MANDY JOHN­STON: Think-ins are the has-beens of Ir­ish pol­i­tics

Irish Independent - - NEWS - Mandy John­ston

THE time has come to do away with the con­cept of po­lit­i­cal party ‘think-ins’. They have be­come some­what of a con­tra­dic­tion in terms. At the very least, they should be re­clas­si­fied as ‘lis­ten-ins’ to more ac­cu­rately re­flect the type of pro­mo­tional jam­borees they have now be­come.

Pro­ceed­ings have in­ex­pli­ca­bly mor­phed into mini-Ard Fheisenna, the less so­phis­ti­cated coun­try cousin of the main po­lit­i­cal set piece, where larger par­ties set out their stall ahead of the Dáil’s re­turn.

So far, this year’s se­ries of events leaves one form­ing the dis­tinct im­pres­sion that all of the real pon­der­ing, plot­ting and plan­ning has ef­fec­tively been con­cluded long be­fore any­one even arrives at the red car­pet of a ru­ral ho­tel.

The days of gar­gle-gate-type beanos and tales of late-night drink­ing are long gone. You’re far more likely to hear that some­one has choked to death on their spinach and av­o­cado smoothie.

Now, all that re­mains to be done at the party think-in is for the foot sol­diers to lis­ten and learn what their party gen­er­als have planned for the next Dáil term.

In the past, the op­por­tu­nity for po­lit­i­cal par­ties to as­sem­ble en masse out­side Dublin has proven ex­tremely use­ful in a num­ber of ways. It pro­vided a ve­hi­cle for pub­lic rep­re­sen­ta­tives to lis­ten to the thoughts of ex­ter­nal, lat­eral thinkers and it al­lowed for in­ter­nal de­bate on im­por­tant is­sues. Sadly, so far, the think-in class of 2017 have dis­played an ap­palling scarcity of imag­i­na­tion at a time when we face mul­ti­fac­eted dan­gers on our im­me­di­ate po­lit­i­cal hori­zon.

Acute macro and geopo­lit­i­cal con­sid­er­a­tions on Brexit, the EU, and Trump’s United States, which de­serve a higher level of scru­tiny from our po­lit­i­cal es­tab­lish­ment, were hardly touched.

As the fi­nal flour­ish of sum­mer faded, Jean-Claude Juncker then waded in with a bullish an­nual ‘State of the Na­tion’ ad­dress to MEPs in Stras­bourg and told us that there was wind in Europe’s sails again. Those dis­tant ther­mals threaten to blow Ire­land off kil­ter. Dur­ing his speech, Mr Juncker waxed lyri­cal about a resur­gent Europe, alive to the pos­si­bil­ity of more tax har­mon­i­sa­tion in a post-Brexit EU.

Euro­pean power­bro­kers’ longer-term de­sire for a broader po­lit­i­cal com­mit­ment on tax har­mon­i­sa­tion il­lus­trates just how per­ilously en­tan­gled Ire­land could be­come in a much greater po­lit­i­cal game of Europe ver­sus the UK and the US. Not­with­stand­ing this per­fect op­por­tu­nity to have a more open de­bate about Ire­land’s fu­ture in Europe at party think-ins, the com­mon theme was, “noth­ing to see here folks, move on”.

In­stead, do­mes­tic mi­cro-is­sues took cen­tre stage, sti­fling any no­tion of ab­stract thought on deeper con­cerns.

The ur­gent re­quire­ment to ad­dress press­ing con­cerns like home­less­ness and the health cri­sis can­not be overem­pha­sised. How­ever, some might con­tend that var­i­ous an­nounce­ments made by Fine Gael, in par­tic­u­lar, would have been more suit­able for Gov­ern­ment build­ings than a party-po­lit­i­cal event in Clon­mel, Co Tip­per­ary.

For ex­am­ple, take its com­mit­ment to pur­sue a strat­egy to re­struc­ture Nama to as­sist with the hous­ing cri­sis. While a wel­come de­vel­op­ment, it seemed par­tic­u­larly op­por­tunis­tic. At times, Leo Varad­kar’s new pub­lic re­la­tions unit sails dan­ger­ously close to ap­pear­ing (and be­hav­ing) like a sin­gle-party Gov­ern­ment mouth­piece.

Spin doc­tors seem to have for­got­ten that in­de­pen­dent min­is­ters, who form an im­por­tant part of the makeup of this Gov­ern­ment, are only ever one press re­lease away from a hissy fit. There may come a time when go­ing it alone for the sake of head­lines has con­se­quences. De­mar­ca­tion lines be­tween Gov­ern­ment pro­mo­tions and po­lit­i­cal party pro­pa­ganda are sub­tle and tricky. It’s a del­i­cate bal­anc­ing act that ap­pears slightly lost on Mr Varad­kar’s strate­gic me­dia unit in the first flush of its en­thu­si­asm.

Oh, and just when you thought the ‘Repub­lic of Op­por­tu­nity’ was the most nau­se­at­ing jin­go­is­tic phrase Fine Gael could come up with, its think-in pro­vided yet an­other one. Ed­u­ca­tion Min­is­ter Richard Bru­ton was charged with as­sem­bling a ‘liv­ing man­i­festo’, an or­ganic strat­egy doc­u­ment which will test ideas be­fore they are in­tro­duced and evolve with pol­icy changes. Ge­nius. Es­sen­tially, Fine Gael has come up with a 21st cen­tury term for mov­ing the po­lit­i­cal goal posts from now un­til 2025.

Other par­ties fared no bet­ter at their meet­ings, ei­ther in terms of break­ing away from their in­ter­nal chal­lenges or mi­cro mat­ters. Sinn Féin’s think-in on the out­skirts of Dublin served only as an op­por­tu­nity to quell de­bate about whether Gerry Adams would re­main as leader for yet an­other year. The poor old Labour Party mes­sage got com­pletely swept aside by ex-Garda com­mis­sioner Nóirín O’Sul­li­van’s long-awaited pre­ma­ture re­tire­ment.

Next week, Fianna Fáil takes its road­show to Long­ford. It re­mains to be seen if Micheál Martin can save the sum­mer so­journs by in­ject­ing some broader na­tional think­ing on in­ter­na­tional is­sues, or at the very least by in­tro­duc­ing some new dy­namic into his own party’s think-in.

The paucity of orig­i­nal and imag­i­na­tive de­bates at these set pieces only leads bored jour­nal­ists into a search for some real news. If par­ties do not cre­ate news, then jour­nal­ists will make some. Laps­ing into some cata­tonic trance, story-starved hacks are in­vari­ably forced to ask about post-elec­tion part­ner­ships. Fine Gael, Labour and Sinn Féin all suc­cumbed to breath­less dec­la­ra­tions about who they would and would not be pre­pared to en­ter gov­ern­ment with af­ter the next elec­tion.

Demon­strat­ing they have learned ab­so­lutely zero from the lu­di­crous lev­els of de­lib­er­a­tions which en­gulfed the last Elec­tion, it is worth re­mem­ber­ing it was this ab­so­lute ob­ses­sion with post-elec­tion com­pu­ta­tions which starved the last elec­tion cy­cle of any real pol­icy anal­y­sis. The only thing that elec­tion suc­ceeded in cre­at­ing was a com­pletely paral­ysed Dáil, so uniquely con­fus­ing no one could even de­fine it. Even­tu­ally, with noth­ing else to cling to, we called the po­lit­i­cal Franken­stein “new pol­i­tics”. Back then, we naively thought it was the dawn of a new era in Ir­ish pol­i­tics. In­stead, we have a dif­fer­ent type of power, which is re­ally just old pol­i­tics but a bit worse. News flash folks – po­lit­i­cal par­ties do not cre­ate the next gov­ern­ment, that job falls to Ir­ish vot­ers.

What have we learned from think-ins this year? Not a great deal so far. With no big new ideas or lat­eral think­ing, this year’s pre-Dáil sea­son has re­sem­bled a mas­sive echo cham­ber of what the po­lit­i­cal elite think the pub­lic want to hear.

Like em­bat­tled broad­caster Ge­orge Hook, po­lit­i­cal party think-ins were of their day. They were of a time when it was all about be­ing in­side. Now they just smack of smug­ness and in­su­lar­ity.

If Don­ald Trump and Jeremy Cor­byn have taught us any­thing, it is that the way in which politi­cians per­suade the elec­torate has changed fun­da­men­tally. The real power now lies out­side the red ropes and closed doors, not be­hind them.

The com­mon theme was, ‘noth­ing to see here folks, move on’

Taoiseach Leo Varad­kar at the Fine Gael think-in, which took place at the Minella Ho­tel, Clon­mel, Co Tip­per­ary. Photo: Mark Con­dren

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Ireland

© PressReader. All rights reserved.