1 October 2010 No Comments by The Northern Standard

We live in regicidal times.

During the late 1970s and early 1980s a feature of this newspaper was a popular and often provocative weekly opinion piece penned by Fr Des Wilson, who was then prominent in community activism in the North.  One of Fr Wilson’s most commented-upon articles advanced the contention that there was a still pronounced tendency in society towards regicide – the killing of the king, or the king figure – particularly during periods of strife or instability.  To very compelling effect, Fr Wilson applied to the landscape of Irish politics at the time arguments that suggested that instincts were at work which were as old as classical culture, and which had informed the tragedies of Shakespeare.

While there was little Shakespearean about the effluvial media outpourings sparked by the somewhat maladroit performance of Taoiseach Brian Cowen in his recent Morning Ireland interview, they supplied convincing evidence that the desire to kill the king is alive and well in contemporary Irish life.

Mr Cowen is not a popular figure in the country at the moment, but it is doubtful if he commands the level of hypocritical animosity among the public at large that was discernible beneath the thin veil of hysteria his lapse in sound judgement generated in sections of the media and among some political commentators.

Mr Cowen did err.  It was a mistake for a person in his position to enter into the adversarial arena of a live news interview at a moment when his mental acuity and ability to articulate were, for whatever reason, diminished.  If the Taoiseach of the day were prone to such lapses consistently – if he had made them frequently in the past and continued merrily to make them into the future – then a matter of serious national concern does arise.

But for this isolated incident, of itself more confusing than damaging in its content, to have generated such an over-the-top response suggested strongly that the would-be assassins of Mr Cowen – the killers of the king – had finally run out of patience.  Any opportunity to wield the dagger would now do.

If the incident has generated damage for the national image, as many continue to argue, then that damage has surely been perpetrated by the intemperate reaction to it rather than the supposed intemperance of the Taoiseach himself.  Ireland would have come out of the episode a lot more respected in the eyes of the watching world if all the hysteria had been reined in and the inherent merit of occasionally cutting a decent man a break had instead come to the fore.

Mr Cowen, for his part, seems to have weathered the earthquake through his own stubborn brand of imperturbability.  But the aftershocks might do for him yet.

He is not the ‘media-friendly’ sort of politician, and has perhaps paid less attention that he should to media relations since making the transition from the ministerial benches to the Taoiseach’s office.  Politicians who adopt an antagonistic attitude towards the media, or profess indifference to it, make the mistake of failing to recognise the media for what it is – a conduit through which communication with the public is facilitated, a means of informing and reassuring the people that becomes increasingly important in times such as the present when instability and discontent are rife.

They see it instead as an entity of importance in itself, self-sustaining and fickle, powerful and unpredictable, that is there to be palliated or provoked as the need arises.  This is, of course, an error the media itself makes from time to time.  And when media self-aggrandisement is carried to extremes, its practitioners can mistake themselves for the arbiters of the public good rather than the servants of it, and presume to ‘make’ or ‘break’ politicians and other public figures as it sees fit.

Both these dispositions tend to leave one important factor out of the equation – the people.  Both politicians and the media can behave at times as if the public were unable to form an opinion for themselves, or were entirely dependent on either or both of them for guidance and direction on issues of concern.  It is closer to the reality of things to state that the modern politician-watching and media-consuming public have quite developed tastes, and are quick to distinguish authenticity from artifice.  They also have a resistance to being force-fed.

Mr Cowen’s unease with the media, and the media’s lack of love for Mr Cowen, were both pungent elements in the recent imbroglio, and continue to make the landscape of Irish politics fertile for regicide.  As a consequence, their volatile mixture might produce outcomes for the country at large for which its people will not be thankful.

A rather fevered political atmosphere now pertains in which the ranks of the Opposition appear avid for a General Election, and are doing their best to precipitate one as the Oireachtas resumes deliberations this week after the summer recess.  Part of the motivation for this is undoubtedly the perception that Mr Cowen, and his party, have been left wounded by recent events, and that a quick election would see the voters complete the regicidal work that has been started elsewhere.

But do we really need a General Election at the present time?  Can we afford one?  Would the public not use the opportunity to vent its spleen not just at the Government parties but also at politicians in general for having such a depressing imposition foisted upon them?  And would the outcome produce any more secure an administration than the present one, or one that would pursue economic and social policies radically different than those being implemented at the present time? These are questions that the General Election agitators would do well to ponder.

The current Government has not distinguished itself by its response to the economic crisis the country is facing, and has failed to convincingly convey to the people the rationale behind the cuts it says it has no choice other than to introduce.

There is a widespread perception that it is the portion of the population on average or low income who are being compelled the carry the burden of the excesses and incompetence of an elite.

Mr Cowen’s latest employment creation initiative, announced this week, has the appearance of old mutton dressed up to look like new lamb.  While his Government’s emissaries continue to chase around the world upon the optimistic task of attracting major inward investment, no serious approach has so far been adopted to either encouraging or compelling lending institutions to release capital to those with small-scale job creation ideas that might make the crucial difference to reigniting local economies and fighting against the growing tide of urban and rural commercial destitution.

All these are damning assessments on the performance of the incumbent government, and the public in due course will be eager enough to make their own adjudication known.  But it would seem prudent to hold off talk of a General Election at least until the contents of the December Budget are disclosed.  That document, more readily and more honestly than any immediate backbencher rebellion or Opposition sleight-of-hand in the voting lobbies, might precipitate the end of the current administration in any event.  But if it does, at least the voting public will have had a clear indication of the landscape of the rocky economic road that Fianna Fáil and its partners expect us to travel into the immediate future.  And they will also have been shown by the prospective members of a different administration the map of their alternative escape routes out of the economic mess in which we are enmired.

A General Election before the end of this year would not serve this country well.  It would not contribute to the stability of the Irish economy or convince European and world markets away from their growing belief that some form of crisis intervention will soon be necessary to prevent its effective collapse.

And, while an election might kill the king and place the crown on the head of an eager successor, the realm they would inherit would not be an easily governable one.  A balanced consideration of the country’s harsh political and economic realities might stem the instinct towards regicide that seems to currently prevail.  For those who are after Mr Cowen’s head, and those who are after his job, ‘Careful what you wish for…’ would seem the most pertinent advice at the present time.

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