on the blog have been drawn into it.
You might have seen an “intervention” in some bad American drama. A key character has an addiction or been brainwashed by a cult. The family and friends gather together and persuade them to seek professional help. If it works, the victim breaks down and checks in for therapy. Is it intervention time for John Gormley? That business on the plinth during Bertie’s resignation speech was extremely odd. There was the soon-to-be-ex-Taoiseach surrounded by his loyal lieutenants and would be leaders of Fianna Fail: Brian Cowen, Brian Lenihan, Martin Cullen and John Gormley. Gormley? The leader of another party? A party that used to talk about high standards and ask tough questions about unorthodox payments? Why was he in prime position gravely nodding as Bertie reminded us of what a great Taoiseach he’s been?
He told us himself during the negotiations last year that he had started to like his Fianna Fail counterparts. Like appears to have become blind love. It’s a clear case of Stockholm Syndrome. He is a hostage, albeit a voluntary one, and is so enamoured with his captors he has vowed never more to speak of personal donations, sterling lodgements or political corruption. Such nasty terms belong to his past; a past of opposition, a past of protest and as he might argue now, a past in which he didn’t achieve a whole lot.
The Green Party Leader realised that the politics of opposition is the politics of failure and the only way to effect change is from within. Since Fianna Fail has achieved near permanency in government, he gritted his teeth and did the deal. Of course, it would have been nice if he’d shared that view with the electorate prior to the casting of votes last year. But he is no longer simply ploughing an independent furrow for the Greens in government. His behaviour last week demonstrated that his move to the Dark Side is complete. He is gone for good and the only question now is if it will come to any good. He wants to Save the Planet and he can’t do that from the other side of the House. Is it possible that he did the right thing?
Last weekend just 4,000 people showed up to march down Dublin’s O’Connell Street in protest at the state of our health services. Original expectations had been that 70,000 angry citizens would join the protest. Since our two tier health system leaves a lot of people without care and worse, without basic trust in their doctors, that estimate should have been realistic. So where were the angry victims of the shambolic bureaucracy that is the HSE? Why didn’t they show up?
There are two possibilities. One is that despite all the bad press, most people are quite happy with our health service. Alternatively people care, but knew that there was no point whatsover showing up to a protest march. It would achieve nothing.
Taking to the streets is so romantic, and there were times when it worked. The great Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam protests in Washington DC did influence policy. Sheer numbers can topple regimes as we saw throughout Eastern Europe in the late 1980’s. As recently as 2004 it took daily street protests to ensure that the rightful winner of the Ukranian presidential election Victor Yushchenko was installed in office. But in Western democracies in recent history, when has a march changed anything?
On February 15 2003, millions of people throughout Europe took to the streets to register their opposition to the invasion of Iraq. In Dublin 100,000 walked from O’Connell Street to St. Stephen’s Green. It was genuinely unprecedented. The Irish marchers demanded that the government ban American soldiers from landing at Shannon. Bertie cheerfully announced that he agreed with the protestors and then opened up Shannon to the US army anyway. So much for people power. If a good old march can’t stop a war, its hardly going to make the HSE fire middle managers and hire physiotherapists instead.
So what’s left to the weary citizen who wishes to express his views? You can throw yourself in front of a bulldozer but the NRA will build their road anyway. You can hand out leaflets in a shopping centre, but that’s private property and you’ll get moved on. Ring Liveline? Write a letter? It’s increasingly pointless. The Greens would know all about this since they originated in the politics of protest. So they climbed down from their trees and signed up for real power. As for the ordinary citizen? His last hope is his vote but even that means little now. No matter who you vote for, the government gets in.
While Fianna Fail have been rightly condemned for corrupting politics, I have always believed that Labour’s decision to enter coalition with them in 1992 poisoned the democratic process in a more insidious way. When people vote for Fianna Fail they know exactly what they are going to get.
But when the Spring Tide gave Labour an extraordinary opportunity for change in 1992, they turned around and put Fianna Fail back in. So began the trend for smaller parties to sell themselves to the highest bidders and Fianna Fail has deeper pockets every time.
For the TD in opposition, I don’t know how they get out of bed in the morning. They have none of the back up of their government opponents yet are expected to be as well briefed and write as many letters to constituents. They have no hope of influencing policy. In effect, they end up as social workers, trying their best to help individual vulnerable citizens battle bureaucracy to avail of their rights. I suppose selling out to the enemy starts to look attractive. Even within the government party TDs often find themselves voting against their conscience because they cling to the belief that their position inside the tent is infinitely better than outside.
So when Gormley is on his political death bed, how will he judge himself? The M3 will be built, the Ward Union will hunt their stags but perhaps we’ll be using long life light bulbs. Maybe Eamon Ryan will have a few wind farms under his belt and Trevor Sargeant some regulations about organic food. Is that it? Is that enough to openly and explicitly throw in the towel and tell us that we can expect many things from our politicians except that they declare their income and pay their taxes? I don’t think so. That tent stinks so I’ll stay outside thanks very much. Everyone inside: cover up.