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Great Irish Reportage

John Horgan (ed)
Publisher
Penguin Ireland
Price
€26.00
ISBN
9781844883219

 Extract Copyrighted Material


Unsafe at any speed

Conor Cruise O’ Brien (1982)

Irish Times August 24 1982

You’ve got to hand it to the man, you really have. He is grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented.

Those, remember, are the adjectives that sprang to his own lips, at that press conference on his last Tuesday, to characterise “the situation which had arisen” in and around the flat of the Attorney-General.

No one, I think, would seriously challenge the applicability of these adjectives, emphatic though some of them are, to the situation on which they were bestowed.

“Unprecedented” is literally correct. There is indeed no precedent in the history of this State for the arrest of a man suspected of murder – even single murder – at the residence and in the presence of the Attorney-General, host to the suspect.

So no one, not even Gustave Flaubert, could challenge this use of “unprecedented,” it is unquestionably le mot juste.

“Grotesque”, “bizarre,” are more subjective terms, but they hardly seem out of place in the context. The only one I reject is “unbelievable.” As Aristotle so rightly observed in the Poetics: “What has happened, we know to be possible, because it has happened.” We know this thing to be possible, because it has happened, though we have no excuse for not believing it, however improbable it may seem.

It was not the adjectives themselves that were remarkable, but the spirit in which they were introduced by this (here choose your own adjective) Taoiseach of ours, at his surreal press conference. The man poured these words on, exactly as if he were reading out rave reviews of some brilliant performance which he and his all-star cast had just turned in, to general acclaim.

At first, watching the man on television, I was disorientated by his unfamiliar use of words. How could “grotesque,” uttered in a tone of emphatic relish, have somehow turned into a term of self-approbation? For a moment, I felt as if I might be falling victim to some obscure lexical disorder that turns words inside out. After a while, however, I was able to enter into the spirit of the thing and see how his mind was working. You see, the worse the situation that had arisen was the better Mr Haughey looked, in his own estimation. If the situation was GUBU – that is to say, grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented – then the greater the credit due to Mr Haughey, for dealing with it. . . 

The more heads the Hydra had, and the more fangs they bore, the more highly we think of Hercules. The more unprepossessing the Gorgon, and the more snaky her locks, the better Perseus. Those heroes handled the situation that had arisen, and they did so in a manner that has been generally admired. And so also it was with Mr Haughey, by his way of looking at it.

The GUBU had been a GUBU all right, no doubt about that, but Mr Haughey was there, and the GUBU was taken care of. . .

“Quite satisfactory” is our hero’s modest verdict on his recent exploits. Some of us, however, find the verdict not quite modest enough. For the fact is that the Taoiseach’s handling of this matter, even on his own account of it, shows him to be lacking in elementary prudence and commonsense: alarming deficiencies in a Taoiseach. And the more he insists on how GUBU the situation was, in which he none the less permitted his Attorney-General to go on holiday, the more starkly Mr Haughey illuminates the folly of that permission.

Mr Haughey’s contention that the Attorney-General, being “a major constitutional officer,” did not need his permission is pure sophistry. In the circumstances in which the unfortunate Mr Connolly found himself, he could not remain a major constitutional officer without the Taoiseach’s acquiescence. The Taoiseach could have prevented Mr Connolly from leaving, by the exercise of that same authority by which the Taoiseach was able, when he woke up, to bring Mr Connolly back. Letting Mr Connolly go on his holidays was another Haughey misjudgement, not an inevitable resultant of arcane constitutional processes.

Under Mr Haughey, stunts have followed on happenings, and happenings on stunts. The stunts have misfired and the happenings have been mishandled. The Taoiseach carries the largest share of the responsibility for the fact that the State is now on the verge of financial ruin. He carries the entire responsibility for the gratuitous and damaging deterioration he has brought about in our relations with our nearest neighbour. His off-hand adoption of a collision course with the unions threatens to bring on what may be the most serious break-down in industrial relations that this country has ever known.

In these conditions, many people – I believe most people – hope that the Opposition will apply itself single-mindedly when the Dáil resumes, to the urgent task of putting out a Government which is clearly unsafe at any speed.

Unfortunately, some members of the Opposition seem to think differently. Mr John Kelly, for example, appears to hold the view that, since Mr Haughey is now (ostensible at least) set on a course of financial rectitude, the Fine Gael Party, being committed itself to financial rectitude, cannot put Mr Haughey out. Mr Haughey agrees with that view. It represents, at the moment, his best hope of political survival.

John Kelly is a good man, but there are times, as now, when he seems to be in the grip of an honourable death-wish, of positively Japanese proportions. Mr Kelly has himself, and recently, described the dominant section of the ruling party – the section that included the Taoiseach and the Minister for Finance – as “a foot-loose Mafia.” How can it possible be in the interests of the country to allow people of whom you hold that opinion to remain in control of our Government?

At a critical moment in the French Revolution, it became clear that, in the National Convention, there was a majority which had had quite enough of Robespierre. Trouble was, they couldn’t agree on exactly why they had enough, so they argued the toss about that, and seemed to be stuck. Then the Abbe Sieyes, that shrewd politician, suggested the solution. The Convention should just get rid of Robespierre without giving a reason. The Convention, he said, should pronounce “death without phrases” – la mort sans phrases – and the Convention did just that.

In this case, a plain motion of no confidence in Mr Haughey as Taoiseach, without anything else, ought to do the trick. La mort sans phrases.