Credit: Gript

In Irish Politics, the Eye of Montrose rules

Something very strange happened yesterday. It was not unlike those moments, in the great westerns, where the saloon in the lawless frontier town goes deadly quiet, the doors swing open, and there, silhouetted, stands a grizzled man in a Stetson with one hand on the revolver holstered at his hip.

Law and order, my friends, has come to town. And its name is Paul Kehoe. Or Batman, maybe, to his friends.

Where, one might wonder, has Paul Kehoe been, these past eleven years, while O’Connell street descended into such a state of disrepair that even RTÉ, inveterate wearers of the Green Jersey, were forced to exchange it for Green Body Armor to report on the state of the capital?

Gotham City needed its caped crusader, and now, at long last, we find him – sitting amongst the jokers.

There are many observations one could make about Irish politics. Perhaps the most salient is this: That nothing ever happens in Ireland, unless it happens on RT˙É. O’Connell Street has been, as everyone who’s familiar with it knows, a disgusting mess for years. Politicians did not so much mind this, because RTÉ didn’t notice, or report on it. But once the national broadcaster’s great flaming red eye turned its gaze towards the spire, the eyes of the entire political class suddenly followed, imbued with the certainty of purpose that only a Prime Time special, or Sauron, Lord of Mordor, can inspire in their followers.

It might be easier just to make Miriam O’Callaghan and Philip Boucher-Hayes co-rulers of the nation and cut out the middleman.

It’s hard to write about Irish politics, these days, while hiding the utter contempt which it tends to inspire, at least in this writer. In my opinion, and he is free to protest that I am wrong, Paul Kehoe doesn’t care about the state of O’Connell Street. He does not care a whit about criminals roaming the streets with 80 or 90 convictions. He does not particularly have strong views about what could, or should, be done. We can make that statement with certainty, I’d argue, because of what we know: We know that he has been an elected Government TD for more than a decade, and we can count on one hand – without putting up any fingers – how many pieces of legislation he has proposed to solve or address any of these problems.

Nevertheless, we are all now to believe that the tide has turned. No party is immune from the power of RTÉ’s one ring: The Social Democrats, a party that has never yet met a criminal it did not want to cuddle, now have their will bent towards law and order. The party laid down urgent questions on the matter yesterday. Only Ireland’s own Frodo Baggins – little Paul Murphy – stayed true to himself: “Druggies?” he exclaimed – what a way to talk about the downtrodden and unfortunate occupants of the country’s main thoroughfare.

Much smarter writers than I have written at length about permission structures, and how they work. In Ireland, though, the basic mechanism is straightforward: Once a thing is on RTÉ, it may be talked about without fear. If RTÉ has not legitimized a discussion, then the hapless politician may well be on dicey ground – nobody can be certain, after all, what is and is not racist, or bigoted, or backwards, until a ruling on the matter has been issued from Montrose. Last week, the average Irish politico would have been forgiven for thinking that the approved way to talk about crime and anti-social behaviour in Ireland was to focus exclusively on “disadvantage” and “social alienation” and “investment in struggling communities”. And then on Tuesday night, the rules changed, and it was suddenly worthwhile to start talking about druggies and layabouts again. There might even be votes in it. And, as Paul Kehoe says, to hell with the “PC Brigade”.

No self-respecting Irish politician would ever care what that lot think, eh?

Spare me.

If Paul Kehoe is ever challenged on his inaction on crime, this past decade – which, I suspect, he won’t be – he could honestly and genuinely answer that well, he didn’t think he was allowed to talk about it. Because, let’s face it, he wasn’t.

The net result of all of this is that every national politician in Ireland with ambition is, as a matter of course, fluent in RTÉ-speak. There are rules for how they talk about things: One does not say “gay people”, one says “LGBT community”. One does not say “crime” when one can say “anti social behaviour”. One does not talk about liberty, when one can talk about “public health advice”. And one does not, above all, talk about any issue that might be seen as beyond the pale, unless one wishes to become the next Peter Casey, or Kevin Myers, or George Hook, or Noel Grealish.

Stay safe, stay bland.

As I say, it’s exceedingly hard not to view them all with contempt. Because while this game is played, and the ambitious scramble for their slots on The Late Debate, and the texts from friends reassuring them that they “came across very well”, the things they won’t talk about are directly impacting people’s lives, and the state of our country. It is more important, you see, to stay on the right side of RTÉ producers, and not become someone the broadcaster might describe as “controversial”, than it is to represent the public.

But as soon as RTÉ gives them permission? Well, here comes Paul Kehoe, crimefighter extraordinaire. Willing to call people “druggies”. And he doesn’t care who that offends, he’ll have you know.

The worst thing is, some people will fall for it.

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