It used to be all about ‘spin’. That is getting the message out and influencing, to the point of controlling, how the media covered a particular story.
Alaistair Campbell was credited with being the master of spin for the former Labour government in Britain.
‘Spin’ was the new word used in the 90’s to describe a very old aspect of politics and business – sell the message to the public in a believable and attractive manner; hammer the opposition, and win support for your position. And if you make mistakes? Limit the damage through briefings and more ‘spin’, which if necessary means dumping on whoever is responsible for the problem.
Governments have been spinning their way in and out of trouble for millennia.
The British never claimed they were invading Ireland to steal the land and impoverish and exploit its people – in their own words they came to civilise the barbarians!
The west claimed that it invaded Iraq to save us from Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction. They didn’t exist but the oil fields do.
Today ‘spin’ has given way to a new description. According to one journalist I listened to on RTE it’s now about ‘controlling the narrative’. A nice turn of phrase but the goal is the same.
This week Fine Gael is trying to limit the damage done to its credibility and economic strategy by the comments of Fine Gael Transport Minister Leo Varadkar. He spoke out of school and told the Sunday Times that the Irish state might not be able to return to the bond markets next year. And worse than that it may have to seek a second bailout.
The Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and the Finance Minister all rushed to reject this position. Mr. Varadkar was contradicted and his remarks were described by his department as a ‘hypothetical answer’ to a ‘hypothetical question’. But of the Minister himself there has been no sign.
The importance of all this is that Fine Gael and Labour have spent all their short time in government claiming to know what they are doing, defending the EU/IMF deal and stating that the state is on target to meet the bailout requirements imposed by the EU and IMF and will be able to return to the bond markets next year. That’s the narrative.
Minister Varadkar’s remarks undermine this position. Hence, the rush by his boss and more senior colleagues to publicly deny him and retake control of their ‘spin’ the narrative around the bailout.
But this isn’t the first time Varadkar has put his foot in it. During the election campaign he declared that not another red cent would be given to the banks.
Within weeks of being in government the banks got more than a red cent – they got €24 billion.
But to be fair to Leo he isn’t the first coalition Minister to make a faux pas when it comes to the issue of the bailout. Two weeks ago Labour Minister Brendan Howlin spoke of the desirability of renegotiating the bailout loan and extending the period over which the state would pay it back.
The Minister of Finance immediately stepped forward, rubbished the suggestion and firmly stated that the only item of the agenda in negotiations with the EU/IMF and ECB is a reduction in the interest rate.
The ‘narrative’ for Fine Gael and Labour is to claim that the state is bound by the huge debts that have now been accumulated, and that it will pay all of these back.
Any claim or suggestion to the contrary must be stamped on quickly and ruthlessly.
The problem for the government is that the evidence of failure and of flawed economic policies is to be found in the daily experience and distress of citizens.
RTE’s Primetime on Monday night exposed the extent to which government cuts are driving carers further and further into debt and the enormous poverty that this is causing.
It has also emerged that 4604 elderly citizens are waiting for approval for nursing home places but that the government refuses to release the funds.
And to add to the misery of millions the Minister for the Environment has confirmed that an interim household charge – property tax – is to be introduced early next year, with water meters in place the following year.
The ‘narrative’ is that the money raised by the household charge will be ring-fenced to provide money for local services. You would almost think that the Minister is doing householders a favour by ensuring that the provision of local services is protected.
The truth is that the state is obliged under the EU/IMF deal to introduce both a property tax and water charges.
Moreover, the money raised by these taxes will not be additional to the money currently spent on local services.
The cuts will continue and the money saved will be used to pay off the EU/IMF bailout. So, in reality the property and water tax is being used to pay the EU/IMF bailout.
But that’s not the government’s ‘spin’, ‘line’, ‘narrative’, ‘story’.
Yesterday when I challenged the Taoiseach on all of this I reminded him that 100 years ago exactly – on May 31st 1911 – the unsinkable Titanic was launched in Belfast. She too had a Captain who steered straight for the iceberg. He at least had some excuse. It wasn’t spotted until the last minute. The bailout and debt mountain iceberg that this government has the state sailing straight for is clearly visible and the alarm has been sounded. But on the basis of the ‘narrative’ coming from Government Buildings this captain is not for turning.
Finally, a brief note on the launch and sinking of the Titanic. Over 1500 people lost their lives in April 1912 when it sank. In the years since much has been written and there have been two successful movies made about the event. Next year a £97 million Titanic Belfast Building will be opened to co-incide with the sinking.
But there is a part of the story that is rarely told and which it is important to remember. Harland and Wolff shipyard was a by-word for discrimination. Catholics were only ever employed in very small numbers. Frequently, during the frequent sectarian pogroms that afflicted Belfast they, and any progressive Protestant workers, were among the first to be forced from their jobs.
The Titanic was a human tragedy. So is generational sectarian discrimination.