Smoke-filled rooms, shadowy figures

This article first appeared in the Andersonstown news

When I was teaching at Óllscoil Uladh/ Ulster University, one of the minor ordeals involved was attendance at Meetings (no, Virginia, not meetings, Meetings). In the ten minutes or so before the meeting, I’d notice the Dean and some senior staff speaking quietly among themselves. Then we’d all sit down and the Dean and senior staff would tell us how they saw things and what they thought should happen. The job of the rest of us was to metaphorically if not literally nod. In short, the meetings were the front-of-house stuff; the real decisions were made by the higher-uppers at the back-of-house.

What obtained in the groves of academe back in the day are to be found in politics any day of the week. Take the situation in the south. First we had Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil tiptoeing towards each other, then meetings between Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin, then a series of meetings within the Green Party, and now  plans for the Green party to have talks with Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.  

After these various talks, the party leaders have emerged and told the public whether the meeting was frank, or important, or significant, or maybe all three. The media would then throw a few questions, asking if this, that or the other was discussed. Sometimes they’d get a Yes; but when they followed up and asked what was said, they’re told that those involved don’t want to breach the confidentiality of ongoing talks and an announcement will be made as to the outcome someday soon. 

In other words, even though these people – every one of them – is being paid by the people of the twenty-six counties,  they feel they are perfectly within their rights not to tell their paymasters what they said to each other. 

So what do you think Leo and Micheál are saying at these meetings? Apart, obviously, from impressing on each other the need to bar the door against the Shinners. Is Micheál saying “I don’t want to be Taoiseach, I need to be Taoiseach.” Does Leo reply “Well sure we can arrange that. You can be Taoiseach for the first two years, and I’ll be Taoiseach for the next two years.” And do they then start arguing about not  being Taoiseach in the first two years, because that’s when the broken-and-burnt economy will have to be put on life-support, with all sorts of hard and unpopular decisions, and the last two years will be when things start to pick up a bit? 

And what about the Greens – why can’t we hear what Eamonn Ryan is saying to his party members: “Listen, people, we’ve got a whopping good number of TDs,  let’s be super -careful about going into government, because the FGers and the FFers will happily use us as their mudguard and tell the people that the bad bits were all the fault of the Greens”. 

There used to be critical comment on the way political parties like the Tories in England or Fianna Fáil in the south  retreated to smoke-filled backrooms to decide who was going to lead the party. That’s changed a bit now,  but there are still a lot of shadowy figures talking in low voices among themselves before decisions are announced. 

George Bernard Shaw said that “all professions are conspiracies against the laity.”  Sometimes you wonder if political parties conspire within themselves to keep the public, who feed and pay them, in the dark. Point of order, guys: the public aren’t mushrooms. Let’s pull up the shades and have a bit of light in here. 

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