Over the last couple of weeks the Irish media has been chock-a-block with stories about the McNulty affair. There’s really no need for a recap here. But suffice to say that Fine Gael found itself mired in controversy when the story broke (and broke and broke…) that John McNulty, “a Donegal grocer and petrol retailer”, had been put on the board of the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) in what has been called an incidence of ‘stroke politics’, so as to boost his credentials to fill a vacancy on the Seanad’s cultural and education panel.
The affair was flogged by media and opposition parties as indicative of the type of cronyism and ‘jobs for the boys’ that Enda Kenny so virulently condemned during the last general election. Along with the Taoiseach, Heather Humphreys, was singled out in particular for the very public backlash – so public indeed that Fine Gael TDs John Deasy and Séan Conlan got in on the act. McNulty, for his part, kept pretty quiet – his ghostly presence mostly circulating in the form of a single photograph and soundbites from various individuals testifying to his credentials – before withdrawing his candidacy on yesterday.
While the purported abuse of the boards of semi-state bodies for purposes of political patronage is not unproblematic, the whole episode speaks to a far more troubling aspect of Irish political discourse: namely the way that issues of cronyism and ‘political reform’ are placed centre stage in political debate, while decisions about the economy, including the perpetuation of austerity, which have far wider reaching impacts on the lives of citizens, are being made politically invisible.
In a feature piece on the topic in last weekend’s Sunday Times, Fine Gael’s John Deasy, expressing his criticisms of Kenny’s handling of the affair, is quoted as saying:
“People are getting sick of the way this is being conducted and it doesn’t really strike people as being what we, as a party, phrased as new politics… The parliamentary party is very happy with the way Michael Noonan is running the economy, but I think people are becoming disgusted with the way Fine Gael is being run [by Enda Kenny]”.
For me, the crucial aspect in Deasy’s statement is the way it constructs a separation between economic policy (Noonan’s ‘management’ of the economy) and the ‘politics’ of state appointments (Kenny’s party leadership). The most significant political decisions the current Government has made have been those relating to the economy. Sweeping spending cuts in social welfare, healthcare, and education, an intensified programme to sell national assets, far-reaching reforms of working conditions and a redirection of state supports to cash-rich investors have all been features of a suite of economic policies that successive governments have implemented post-crisis. The sustained programme of austerity has woven itself deep into the lives of individuals, families, and communities. Decisions about the direction of economic policy, then, are intrinsically political.
However, these decisions are frequently viewed as issues of technocratic management, a matter of accountancy and number crunching, which precludes any real political discussion about them. Decisions about the economy are constructed responding to the objective state of ‘the markets’, and as such are outside the messy realm of politics.
This has been compounded by a recent shift in the discourse. Ireland, the Government tell us, is now in recovery, the recession is over and the austerity policies implemented over the last half a decade have proven a ‘success’. Despite ample evidence of continuing hardship (for example, a MABS study showing their clients have an average disposable income of just €8.75 a week), Fine Gael, in particular, have been keen to mobilise this story to bolster their chances of re-election.
And the media seem happy to accept the story of recovery at face value.
During the recent Prime Time debate between the candidates running in the Roscommon South-Leitrim by-election, for example, Miriam O’Callaghan put it to one of the candidates that his previous calls to “burn the bondholders” had been proven erroneous by current economic recovery. In another exchange, Independent candidate Gerry O’Boyle spoke out angrily about the considerable time given over in the debate to questioning Fine Gael’s Maura Hopkins about the McNulty affair. To O’Callaghan’s suggestion that “this was a huge national issue” he retorted: “I’m here to deal with the issue of family homes… Family homes — you don’t even think about it!”
Vincent Brown made the point on TV3 on Monday that the corporatist neoliberal economic model that has been practiced by the current Government is indicative of a much more trenchant form of cronyism (the proposed tax probe on Apple a case in point) than the McNulty affair. As indicative of a warped political system as it is, the McNulty affair pales in comparison to the destruction that the programme of austerity has brought.
In the aftermath of McNulty’s withdrawal, Fine Gael have tried to weave a careful PR narrative through the facts of the case. In the run up to the next General Election, if the John Deasy’s sentiments are shared widely within the party, one might speculate that Kenny could potentially be jettisoned as Taoiseach in an attempt to distance Fine Gael from the stigma of cronyism.
Instead the party will seek to be judged on their economic track record. And they should be – but not in the way they have in mind. Rather the political debate should be squarely focussed on the politics of economic policy – who the winners and losers have been in Ireland’s supposed recovery.
The swell of media coverage and discussion on the McNulty affair has pushed cronyism to the top of the list of burning political issues in the country. Meanwhile the politics of economic policy are pushed to the background. But as long as questions concerning the economy are depoliticised, the game stays the same – it just gets more fierce.