Despite tiredness I sat up a bit longer than I intended so that I might catch last evening’s Claire Byrne show. It was never going to be a popcorn and fizzy occasion, more something done out of dull compulsion. Labour Party leader and Tanaiste Joan Burton would be debating Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams live in front of a studio audience. By no means pregnant with titillation, there was enough of the bad smell about it to make me want to sniff again. Moth to the flame sort of thing.
I was not sure how the debate would go. Burton, who assumed the party leadership from ‘a bumptious master of artificial anger’ was very much a part of Team Gilmore and agreed to it being embedded in the Fine Gael dominated right wing cartel and must therefore take – or be hit up the face with, whether she takes it or not - a large measure of responsibility for the penury and destitution so many Irish citizens endure.
Since replacing Gilmore as leader she has made no appreciable difference. Labour policy is still the same: austerity all the way with a promise to protect the worst off from the worst effects. But when those hardest hit think the cure is just as bad as the disease, lashing out at their tormenters seems so natural a course to take. Burton was always going to be on the ropes and the old lady killer, Gerry Adams, was going to ensure she stayed there, while he would charm and seduce the viewers with radical chic and charisma.
It didn’t quite go according to the script. The Sinn Fein leader rode into Dublin on a horse called Austerity which had fallen at every fence in Belfast. His party in the North has been incorporated into Tory economic strategy in a way that was wholly inconceivable in the Thatcher years. The old refrain of if it wasn’t for our presence things would be much worse only gets you so far. It hasn’t worked for Labour and there is no reason, other than an electorate wanting to dig its punitive finger even deeper into the Labour eye, to think that it might work for Sinn Fein for much longer in a society that wants change not chicanery.
It would be beneficial to the analytical eye to develop a sense of detachment when viewing Adams, even on the outside chance that he might actually say something that could prove insightful. Last night what he said, had all been said before. There was nothing new in his assaults on Labour and they were considerably milder than those salvoes launched by the journalist Gene Kerrigan. But the instinctive assumption on the part of those familiar with his by now ritual observance of dissembling – even being openly accused by Burton that he was lying which prompted the lie that he wasn’t – is a hard one to divest.
It is not that Adams lost the debate. Far from it. But he should have won it and won it well. The wind of change, or rather storm, is blowing much too hard in the face of Burton for her critics not to easily sail along. What is surprising is that Burton handled it so well, coming off the ropes to land haymakers and dexterously employing ring craft when on them. Adams made little of the headway he did when he debated Labour leader Ruairi "Ho Chi" Quinn back in November 2001. Burton was not obliterated by Adams, riding on the crest of a Syrzia wave coming in from Greece, which must look like a tsunami to nervous Irish political officeholders. Perhaps riding that crest while simultaneously riding that old Stormont horse called Austerity has left him vulnerable, less sure footed. In any event, Burton taunted, goaded, and ridiculed him, landing blows that would never have gotten through had the much more formidable Pearse Doherty been in the opposite corner.
In the end as I yawned, switched off and headed for bed it struck me that I had just watched a circus where the two main clowns were promising the audience an extravaganza featuring live mermaids and unicorns if only it would just continue to hang around and buy into their bull of good times ahead.