SOCIAL MEDIA MEANS NO HIDING PLACE FOR POLITICIANS

 

NOTEBOOK by BILL HEANEY

Regular readers of this column will know that my favourite bolthole when I am out of the editor’s chair is Connemara in the West of Ireland.

It’s a place where peace comes dropping slowly; a place where you can linger over a pint of stout and have a long interesting conversation with the locals at the bar.

When I first went there in the ‘Sixties when Connemara and Clifden, and the nearby villages of Cleggan and Claddaghduff,  looked like a throwback to the ‘Twenties.

Then important people such as General De Gaulle, President of France, and his wife decided that they too wanted peace and time to relax in the stimulating, salt-kissed fresh air.

It was inevitable that others would follow – and they did.

 

Film stars Richard Harris; Robert Shaw’s wife, Mary Ure, from Helensburgh, and the infamous hell-raiser, Peter O’Toole..

The great film star Peter O’Toole and his family built a home out the Sky Road, overlooking the Atlantic.

Imperious Katharine Hepburn, John Hurt, Richard Harris and Robert Shaw and his lovely wife, Mary Ure, from Helensburgh, came too.

The poets, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, were regular visitors to Richard Murphy’s house on the pier at Cleggan and enjoyed sailing around the islands in his Galway hooker, the Ave Maria.

They were so taken with the place that they chose Clifden to settle for a while.

As did the best-selling novelist John McGahern who went fishing with Patrick O’Malley, the village postmaster.

There was no social media then and very few telephones. If you wanted to make a call you had to go through the operator Bernie O’Malley at the exchange in Cleggan.

A secret in Cleggan was something you told one person at a time.

Until this week that is when Clifden and Connemara made headlines in newspapers and topped news bulletins round the world.

The resignation of EU Commissioner Phil Hogan represents an extraordinary move by European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen.

It brings to an end a tumultuous seven days when politics – and then the Brussels bubble – was convulsed by the unlikely event of an Oireachtas Golf Society anniversary dinner at Connemara Golf Club.

The revelation that Hogan – along with 80 other people – attended the golf dinner in violation of coronavirus restrictions precipitated a welter of sackings and resignations that led inexorably to last night’s resignation.

The next act in the coming days will be a decision on the fate of newly appointed Supreme Court judge Séamus Wolfe, and Hogan’s resignation surely makes it more likely that he will never sit on that elevated bench.

If so – a report is awaited from former chief justice Susan Denham – it would make the headcount from the episode: several senators, a Cabinet minister, a European commissioner and a judge of the highest court in the land.

That’s some toll for a few holes of golf, a few pints and a plate of beef or salmon, especially when you consider what happens here.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon wanted to hold on to her Chief Medical Officer, Catherine Calderwood,  when she broke the Covid lockdown rules, but had to abandon that plan.

There have been numerous calls too for the resignation of the Health Minister, Jeane Freeman, who has just decided to retire and the Education Minister, John Swinney, had journalists camping on his doorstep asking him to resign after the exams debacle.

It also tells us something about the febrile and unpredictable political times we live in – when nothing is unimaginable and the old rules and certainties no longer apply.

Politicians and officials are under scrutiny like never before; there is no hiding, anywhere, from the constant gaze of social media; and European commissioners are no longer untouchable.

The accountability of public figures may not be universal, but when it comes, it can be savage.

It is still a very big step for to seek the resignation of a European commissioner in response to a domestic furore

Politics reporter Pat Leahy in the Irish Times says Hogan’s resignation was made necessary by two things – the extent of the public fury at the revelations, and the former commissioner’s own handling of the scandal.

Politicians say they have seldom – if ever – seen such immediate and palpable public anger before.

One said it cut through like nothing else he had ever seen. Others made constant comparisons to the financial crash in 2008.

That event almost destroyed Fianna Fáil entirely and reordered the Irish political landscape, promoting Sinn Féin and other left-wing groups and independents to a substantial place in Irish politics.

No wonder the newly forged centrist alliance of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael were so spooked. Along with Green leader Eamon Ryan, they made their views clear to European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, without ever issuing a demand: Hogan should go.

With so many Scottish politicians resigning on their own accord, and some being impolitely told to jump before they are pushed, will something similar happen here before the next Holyrood elections in May?

It’s not unknown for Ireland to sneeze and Scotland to catch the cold. And this year there is the additional hazard of catching Covid.

  • Bill Heaney’s book How are things in Connemara? is available on Amazon.

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