The Irish political journalist’s problem with partial disclosure…

The nod and wink politics of Ireland’s last two or three decades as practised par excellence by Bertie, Albert and Charlie is ultimately what has the Republic in the stew it’s in. Don’t get me wrong, the effective monitoring of those exercising of power does not demand full disclosure of everything all the time. But the absence of any meaningful disclosure comes at a high price for any developed nation.

A senior English commentator I know spoke to the Fianna Fail Ard Fheis back about 2008/9. Afterwards in the bar he was shocked at the degree of complacency amongst even amongst the more senior ranks of the party. At that stage they knew there was a crisis, but seemed unaware of its scale.

To some extent, the media had been complicit. A few years earlier, I spoke to Fergus Finlay for a review (the tiny residue of which was published here) of John Lloyd’s lengthy essay What the media is doing to our politics, he noted then that the Irish media seemed programmed to grab a government spokesman, often to the exclusion of any oppositional voice. Dissent was not required.

To, erm, quote my 2004 self:

…there have been profound changes in the values of journalism itself. Journalist Richard Reeves describes the Watergate scandal as “the signal point in the self-destructive journalistic hubris of the Seventies and afterwards”, arguing that the journalist took on a priest-like role, and simply presumed the axiomatic sinfulness of politicians.

The epitome of this increasingly sterile relationship is the modern political interview in which the journalist serially challenges the politician on specific issues, which he knows his ‘opponent’ to be most touchy with the aim of scoring points or a knock-out blow. The growing fear and distrust amongst politicians does nothing to disrupt the much-publicised cycle of spin and evasion.

It is not the job of the journalist to take up an oppositionalist relationship to politicians. But it is their job to respectfully scrutinise the credentials and the proposed programme of any politician, whether elected, or as in the current case with Martin McGuinness’s Presidential candidature, as a candidate for public office.

That said, not all of the problems in this difficult relationship are generated out of animus on the journalistic side. In particular, Sinn Fein’s reluctance to disclose the precise details of it’s complicated past throw up a number of ethical problems for any journalists charged with reporting accurately on the fitness of any single candidate.

There’s much we can say about the artlessness of the blunt question. But the fact that senior politicians cannot be open and honest about their past has real implications for their reliability as witnesses in the unfolding of which political dramas they happen to be involved in. As Nevin has helpfully pointed out in the comment zone, Mr McGuinness is left with a bottom line defence, which more or less states given the compromising nature of my past, I cannot answer any questions about it:

“Asked if he had ever shot anyone or at anyone, he replied: “Why should I stand here now and begin the process of saying, ‘here’s what I did in the IRA?’ What would it be tomorrow morning? It would be a headline, so let’s not be silly.”

The answer you might say is ask him about something else. Immunity over the past has almost become the norm in Northern Ireland. Such that even with regard to non troubles related stories, like that which followed the broadcast of UTV’s Liam Adams documentary, his brother Gerry took three weeks to get the details of his story more or less straight.

This has clearly been the source of some considerable frustration within the media. That’s surely what goes to explain Gay Byrne’s extraordinary outburst on TV3 last night..

“I’ve interviewed Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams and they are so well disciplined and so well honed that no interviewer gets anywhere with them.

“You get nowhere with them because they lie. They lie all the time. They don’t mind lying and they’ve rehearsed their lies and they’ve been trained to lie, and that’s what they’re doing.”

Pretty uncool stuff for a man who perhaps was within a hair’s breadth from becoming the nation’s elder statesman. But neither is it too far of the mark. The truth is we do not know for sure that we whether Martin McGuinness did or did not kill anyone during the Troubles since he refuses to answer any direct questions on the matter.

Although it falls to Martin’s own local bete noir, Gregory Campbell who points out the bleedin obvious this morning of the IRA’s former second in command in Derry:

They weren’t the Boy Scouts. If you joined the Boy Scouts and became the second most senior person in the movement it was because you were good at scouting.

Everyone else gets the picture but Sinn Fein seems to be trying to get the Republic’s voters, like Alice, to believe six impossible things before breakfast. If this were not so serious it would be laughable.

Either he is telling the most unbelievable story imaginable or he was the most incompetent, inadequate yet best promoted recruit the IRA ever had.

It may not be a straightforward choice between the Red and Blue pills of science fiction.. For a state born out of conflict and lengthy bloody bouts of the killing of both military and civilians, it seems implausible (and unreasonable) to object to Mr McGuinness as President simply because of his paramilitary past.

But it is not unreasonable to expect any candidate for the Republic’s foremost public office to answer questions about his past and the nature of his current relationship with that past. Otherwise we may as well ask the Irish press corps to repair to the Dail Bar and resume their collusive practices of old…

And it’s Pink Gins all round again, whilst the parties write their copy for them…

There surely has to be a middle way between due respect and robust and honest exchange that seeks to enhance the health of public institutions rather than continuously seek to undermine them?

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