Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

SF fills vacuum by standing up to Eurocrats

I watched Michael D Higgins being interviewed on Saturday's early evening news. It lasted about seven minutes. He was addressed as 'president-elect', a formality that might have been more correct as Mr president-elect'.

It seemed our new president achieved the whole exchange in one sentence. This was characteristic of him, a self-serving ribbon of sound, paying little attention to the questions.

For years, Michael D Higgins, in his public speaking, has wrapped one clause around another in a consciously literate expression of the content of his mind. Like the longest sentence in Marcel Proust's 'A Remembrance of Things Past' that goes on for several pages, life, wisdom, beauty and art are comfortably -- even lovingly -- wrapped up in the stream of words. There will be something in it for everyone. It will make him what he has so obviously promised: a president for all the people.

On that note I will pass from what has been a pretty poisonous presidential election to a singularly important matter -- the fate of the euro.

On this front, we have another speech phenomenon. This is the silence of Christine Lagarde, which is a worrying departure.

Once we believed in her warm friendship for Michael Noonan as she swept through the EU rooms in which our future was being tossed around by herself and her fellow-bureaucrats. Her silence now is almost certainly of greater significance than was her friendliness then. She was, of course, electioneering for the IMF job. Now there is a new Christine, hard, bright as a diamond and about as communicative. She treads the stage cautiously and silently.

Why? Of course she has changed jobs; but until recently she was a vibrant and talkative contributor to all discussions on the woes of our currency. One friend surmises that Lagarde has gone silent on orders from the IMF. This could signal IMF loss of confidence in what is being attempted, leaving the organisation on the sidelines instead of being a main player. And the reason for this could be the growing mood of doubt after market responses to last Thursday's early morning call.

It was classic Brussels spin, a complex throwing up of options, and it has had the thumbs down from a wide range of credible and balanced commentators. Ireland came out badly. And Sinn Fein performed appositely in criticising the absurd stance of our team in Europe. We have been dutiful for too long.

RTE echoes this view. But is there really any government excuse for not making better progress on our behalf since the February election? Why haven't they signed off on this yet? The simple answer is they are weak and afraid of Europe.

How was it possible for the Taoiseach and Finance Minister to come back empty-handed and without having put down any marker about the ridiculous imbalance between the treatment of Greece and the ignoring of us, the 'Good Boy' of Europe?

And how was it possible for RTE to handle so badly the Thursday deal?

When Anne Doyle asked Sean Whelan if the deal would bring recovery, he told her that the timing was wrong. "First things first," he said. "The intention of the deal was to save the euro." Not an answer.

That is much less our business and we have precious little role to play in it. What the news reader was telling the expert was what most intelligent people were thinking.

Sean Whelan, however, was siding with the Brussels fumblers. He was echoing our own Government's uncertainty, in the hope that, Micawber-like, something would turn up. It won't. And, though the source gave me no great pleasure, it wasn't long before Sinn Fein issued the same message.

Sinn Fein will next address the constitutionality of our Budget procedures. Brussels requires prior Commission approval. Our Constitution, in Article 28, says otherwise. Who will challenge this? You have guessed right: Sinn Fein.

We need a political party with sufficient courage and wisdom to take us in a different direction but there is not a need for Sinn Fein to do it. Quite the reverse, but vacuums get filled by wrong substances and this could happen here.

Europe is governed increasingly, and disastrously, by what the markets say. We are trying to satisfy them and appease them. We are doing the same with the banks. In this unsatisfactory situation, democracy is nowhere in sight.

Germany and France have no regard for Ireland. Our Government is shaping up to an even more abject excess of conformity and obedience.

The opportunities offered to Sinn Fein by this are more appealing than old-fashioned republicanism and Provo dogma, seriously exposed over the past six weeks.

During the February general election, they tried out a fresh, more youthful voice. It worked. Sinn Fein sees a real job that needs doing. They need new people to do it with. If they want to replace Fianna Fail -- and this seems their primary objective -- they must tackle more far-reaching renewal proposals.