If you’re Irish the last 24 hours will have had you cringing. Not one but two government ministers have made international headlines in ways that can only bring embarrassment to the country as a whole. One of them would have been bad enough but two in such quick succession does nothing to disprove any stereotypes that Ireland has been trying to escape for years.
If you haven’t been following the news or if you’re not Irish and are wondering what the hell I’m talking about it all started yesterday evening when the news broke that Minister for Science Conor Lenihan was to launch a self published book by a constituent which aims to debunk the theory of evolution.
The story had been buzzing around cyberspace for a couple of months but as the launch neared it gained critical mass and went well and truly viral. The subject was being discussed on two popular Irish forums, Politics.ie and Boards.ie then it found it’s way onto Twitter. As tends to happen, this sent the story into the stratosphere. Before long the story had been picked up by high profile tweeters like Ben Goldacre, the science writer and Guardian columnist.
Dara O’Briain, the comedian and broadcaster also chimed in.
Then the story got picked up by the traditional media appearing on the evening news on both RTE and the BBC. Conor Lenihan appeared on RTE’s 9 o’clock news completely unrepentant. He said he didn’t see a problem with the launch as the author, John J. May, was a constituent and a friend. His name disappeared off the launch flyer on Mr May’s website. Then this morning the Irish Times announced that Lenihan had pulled out of the launch.
This is John J. May. This is the man who Conor Lenihan was willing to hold himself up to public ridicule for. Many, many years ago I worked for John May. He ran a company called The Day You Were Born. The name kind of gives it away. For a small fee you could get a piece of paper with information about the day you were born. You know the kind of thing – that day’s headlines, sports results, what was in the chart. You can still get that kind of thing now but back then, in the early 90s it was a reasonably new idea.
My job was to get the headlines. I spent some very happy weeks in the Reading Room of the National Library going through microfilms picking headlines for each day in a certain year. I still remember some of the news stories I found during that time. The broadcast of Orson Welles’ War of the World, as covered by the Irish Times, or the reading in the Abbey of one of Yeat’s plays when he had engaged with a heckler about the merits of his writing. I was there the day Charlie Haughey walked out of Leinster House for the last time. I had been listening to the radio knowing something was imminent and lead a mass walkout as we all left our books and ran downstairs to watch the doleful procession leave Leinster House, ignoring our pale faces pressed up against the wire that separates the Dail from the Library.
There were a group of us working for May. Every couple of weeks, it might have been once a month, we all met up in a pub in Clondalkin where he would brief us and hand out the pay cheques. We all thought him a little odd but we all needed the work so no one wanted to rock the boat. It was definitely one of the odder jobs I have had.
Years later I ran into May again. I was getting work experience in special interest station Anna Livia FM and May turned up as a funding guru with radio experience. Rumour had it he had run a pirate station in the 80s that had been based around where the Stephen’s Green Shopping Centre is now.
John May always seemed in those days to be a bit of a Flash Harry character. I’m not by any means suggesting that he did anything untoward, just that he was a man who always had an eye for a fast buck and was enthusiastic and diligent in getting it. I had heard something about affiliations with some kind of Christian group but don’t know any details about that.
The way he is pushing this book of his is no deviation from type. He’s a pushy, fast talking person and it doesn’t surprise me that he would manage to pull off a coup like this, guaranteeing his tome will get world wide publicity and will undoubtedly sell more than it would otherwise.
It doesn’t surprise me that he would end up in the middle of something like this but what does surprise me is why a government minister would get involved. It doesn’t really matter if Conor Lenihan goes along to tomorrow’s Gorillas and Girls launch party in Buswells Hotel. What does matter is the fact that he agreed to it in the first place.
He might think that he was going in a personal capacity but he is a government minister with special responsibility for science and the book is anti evolution. What exactly did he think was going to happen. Surely if John May is a friend of his he would know that May would make sure the launch got as much publicity as possible. It’s years since I’ve seen the man and even I could figure that one out. The problem the minister doesn’t seem to understand is that in cases like this there is no “personal capacity”. If in his personal life he is a rabid creationist, say, he should not be the man standing as a figurehead to promote and champion Irish science. If he can’t understand this surely at the very least his political acumen should be severely in doubt?
The Lenihan debacle was bad enough but this morning another embarrassing story broke, this time centring around the Taoiseach himself, Brian Cowen. This morning Brian Cowen appeared on Morning Ireland, the main breakfast news programme in the country. It was a pre arranged interview. The Fianna Fail party, his party, were having their yearly think in down in Galway before the Dail resumes sitting next month after the summer break.
You would have to have spent the last year or so on another planet not to have heard of the spectacular crash and burn that has been the Irish economy. Things have been bad for a while now and this December’s Budget is likely to be a particularly tough one. You always know things are bad when the media start over using the word “swingeing” when talking about funding.
Cowen’s appearance on radio to talk about the economy isn’t so very unusual in these trying times but this morning something about his voice on air and the way he bumbled through some of his answers provoked a fairly speedy response. Opposition politician, Fine Gael’s Simon Coveney got the ball rolling.
When Cowen got off air he was approached by the waiting media in Galway. TV3’s Ursula Halligan asked him if he was in fact hung over after a late night, a fact he spiritedly denied. But by then it was too late. Once again the story had leapt from Twitter into the waiting arms of the International media. As I write this the story of the question and Cowen’s denial has made it onto the BBC news. It’s also been picked up by the New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today and has been picked up websites in South Africa and India. It’ll probably keep growing.
Throughout the day those who were in the bar of the Ardilaun Hotel near Salthill in Galway last night, where the Fianna Fail party and attendant political correspondents are staying, came forward with stories of what went on last night. Stories of late night sessions abounded, but whether or not anyone breaks ranks to give a full blow by blow account remains to be seen. In the end only those who were there on the night will know exactly who was there and what went on but again, it’s not really important.
On Liveline this afternoon, members of the public were queuing up to give their support to the beleaguered leader. Everybody deserves time to unwind, they said. Give the guy a break. We all like to think our politicians are human, Ireland perhaps embraces such displays of human frailty more than most. Maybe this was why Bill Clinton decided to wait until he was on a visit to Dublin to apologise from his dalliance with Monica Lewinsky. But there’s a big difference between Brian Cowen and Bill Clinton in this regard. Clinton was leading another country. He was a visitor and his admission put us in the glare of international media.
Brian Cowen is leading this country and he’s not accused of playing around with an intern. The suggestion is that he was unprofessional enough to stay up so late he was groggy and hoarse the next morning when he knew he had an interview on one of the most listened to shows in the country, his country. He’s the guy in charge. He doesn’t get to play with the rank and file. He has the ultimate responsiblity for steering this sinking ship and, at a time when decisions are being made about how much the country is going to suffer in the forthcoming Budget, surely coming on air sounding, at best tired and disinterested, at worst hung over, is not the way to instill confidence.
Once again if he can’t understand why appearances are important now, why having credibility as someone who’s holding the reigns is vital. If you were working in a company and had heard rumours of redundancies and pay cuts how would you feel if you came into work to a boss who was unshaven, sweating and looked like they were wearing last night’s clothes. I’ve no idea what Cowen was wearing on the radio this morning, he could have even been in his pyjamas, but he sounded as if he was wearing last night’s suit.
What both incidents in the past 24 hours have shown is that there are people in Fianna Fail, who are the majority partner in our coalition government, who do not understand that the job they are doing has a lot to do with appearances. You keep up appearances to keep people’s confidence – not just the voters but also the world outside. All these two stories have done is give a picture of a country that is floundering, one that is a joke. A country that has no leadership.
It’s that that makes me embarrassed to be Irish today. I hope it embarrasses those at the centre of the stories as much.