The lady standing at the podium was the second most senior civil servant in the Department of the Taoiseach, Elizabeth Canavan. She was there to deliver an important update on the Government’s advice to the public on the first day of the easing of the restrictions which had kept most of the country housebound for nearly two months.
The Government were palpably concerned, that, like cattle let out onto the first spring grass after months in winter confinement, the public would go buck wild with a bit of freedom, jumping all over each other and provoking a second wave more devastating than the first. And so after the politicians took their moment in the sun to deliver the good news of our freedom, Ms. Canavan, as a civil servant, had been sent out to be the teacher who monitors the kids in the playground and makes sure that all fun is strictly rationed.
She had a list of things we weren’t to do.
“As we ease restrictions from today”, she said, “it’s really important that we are disciplined in keeping to the measures specified. Our ability to move through the phases will depend on sticking with it. Indeed, as I said last week, many of these habits will have to become the norm for us for some time”
She went on to be very specific about the measures that we were to take, and the things that we were not supposed to do:
“It is permitted to exercise in the outdoors within 5km of your home. It is critical in this that you continue to observe social distancing while exercising.”
Outdoor spaces and tourism sites, including car parks beaches and trails will be opened, where people can move around freely and where social distancing can be maintained. If you’re visiting a public amenity, try not to stay too long at the site or have picnics. Please do your exercise and then go home.”
That was, remember, on May 18th, eight days ago today. It wasn’t just guidance for the public, either. It was also guidance for the Gardai. The advice would have been copied to Garda HQ, and circulated to the rank and file. If you spot some people laying around in public having picnics, go up to them and tell them to go home. Indeed, two days later, Gardai were photographed entering a beach in Dublin to break up gangs of young people who were loitering around enjoying themselves.
Four days after that, the Taoiseach, Ms. Canavan’s boss, went into the Phoenix Park with a few buddies and had a picnic in the summer sun. As he munched on his strawberries, he was guarded, as is normal, by several Gardai, none of whom thought to remind him of his own Government’s advice.
Yesterday, an email from Gript to the Department of the Taoiseach about whether it is still the advice of Government that picnics are out went unanswered. It’s not as if they were especially busy, for of the entire media class in Ireland, only a few journalists, a number small enough to list individually – Richard Chambers of Virgin Media, Philip Ryan and Cormac McQuinn of the Independent, and William Dunne of the Mirror – had thought to ask or write about it.
The Six One News made three references to Dominic Cummings and the similar scandal in the UK. The Irish Times today has three pieces on Cummings. Neither of them have thought the Taoiseach’s flaunting of his own advice worth mentioning.
In the Examiner, Mick Clifford mounted a full-throated defence of the Taoiseach that made clear that poor Leo was just having a day out, and sure wasn’t all the concern about it from this writer and others probably just homophobia at the sight of our bare-chested hunk of a leader anyway?
In his 800 words, he was unable to find space to mention the issue of whether the Taoiseach had breached the advice around picnics and decided to focus instead on the advice that arguably wasn’t breached. The same edition of his paper published a thousand word piece entitled “Dominic Cummings – the lingering questions”.
There are, of course, two sets of rules in Ireland. There is one rule for the outsider, the person who challenges the establishment, the Peter Casey, or the Mary Lou McDonald. They’re the ones who go on the late late show to face Ryan Tubridy the Jack Russell. And then there’s the other rule, for the insider, the member of the clique. They’re the ones who go on the late late show to face Ryan Tubridy the jolly nice chap.
In the UK, a senior Government advisor stands accused of a relatively trivial breach of regulations. The case against Dominic Cummings now amounts to the fact that he visited a castle for fifteen minutes to – he says – check whether his eyesight was up to a longer drive. Since the castle concerned is outside the permitted radius for travel, the allegation is that here is a man flouting the advice of his own Government when everybody else is expected to obey it.
In this cause, Irish papers – let alone UK ones – have devoted acres of coverage to get to the bottom of the issue.
But in Ireland, where the Taoiseach very clearly also engaged in a minor breach of his own Government’s regulations, the prevailing noise is the sound of crickets chirping.
Yesterday, this website used the word “frolicking” to describe the Taoiseach’s behaviour in a social media post, and that’s all it took: “You’re homophobes”, was the cry, from all and sundry who wished to defend Varadkar and rally the tribe around him. Any word, you see, can be deemed homophobic if the needs of the moment require a case of homophobia to be found.
It doesn’t really matter, in one sense, if the Taoiseach breached the regulations by having a picnic. It’s not the biggest deal in the world, after all. It’s not march on the capital stuff.
But it is, nonetheless, revealing. In Ireland, if you’re in the clique, you’re protected, and consciously protected, by other members of the clique. The narrative of Leo the Lion was never going to be sullied in the pages of the Irish Times by even the most minor blight on his record in fighting the virus. But the narrative of Boris the Chancer, the great British Villain, and his evil sidekick Dom, must be prosecuted at all costs.
The media in Ireland pretends to be on your side, and pretends, by and large, to be ferociously committed to the public interest. Some of them are. Many of them are fine journalists. But when it comes to stuff like this, too few of them can be trusted to be even handed, and far too many of them are openly crooked.
Varadkar breached his own Government’s advice. You may not think it matters, but in any other country, it would be front page news. In Ireland, it’s only front page news if a hated outsider does it.