Well that didn’t take long. No sooner had the new restrictions to deal with Covid-19 been introduced but they had been broken, and not just by anyone.
They have been broken by the members of the Oireachtas Golf Society at their dinner in a Co Galway hotel, the first time anyone had heard of it. Apparently, it’s a collection of TDs, ex-TDs, Senators and ex-Senators, councillors, a former high-profile RTE journalist and the Chief Executive of the Banking and Payments Federation – where would a gathering of the political class be without a representative of the banking fraternity?
Four names stood out, first the Minister for Agriculture Dara Calleary. He who complained loudly, when he originally didn’t get the job, that “I had hoped to lead a department. That’s always been my ambition and I can tell you that it’s still my ambition and it will happen, it will absolutely happen.” And it absolutely did, for just over five weeks, which was better than his predecessor who lasted less than four. New Fianna Fail may be as scandal-prone as the old one but they’re not as good at getting away with it.
It had taken Calleary one day from approving the new guidelines at the cabinet to breaking the new guidelines, in fact even breaking the old ones, forcing him to resign quickly, along with the leas-chataoirleach of the Senate, Jerry Buttimer. This could hardly be avoided. What many people want now is for the other two high-profile names to do the same.
This includes EU Commissioner Phil Hogan, whose approach has been to deny that he did anything wrong, shift the blame onto the organisers of the dinner and the hotel, and avoid an apology, until it seemed absolutely required in order to avoid anything more serious.
The most embarrassing is possibly that of Séamus Woulfe, the former Attorney General who held that post when the rules were being introduced, and is now a Supreme Court judge. He reprised the same deflection as Hogan by attempting to shift the blame onto the organisers and hotel, but he also added “I ended up in a situation where breaches may have occurred.” It’s funny how things like that can just sort of happen to you. We can look forward to that plea of mitigation at the next trial to come before him.
There is no doubt that the rules were broken and a Garda investigation has begun. The recent change to the regulations limited such gatherings to six people, but since over 80 were present the gathering broke even the previous limit of fifty.
Media reaction has indicated widespread anger from a general public that has generally stuck by the rules quite rigorously. It exposed those making the rules to the charge that everyone is not all in this together and that there is one rule for the powerful and a different one for everyone else. The credibility of the new Government has been seriously undermined as have its demands for social distancing. Very much the same in other words as the actions of Dominic Cummings in Britain.
In fact, it is surprising how little this parallel has been drawn, as if the national self-satisfaction at having performed better than the British could not be allowed to give way to acceptance of being just as bad.
The opposition, including Sinn Fein, has condemned the Government for its hypocrisy and disorganisation, another parallel with the Brits, but given its own embarrassment over the breach of the rules at IRA leader Bobby Storey’s funeral they don’t make very convincing purveyors of unimpeachable conduct themselves.
Mary Lou McDonald has called for the recall of the Dáil as has People before Profit TD Bríd Smith. This in itself is not wrong, it provides a forum to expose the Government’s hypocrisy, but this is only useful in so far as it has a further purpose, and one beyond seeking a bit of party advantage for electoral purposes.
Without an alternative it is mainly posturing and without anything additional it miseducates workers that only within the Oireachtas can these issues be pursued and settled. It tells them that the voice of workers is within these walls and the Oireachtas must be left to deal with the Oireachtas Golf Society.
This unfortunately is where we are with the left in the Dáil. If it has a policy of its own it is that the lockdown must be more restrictive, address questions such as the working conditions in meat processing plants and direct service provision centres that hold asylum seekers, and that we need better testing. It’s a call to action – directed to the state. And that’s the problem.
The arguments about the lack of action in meat processing plants and direct service provision centres, and the need for better testing, are all fair enough but the action they say workers themselves should take are follow-ups to the demands on the state and are so generalised as to be ritualistic incantations. They are a dead letter. We know this because there is no workers’ action. The most prominent has been that of the Debenhams’ workers, which is itself at least partially a result of the lockdown the left wants more strictly enforced.
The original justification for electoral participation, that it would support and promote workers action, has disappeared only in the sense that it never appeared in the first place. The cart has long been in front of the horse which explains, at least to some extent, why the working class movement hasn’t moved forward.
The proposals of the left include mandatory sick pay for all workers, full reinstatement of the €350 a week Pandemic Unemployment Payment, more teachers hired on permanent contracts and private hospitals to be taken under public control. There is no inkling that you cannot pay workers to do nothing for very long and no warning that all this spending will have to be paid for.
This requirement isn’t a feature of neoliberalism but a fact that socialists acknowledge by putting forward an alternative. The idea that public ownership, i.e. state ownership, of hospitals is the answer ignores the disastrous performance of the NHS in the UK and its failure to protect the old, who aren’t mentioned in some left analysis, and its responsibility for having exposed them to infection. The NHS didn’t even properly protect its own staff.
Above all, and specifically, these measures would not “move us towards zero Covid” as claimed. Not only could they not but it is utopian to believe that the virus can be suppressed and eliminated. Any attempt to do so would see an endless lockdown until a vaccine was found and even then this might not see final eradication, no more than flu has been eliminated by vaccination. The attempt to do so would incur costs that would inflict much more damage in economic and health terms than the strategy of the Irish State.
A couple of days ago I noted that the strategy of the state was unravelling and the latest drama is a further example. It faces its sternest test with the return of schools, which itself calls for enormous levels of cognitive dissonance: support for mass transport and containment of children when a deadly virus requires such stringent controls in the home, at work and elsewhere. You do not have to be very smart to realise it doesn’t add up.
In other words, the moral outrage of the left, upon which its politics is based, would lead to a worse outcome than that of the current Government.
So, while we all condemn the state elite that dines out on its hypocrisy, the left needs to educate workers to show social solidarity in order to protect the vulnerable, to protect themselves and to prepare for the bill that is mounting up from the lockdown. Without such an approach the left simply becomes the liberal conscience of the state whispering good advice in its ear, for in reality this is all the grandest and loudest speeches in the Dáil currently amount to.