The podium is ready. Journalists are breathlessly chronicling every delay, and every rumour, coming out of cabinet.
At some time after 1pm, the Taoiseach will graciously descend the staircase in Government buildings, and walk to the microphone, and the podium. Both major broadcasters will carry it live:
Cabinet is ongoing and delayed as discussions and differing views being aired.
Micheal Martin expected to give national address closer to 1pm now pic.twitter.com/Twgw7YyO9W
— Christina Finn (@christinafinn8) December 22, 2020
The absurdity of this is beyond measure.
In a room, in that building, fifteen people are presently discussing, sector by sector, who will be allowed to stay open, and who will be forced to close. People may be allowed to go to the Gym, but will they be permitted a haircut?
Hotels can stay open, but you can only go to a hotel in your own county. Pubs and restaurants will be close, but is there a case for an exception if the pub provides full haz-mat suits to patrons, and allows them to drink through a straw?
If you want to trace the moment at which Ireland’s covid response reached the point of absurdity, you probably have to look no further than when Micheál Martin decided to introduce the concept of “levels”.
The “levels” are, of course, completely meaningless. We have had level three plus, level four minus, level five with a jelly on top, and level two point seven five. Instead of a coherent, simple approach to enforcing and announcing restrictions, we now have a national game of musical chairs, where the last sector of the economy standing loses everything, while those with a voice at cabinet on a given day get a reprieve.
All of this will be grandiosely announced, in a speech with a pedestrian delivery. The Taoiseach will try, once again, to have his “ask not what your country can do for you” moment, and he will, once again, fail.
And that, to a large extent, is what these set pieces are about.
Sure, we’re to believe this is an essential communication between Government, and citizens. But it’s not, really.
What we’re witnessing, again and again, is politicians auditioning for their place in history. The phrase, or the remark, that makes it into “reeling in the years”. The video clip that’s played a century from now in classrooms discussing the great pandemic. Mr. Martin, or Mr. Varadkar before him, looking down a camera and quoting Seamus Heaney, or Britney Spears, or Roald Dahl.
But the truth is they can’t do it. You probably can’t remember a word of the last address to the nation, so now Mr. Martin gets to have another go. This one will probably include a line from a favourite Christmas hymn, or, if that’s too offensive to our secular tastes, talk about the days getting longer, and the sun rising earlier in the morning. We might even be told that we can look forward, with hope, to a bright new dawn ahead.
It is a most destructive, and brutal, form of vanity.
It’s also suffering from the law of diminishing returns. Addresses to the nation were once so rare as to be actually memorable. Even those who were not alive when he said it recall Mr. Haughey’s exhortation to the public to tighten their belts – though mainly because it subsequently transpired that he was rather frequently loosening his own.
What’s more, the address to the nation has become a way of evading accountability. A press conference, as the name suggests, invites questions from the press. Some of these (although, with the Irish press, this might be pushing it) could be hostile, or express opposition to the Government’s plans.
An address to the nation, by contrast, is an uninterrupted advert for the Government’s view of the world, and for the Taoiseach’s visionary leadership.
Do yourself a favour: Don’t listen to it. It only encourages the bastards.