In this week’s opinion piece I look at what I term the appalling vista: the prospect of a decade of Irish politics dominated by Fine gael versus Sinn Féin. We had a worrying glimpse of what it may look and sound like when Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, T.D., and Sinn Féin finance spokesperson Pearse Doherty, T.D. clashed during Leaders’ Questions, last week. It was unedifying for all except the most passionate shinner and blueshirt partisans.
An appalling vista. The phrase most infamously comes from Lord Tom Denning’s odious dismissal of the Birmingham Six’s 1980 appeal against their wrongful conviction.
Denning was so firm a fixture of the British establishment that he refused to entertain the possibility that the West Midlands police had lied and framed six innocent Irishmen, declaring that:
…it would mean that the police were guilty of perjury; that they were guilty of violence and threats; that the confessions were involuntary and improperly admitted in evidence; and that the convictions were erroneous… That was such an appalling vista that every sensible person would say, “It cannot be right that these actions [the appeal] should go any further.
And so, Lord Justice Denning compounded the injustice being suffered by the Birmingham Six and dismissed their appeal.
A decade later, after it transpired that everything that Denning believed would make for an appalling vista was, in fact, true… and was just the tip of an iceberg of corruption, Denning admitted he had been wrong. He apologised and condemned the West Midlands Police.
But his abject refusal to conceive of such an inexcusable situation had still cost John Walker, Paddy Hill, Gerry Hunter, Richard McIlkenny, Hugh Callaghan, and Billy Power an extra decade of their lives.
The phrase still lives in infamy, but that should deter us from using it to describe situation and prospects that are truly worrying or perturbing.
One such situation – an appalling vista – was both played out and laid out for us in stark detail and contrast last Thursday in Dáil Éireann when Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, T.D., and Sinn Féin finance spokesperson Pearse Doherty, T.D. clashed during Leaders’ Questions.
Though the exchange was entertaining and provided plenty of great clips for news outlets and for the Sinn Féin and Fine Gael social media teams… edifying or enlightening it was not.
It was a blunt reminder – if not a warning – of the appalling vista of a national politics dominated by Sinn Féin and Fine Gael, with the two “best of enemies” relishing the daily trading of insults while seeing the antics of either party emboldening the support of the other.
It’s a recipe for political stasis just at the moment when our politics is in dire need of new ideas and bigger direction.
Because as disheartening as it was to watch last Thursday’s row, reading it as a text is even worse. While there was an endless recitation of the various crises facing the country, in housing, in health and in childcare, there was not even a hint from either side how they may be addressed and ended.
Instead you had an exchange of very personal attack and counter attack that may have had both sides partisans cheering, but still left the rest of us feeling cold and cheerless. The suggestion that many of the attack lines, particularly those from the Tánaiste, had a scripted and prepared feel, does add to the sense that both parties were equally itching for this scrap.
That said, those Fine Gael-ers who feel that Sinn Féin gave as good as they got should stop and wonder if the shinners really did let fire with everything they have? More than one Oireachtas member has suggested to me that the absence of any reference by Sinn Féin to the recent travails of a Fine Gael Senator from Louth was intriguing.
This may just be a taster of what is to come, but it looks as if Sinn Féin has decided strategically to keep its leader out of this and have someone else do the attacking. Fine Gael should re-think whether having its leader also acting as the party’s attack dog is a good idea, though it may be that its current leader is unwilling to allow anyone else to take on the role?
Back to last Thursday tour of the political depths. You have to wait until the Social Democrats co-leader Catherine Murphy gets to speak before you hear someone… anyone… offer anything constructive, or at least several layers above the pits.
Indeed, during the Tánaiste’s reply to Deputy Murphy we heard him utter a new phrase, one which I imagine will not remain long in usage once Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil begin to part ways.
Responding to her comments on the origins of the housing crisis, the Tánaiste said that these:
“…lie in events that happened a very long time ago, when we had a property bubble that was followed by a banking collapse and a construction collapse.”
It only seems like yesterday that Varadkar was use far blunter terms and putting the blame squarely on just one party, accusing Fianna Fáil of “bankrupting the country” and being ready to do it again, if let back into office.
Back in 2018, he levelled this charge at the very man who, last Thursday, was sitting beside him. But events change everything, but things that can change this way today, can change another way tomorrow. So, folks in Fianna Fáil should not expect Varadkar to hold his tongue about them for too long.
As Pat Leahy astutely observed in the final line of his analysis piece on the Varadkar/Doherty exchange in last Saturday’s Irish Times
“Varadkar may be targeting Sinn Féin for political assault – but it’s Fianna Fáil voters he’s after.”
Though it’s a point I have been making for a long time here, the line should be carved on to small granite blocks and a copy sent to every Fianna Fáil back bencher to remind them that Fianna Fáil TDs and Councillors are now flagstones in the path of least resistance across which Fine Gael plans to drive.
But this is about more than just Fianna Fáil.
What about the Greens, Labour, the Social Democrats, and others? Seeing the emergence of a SF versus FG extreme silos narrative is no more in their interests than it is in Fianna Fail’s.
For how much longer must we suffer the political farce of two mainstream left of centre parties, Labour, and the Social Democrats, divided by nothing more than some long forgotten and ignored personal animus or rivalry.
If either party is truly serious about making an impact on national politics then they have to take the plunge and merge to form one newer, bigger party. Trundling along as before only aids and abets both Sinn Féin and Fine Gael.
Labour was damaged by its 2011-2016 experiment with Fine Gael and is showing no big signs of getting beyond that. Meanwhile the Social Democrats have shown an endearingly naïve refusal to take the tough decisions to get them past 3-5% in the opinion polls (the failure to take the Dublin Bay South by-election seriously by finding a big-name candidate being a case in point).
While I worry about the appalling vista of the politics of the next decade or so being decided by “who do you hate most: Sinn Féin or Fine Gael” and having to vote accordingly, I am consoled by the fact that nothing is yet so set in stone that the situation cannot be changed.
Who knows, it is possible that something could go disastrously wrong within one, or other, of these two parties. Mr Varadkar’s comment at the very end of his exchange with Mr Doherty, which started out with a reference to the pending DPP decision, is most interesting:
Deputy Pearse Doherty. …The people will decide.
The Tánaiste: The courts will decide, as they decided on Deputy Doherty. He was prosecuted and taken to court.
Is the Tánaiste contemplating a situation where the case does go to court and believes he can both remain on as leader and putative Taoiseach in such a scenario?
Perhaps I am reading too much into a simple phrase that was uttered at the end of a heated exchange, but it does remind us that events can change everything in politics.
But so too can planning and decision making.
Those in parties other than Sinn Féin and Fine Gael have to think carefully about the appalling vista of a binary politics dominated by these two near extremes and decide what they can and must do to avoid that prospect.