Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Political Footballs of Our Time #1: Education

I’ve just caught a few minutes of the Vincent Browne show, which is a good deal more time than I ever want to give to a man who sounds like my great aunt after one sherry too many. This evening, Vincent and his merry men were considering the Green party’s latest bid to look like they have a backbone.

It’s funny, watching the Greens and Fianna Fail park their wagons around the campfire while the wild Fine Gaelers, Labour and the rest roar. Let’s be clear, at this point, every Irish person with any possessions at all is guarding them more closely than Gollum and his precious. Looking at our elected leaders, one is tempted to employ the line ‘from my cold, dead fingers’ when it comes to power. Or, more likely: ‘Once I’ve got my green card sorted’.

So, for anyone reading this outside of Ireland, the Green party has won some important concessions from Fianna Fail, their coalition partner, which will allow them to remain in government with a clear conscience. In the language of headlines, this means two things: a carbon tax and no reintroduction of college fees. If anything ever illustrated the extent to which political apathy and class is endemic in Ireland, it was this. In Ireland, Fine Gael & Fianna Fail are basically the same party with different accents. Labour is the guy, who when confronted with the sight of a burning house, demands to check each fireman’s bona fides before they touch a hose. Sinn Fein tell everyone what they want to hear, safe in the knowledge that they never have to actually act on their promises (yet…). Libertas, bless them, are what would emerge if PG Wodehouse was writing about Roderick Spode and his Black Shorts right now.

The Greens were the party you settled for, since you couldn’t vote Lib Dem. They never really stood for anything, other than being green, which is fine, if you’re on a county council, but quite another thing when you’re running a country. Nevertheless, plenty of people thought they might be worth a punt, or at least weren’t Sinn Fein, so off they went. With nary a backward glance at the lessons of history (au revoir, Progressive Democrats), they courageously took two ministerial posts in Brian Cowen’s government. Then, rather unfairly, time chose not to stand still.


In the local elections, predictably, Fine Gael and Labour cleaned up. Just as predictably, Fianna Fail and the Greens were routed. Fianna Fail is very big, and can absorb this sort of thing. The Greens are not, and looked pretty rattled for a while. Of course, as both parties reminded us – this was not a referendum on the government. Heavens, no.

Either way, it was pretty clear that come a general election, Fianna Fail was going to take a heavy hit, perhaps enough to cause one of its rare breaks from power, while the Greens would be the latest recipient of the coalition partner booby prize.

At the same time, we were all trying to figure out what to do about this fine recession we’re having, And by we, I mean Brian Lenihan, and by figure out, I mean he asked the bankers what they would like for Christmas:

“I’ll have a get out of jail free card, please Minister! And if you could see your way to throwing in an ‘oul bonus – the eldest is getting married in the Ritz Carlton and those school fees won’t pay themselves, sure you know how it is.”

Good old Brian decided to put us (and the next seventeen generations) in debt for the rest of our natural lives, based on what intellectual lightweights like Joseph Stiglitz called a “massive transfer of money from the public to bankers”. He used some other words, like “squandering”, “nonsense” and “criminal”, but he can’t have meant them pejoratively, I’m sure.

Meanwhile, over in Iceland (I do have a point, eventually), things are pretty grim. Huge budget deficits, bank insolvency, a mutinous populace, and lots of other bad things combine to make the island look very desperate indeed. But, if you compare them to us, the differences are not so great. Indeed, there are many who believe that Iceland’s early bath will prove to be helpful in the long run.

In Ireland, we chose to hide under the blanket. As we did so, things continued to get worse, and they real bottom, when we finally hit it, will be much lower. The Greens obviously asked good old Brian for advice, because delaying the inevitable, as they have just done will only make their pain all the worse. Barring divine providence, which to be fair, usually did right by Bertie, the Greens will be decimated. It’ll be an election that even Enda could win.

- I’d meant to write something funny and non-political, but it’s hard to avoid fish so obviously in a barrel.

- As a by-the-by: the reintroduction of fees is not a bad idea. What is much, much worse is the lack of finance and attention at primary and second-level education. Pay for kids to go to college, if they can’t afford it. Not to boost enrolments at private secondary schools. Expand and fund the public school sector; teach children well from an early age; invest in special needs education. Then you’ll have a ‘smart economy’, not a collection of smart arses with visa-stamped passports.

- Gosh. I seem to have a bit of an opinion on this. Terribly sorry. I don’t know what came over me. I think it’s a touch of sobriety. Won’t happen again.

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Welcome to my blog. I'm a freelance writer/journalist/researcher/editor. I write about education and ideas I've had for the Irish Times. I also research, write and edit for writers, publications and websites. Here I put things that tend not to fit anywhere else. Enjoy.

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