Thursday, July 26, 2018

Eamon Dunphy and Official Ireland

A working-class hero is something to be

Eamon Dunphy helped elect two Irish governments. No small achievement for anybody. For a man who made his name by claiming not to be part of “Official Ireland,” it’s surely something of a miracle.

Dunphy details his first involvement in government formation in his (relatively) recent autobiography, The Rocky Road. It’s in the first few pages, should anybody feel like a browse – investing in the book cannot be recommended.

The year is 1993. Dessie O’Malley, the great nearly man of Irish politics, has resigned as leader of the party he founded, the Progressive Democrats. The succession is between two people – Pat Cox, and Mary Harney.

Harney is convinced that she is much more popular nationally than Cox. But Cox is the definition of a smooth operator, and the PD parliamentary party is in love with him. What is Mary Harney to do?

She explains the situation to a close personal friend. Eamon Dunphy was then writing a much-discussed column on the back page of the Sunday Independent, in which he used to butcher such persons in public life as the editor deemed worthy of butchering.

Harney told Dunphy that she knew, just knew, that she was the popular choice, but how to convince the PD parliamentary party? Dunphy discussed the situation with the editor and deputy editor of the Sunday Independent at the time, and persuaded them to run an opinion poll on who was the public’s choice for Dessie O’Malley’s successor. They were reluctant, but Dunphy was a star at the paper and he got his way.

The poll showed that Mary Harney was indeed the people’s choice. She beat Pat Cox for the leadership, and went on to lead PDs into the 1997 coalition with Fianna Fáil that shaped contemporary Ireland as we currently know it.

And all because of Eamon Dunphy. If she and Dunphy weren’t friends, if Dunphy hadn’t been able to get that poll run in the Sunday Independent, Pat Cox would have become leader of the PDs and the history of the past twenty-five years could be different.

That’s power. And fifteen years later, Dunphy anointed another Irish political leader.

Shane Ross was part of the Irish political wallpaper for thirty years. He was first elected to the Seanad in 1981, and used to make speeches to nobody in the way that Irish Senators do. He was also Business Editor of the Sunday Independent, where he wrote columns about how the boom could only get boomier.

By the time the boom went bust, Eamon Dunphy had reinvented himself yet again. His Sindo bootboy column having gone stale, Dunphy was a radio news/discussion show presenter with a Janus-like presence. Janus was the Roman god of beginnings and endings; representations of Janus show the god with two faces, one facing left, one facing right.

Dunphy’s radio persona worked the same way. He still carried himself as the gunfighter, the outsider, the sworn enemy of “Official Ireland.” His actual interviewing style was a most peculiar sort of soft-soap, once both fawning and leading.

Those he once excoriated in the Sindo were now leaders of the revolution that would build the new Ireland. A typical Dunphy question at the time would be “Martin McGuinness, is it not the case that you are building a brave new Ireland?” to which McGuinness could but reply why yes, Eamon, yes, I am.

And then the crash happened in 2008, and Dunphy found a new hero. His former Sindo colleague, Shane Ross.

Dunphy always addressed Ross as Senator in those radio interviews, continuing the Roman theme. “Senator Ross,” he would ask/direct, “is it not the case that official Ireland has acted disgracefully in the matter of the Bank guarantee and that you would have done a much better job had you only been in charge?” Why yes, Eamon. Yes, I would.

And now Senator Ross is in charge. Could Shane Ross have got elected without Dunphy folding Ross into his rebel’s cloak? Of the many reinventions in Irish public life, surely Shane Ross as the Champion of the Common Man is the most remarkable.

When Europe was ruled by kings and emperors, it was the powers behind the thrones that called the shots. Bismarck for Germany, Metternich for Austria, Martens for Imperial Russia. Ireland is a long way from such power, but for one man to have played so prominent a role in forming two governments says something.

This lad Dunphy is a cod. Eamon Dunphy is as much part of "Official Ireland" as dodgy planning permission and guards that lose their phones at inopportune moments. Dunphy's role points out just how innocent, vulnerable and childishly-easily manipulated a people we are, and how very far from being a functional democracy this country is. God help us all.