Arrant bilge

There is little interest amongst journalists to report on the North and the Nicaraguan elections.


Pretending to be interested in the choreography of the Northern talks, and in how well Paisley, Adams and co are sticking to their steps, does not come easily to the media in the South. Mostly they don't even try. Of those who dutifully do, Tommie Gorman does it best– for all we know he may be genuinely intrigued – but seems to have decided long ago that he will only keep getting those prime RTÉ TV and radio slots by talking about the dance as though it were in fact a soap opera, worth watching for its big characters and human drama.

That strategy, widely adopted, mostly works well enough, but sometimes it's a "diversion" in both senses of that word. For example, the reports on last week's talks between Northern politicos and the British Chancellor stuck to a superficial script, yo-ho-ho-ing about the big money at stake (or was it?) and wondering whether Gordon Brown would be "comfortable" among all the hard men.

Only listening between the lines did I hear a deeper political and economic message: Northern Ireland is going to come in for some classic neo-liberal shock treatment: "reform" of "bloated" social services; incentives for private involvement in public projects; new charges for things like water – the whole structural adjustment shebang – and this has consensual support. Across the political divide there seemed to be disappointment that the "package" won't include a massive cut in corporation tax, to the levels in the South or lower.


Threat of a bad example

Whether or not it is politically enabled in the coming days and weeks, much of this programme is predicated on the widespread notion that the Republic's economic success is (1) genuinely desirable and (2) repeatable by following particular PDish policies, rather than being accidental or, at least, highly contingent. In our media there is occasional moral agonising over (1) but rarely much consideration of (2).

An interesting aspect of activism about US military use of Shannon Airport is seeing how arguments in Clare implicitly throw (1) and (2) wide open. People in the Shannon area see the prosperity they've managed to grasp both as dependent on US support and as threatened by this State's neo-liberal shift away from the Shannon stopover policy for commercial carriers.

The after-effects on political integrity of managing such contradictions are there for all to see. On Clare FM, I debated a very nice-sounding Fianna Fáil senator and general-election candidate, who presumably thought local voters would happily believe him when he said of Iraq: "I don't know anyone who thinks getting US and British troops out would be the right thing to do." Since polls say the vast majority of Iraqis think just that, along with the majority of Americans and now, it seems, a surveyed majority of US troops, this statement represents a failure of curiosity, at best.

In the Irish Independent, Kevin Myers's dramatically flagged (and highly qualified) recantation of his support for the war didn't actually adopt that troops-out position. Indeed it was notable mainly for the rare appearance in a newspaper headline of the phrase "arrant bilge".


More arrant bilge

Meanwhile, a Nicaraguan election, which would in 1979-1990 have been global front-page news for weeks, almost slipped under the media radar. The Reuters agency quietly reported, with a construction that would do Clare politicians proud: "US officials have warned that US aid and investment could drop under a new [Daniel] Ortega government." It "could drop" rather than "would be cut" – sounds less blatant that way, doesn't it?

International media paid far more attention to elections arguably of less dramatic import, namely the US midterms. Last Saturday's Irish Times caught the mood of the US media's Obamania, with a big frontpage photo of Illinois Democratic senator Barack Obama; the caption featured a quote from the political star du jour, "If we're focused, we're going to deliver and we're going to win." Ah, see, when you read inspiring speechifying like that, you start to see what all the fuss is about.

Again and again we heard that Iraq was the dominant issue in elections that, in the real world, were contested by two parties whose major figures – Obama included – won't adopt the anti-war stance now held by most of their compatriots. Most Democrats used vague language about "changing course". Most eligible voters, as usual, stayed at home.