A hatred of specifics is choking our politics
As a nation we just don’t seem to like being too specific. When we are angry with people we tend to blame them for a range of things or in the most general sense. We say they ‘destroyed everything’. When we are sorry for something we like to keep it as broad as possible, we are ‘sorry if we did any stuff that wasn’t good’. When we set targets we set them to be open to interpretation and moveable timeframes. When we make promises we like to leave a little wriggle room so we can say we ‘never actually said that’. When we announce budgets we announce spending and cuts but leave out the details of how it will be done in the hope people wont notice things.
Being specific is a pretty important thing in life however. Fianna Fail is a case in point. For a start we need to know exactly what we are angry with them about. What exactly were the failings and what is just political hyperbole. To be fair many Irish people do have a sense of this at least. FF still hasn’t really grasped the nettle for its part. Several leading figures have used the word ‘sorry’ as if it’s a panacea. They are then surprised that people won’t let them move on. It doesn’t work like that.
I am a married man, and well used to having the tiffs and arguments that go with the territory. I think we all know if we argue with our partner it takes a bit more than walking in in a huff, saying ‘ok I’m sorry but I thought I was right’ to fix the situation. It fact such a line will probably make things worse. People need to see two things, contrition and learning. Neither is thus far in evidence.
Brian Cowen and indeed other FF figures need to let people see what being sorry means to them. Walking away with a good pension and saying it was all just unfortunate and sorry about that is not good enough. Specifics are necessary. The FF communications are as deplorable today as they were at the height of the crisis. They still run from a past that is their only route to salvation. Facing that demon, admitting the specifics of what you regret. Telling people, what were the moments you wish you had over? Who are the people you feel angry with? Let down by? When you look back, what decisions did you take, that if you had it over, you would do something different? Who said what exactly? If you cannot do this then you cannot say you have learned and therefore still cannot be trusted.
Yesterday I was on the Marian Finucane Show and Mary Hanafin was also on the panel. I have always found Hanafin fairly direct and one of the politicians more open to assessing some failings. During the course of the discussion, I was suggesting that the politicians had a separate case to answer and give details on. Civil servants and banks etc should be asked about the advice they gave. Politicians must answer why they listened so strongly to that advice, why did they not ask questions as was the most basic part of their job? Hanafin, understandably, defended the position saying questions were asked. I pressed her for evidence of this; I asked if she or anyone could show us that this happened. There is no point in saying it if you can’t back it up with evidence to people. Finally, she suggested that state papers in 30 years might show up some of this. I have to say that’s just not good enough for a people who deserve answers now and FF certainly should not be thinking of waiting 30 years to deal with it.
SF sit nearby FF in the Dail and while they point to all the different policies, the specifics on implementation is not something they like discussing. The problems are waved away by saying surely it could all be no worse. The high taxes proposed of up to 7% increases will hit more than people with vast wealth. They will have knock on effects too but there are no specifics on how we deal with this.
They are not alone however. The government is equally terrified of being specific. As we approach a budget that will bring great hardship to many it will be done in broad parameters and language that allows wriggle room. We can say we won’t increase income taxes, but then we will apply a host of charges and new taxes that will hit those on lower incomes hardest. We will protect the basic welfare rates, but then reduce the services, the levels at which they are applicable or the time they apply for. This failure to be specific and to claim a positive out of a negative is simply making people distrust politics.
The Seanad referendum is not immune either. The No side want reform but are unsure how they will force that reform after the referendum. They have failed to get present day senators and TDs to commit to specific actions in order to see that reform happen. Don’t be fooled though, the yes side is as bad if not worse. They propose abolition and then say that Dail reform follows this with new powers to committees and other changes. They have not told us what these changes will be, for all we know we could end up with several committees and bodies appointed that are even less democratic. If a government was serious about reform it would be specific. It would have laid out the entire legislation for reform and the details of how the new system will work and then (and only then) it would ask us to abolish the Seanad as the first step. Instead, it’s the same old politics, ‘don’t be too specific, we can do what we like after.’
It is unlikely things will ever change to be honest. Being specific is seen as something that creates problems and ties you up. That is in some respects even understandable and a reasonable position. The problem is there are times when being specific can allow people to trust you again. When it allows people see what it is your doing and not feel that they are being lied to. It can be the only road out of a mess and the only way to put things back on a firm footing. If we have reached a stage where we always going to avoid being specific then we are, perhaps, on the road to nowhere.