In times of political crisis, the media likes nothing better than to reach for its sack of clichés and dust off some profoundly hackneyed phrase which is deemed appropriate for the occasion. If Brian Cowen had lost last week's confidence vote, for example, commentators would have analysed his resignation speech and assured us that nothing in his political career had become him like his departure from it. Watch out for that sentence over the next few days as yesterday's announcement is digested. The phrase – an altered version of a line from Shakespeare – has become so overused, such a comfort blanket for people writing quick analyses of the latest resignation, that any departing politician who manages not to belch, or have a fit, in his goodbye speech has his name forever associated with a line from Macbeth.
Whenever I hear it, I fantasise about travelling back in time, in some Tardis-like machine, tracking down Shakespeare and persuading him to give up the old writing lark and take up banking or lute-playing instead. I'd be depriving the world of many great plays and sonnets, of course, but at least we'd have been spared the regular torture over the years of hundreds of politicians being praised for their dignity in defeat when all they were really doing was departing for stress-free retirements on massive pensions.
The Titanic always gets a run-out in times like these as well. As Fianna Fáil politicians queued up last week, firstly to establish their credentials to lead the party, and later to have nothing further to do with it, we were told many times that all this activity was a bit like rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. Newstalk's Chris Donoghue attempted to vary the cliché a little by bringing the stricken vessel's chef into the equation but, generally speaking, the deckchair references were everywhere.
With good reason too, it has to be said. There are many similarities between the "unsinkable" Titanic which capsized in April 1912 and the "invincible" Fianna Fáil, the natural party of power in Ireland, which may well be at the bottom of the political sea by April 2012 (by April 2011, indeed). The Titanic sank after hitting an iceberg; Fianna Fáil after barging into the inevitable consequences of its own incompetence.
After the initial damage, it was every man for himself, with people from the upper decks (Noel Dempsey, Dermot Ahern, Tony Killeen, Batt O'Keeffe) commandeering the safety boats, leaving the women (Margaret Conlon, Mary O'Rourke) and the children (Thomas Byrne, Timmy Dooley, Niall Collins) to fend for themselves. In both cases, history will record that they were brought down by hubris – in the Titanic's case, the belief that it could never be sunk; in Fianna Fáil's that the economic boom would last forever – and the failure to plan for unexpected setbacks. Both captains, Edward Smith on the Titanic and Brian Cowen in Fianna Fáil, will go down in history as decent men rendered incompetent by unforeseen circumstances.
Anyway, let's put that unfortunate chapter behind us. It's time to move forward. Did not these retiring politicians do the state some service in their years in the Dáil, to borrow another line from the Bard which has been turned into a cliché since Charles Haughey first used it in his retirement speech almost 20 years ago? Did they not give of their best? Do they not deserve a life of quiet retirement?
The implication that they did, and that they do, was embedded deeply in last week's mass resignation, and seems to me to be the reason why there was such public outrage and why even the Greens – for whom no insult had been too much to bear – realised that something more was required than some angry words from their cohort of Twits.
What happened on Wednesday night and Thursday morning was a parade of self-satisfied smugness in front of the Irish people, a kind of collective f**k you, as Paul Gogarty would say, as a small army of ministers disappeared over the horizon into well-feathered oblivion.
Mary Harney left behind her a basketcase health service; Noel Dempsey an underused motorway system which is costing the state a fortune in compensation to toll companies; Batt O'Keeffe an unprecedented number of jobless; Dermot Ahern the worst gangland crime problem in western Europe; and Tony Killeen not a trace that he had ever existed. There was no sense as they left that they had let anybody down. They are the old-style product of an old-style thinking which says that by merely having appeared in cabinet you have served the people, irrespective of any achievements. They, and their Taoiseach, believed that their places in cabinet were the automatic entitlement of some of their Fianna Fáil juniors; to that extent, the night of the rubber knives, as one Labour candidate called it, was an attempt at a massive, old-style Fianna Fáil stroke.
And so we are left with yet another political cliché, the despised leader, shunned by his former followers, alone with his thoughts, wondering where it all went wrong. He's not the only one pondering that one. Where, we might well ask, is the man we were told could master any brief, in any department, in admirably quick time? What happened to the politician who rescued the last election campaign for Bertie Ahern? Where was the minister who arrived in the Taoiseach's office almost three years ago carrying such high hopes?
If you'll excuse the mangled political cliché: nothing became of him.
'Beautification' a way to make saint of paedophile protector
Pope John Paul II, the BBC informed us the other week, will be beautified in Rome in May. The misprint, on an on-screen caption, was funny in its own way, and true in its own way too. As news of the former pope's beatification came in, RTÉ's Would You Believe was preparing to reveal that in the 1990s, the Vatican, with John Paul in situ, had advised Irish bishops not to report cases of sex abuse to the gardaí.
In most civilised states, such behaviour is called perverting the course of justice, but in the Vatican, which plays by different rules, they've never been big on such trivialities as the law. In that context, John Paul's impending sainthood is a kind of beautification, a make-over for an instinctive protector of paedophiles.