WHY would anybody in their right mind go into politics? The question popped into my head last week observing education minister Batt O'Keeffe being forced to defend his decision to close the schools against a barrage of (largely, it has to be said, media driven) criticism.
Poor Batt was damned if he did and damned if he didn't. It was an entirely logical decision, based on briefings from Met Eireann, to close the schools until last Wednesday and it was widely welcomed at the time. Of course, parents and children could have battled their way through the elements and, in the vast majority of cases, made it to school. But the health and safety considerations meant that it was simply not worth taking that risk.
O'Keeffe took responsibility, taking the pressure off what in many cases would have been a tricky call for boards of management. It's called leadership. If the minister hadn't taken the decision and a school child had died in a crash on the way to work, there would probably have been calls for his resignation.
But once the snow was seen to melt away quicker than expected in the east of the country, the sniping began. With the benefit of 20-20 vision, the whingers were out in force, only too thrilled to have something to give out about.
O'Keeffe had over-reacted. Schools were going to find it extraordinarily difficult to make up the time lost (education has obviously changed a lot since I donned a school blazer). Even Met Eireann was getting it in the neck for not getting it exactly right, despite the fact that predicting snow fall is notoriously difficult because a degree change in temperature can dramatically change the picture.
Common sense would suggest that O'Keeffe, armed with the information he had at his disposal at the time, made the correct and responsible decision to close the schools. When the information changed, he then reappraised that decision. Unless he was armed with a crystal ball, it's difficult to see what other tack he could have made.
But common sense wasn't in abundant supply over the past couple of weeks. Yes, there are lessons to be learned from the way the weather crisis was handled. The government was too slow in making the decision to call an emergency and setting up the co-ordinating body. The man who should have been leading the national effort, Noel Dempsey, made the wrong call in deciding to continue with his holiday. The old rule of having one voice communicating with the general public seems to have been ignored and there was conflicting advice at times, most notably when householders were wrongly warned that they left themselves open to legal claims if they sought to clear the snow off adjacent pathways.
However, the reaction to how the crisis was handled or mishandled has been ridiculously over-the-top (again not least in the media). You just can't ignore the fact that this was a once-in-50-years weather event.
There was always going to be an element of chaos given the unusual quantities of snow and ice, but some people seemed to think that the government and local authorities had it within its power to make everything run as normal within a matter of hours. There were councillors on the public airwaves actually demanding that every boreen in the state be gritted, as if it was remotely possible to grit 92,000km of public roads. And there was no shortage of people bemoaning the fact that Dublin Airport had to shut for a few hours when airports in Russia and the US can stay open when it snows. Is it really that difficult to understand the difference between a country where snow is a rarity and ones where snow is an everyday fact of life in winter?
There was also a shortage of personal responsibility in many cases, evidenced by the numbers who left their taps running throughout the night to ensure their pipes didn't freeze and the lack of people clearing footpaths outside their homes. But then why do something positive when you can just give out about what a useless shower we all are in this country, particularly the government?
The fall from grace of the Celtic Tiger has prompted a degree of national hand-wringing and self-flagellation that is becoming more than a little wearing. We're a failed, corrupt, bankrupt country. Ministers are idiots or clowns; the opposition isn't much better.
Of course the economic situation is serious and depressing but we need to gain a sense of perspective. Nobody died last week due to the weather, so somebody somewhere must have been doing something right. We certainly don't live in a utopia – who does? But nor are we at risk of becoming "the Haiti of Europe" as one normally intelligent councillor ridiculously claimed last week, admittedly before the earthquake there. Our politicians are far from perfect – who is? And huge mistakes were made by the government in the handling of the economy that will take a long, painful time to correct. But the recent knee-jerk, default, "they're all muppets" position adopted by many in the media and elsewhere is trite and simplistic. It devalues politics and devalues us as a nation.