“Whataboutery” is a curious Irish political phenomenon. Its brilliance is its deceptive innocence, a simple query designed not to elicit information but to actually delay something happening without confronting it directly.
Consider, if you will, the recent debate on the introduction of water rates, where a very significant outbreak of Whataboutery was recorded. The minister, John Gormley, announced that each home would have a free quota of water, based on the number of people in the home. “But whatabout if it’s a home with an old woman who has a lot of cats who need to be washed and if she can’t wash her cats she’ll get upset and die? Whatabout if it is a house with teenagers who like to take hour-long showers and if you don’t let them they’ll start using crack cocaine and looking for pedophiles on the internet? Whatabout if it is a scientist who is working on a new form of nuclear power in his backshed and needs loads of water to keep the fuel rods cool and he can’t afford the water and so his reactor goes critical? Doesn’t that mean that water rates will lead to the nuclear annihilation of Dublin? Well, I’m against that, and if the minister isn’t he doesn’t care about ordinary people!”
There’s also an Ulster derivative of Whataboutery, highlighted by the late David Irvine, with a unique Northern twist. Ulster Whataboutery takes the form of a twisted game of outrage Snap! where the players harangue each other with a list of outrages and slights against their own particular community, going back through history until reaching the first incident of a neanderthal marching provocatively past another neanderthal’s hole in the ground and denying him parity of esteem, or unless a player collapses from soda bread and deep-fried Mars Bar deprivation. The winner gets a one year internship in the University of Massachusetts John Hume School for Peace and Sleep Inducement Studies.
Pat Leahy, in his excellent speech to the Kenmare economics conference here, makes a telling point about how Irish politicians are incredibly short term focused in their decision making. I bring up the point because, in light of the defeat of the government over the 30th amendment, we’re now looking again at the upcoming constitutional convention. Having watched Fine Gael in government for the last eight months now, their transformation into a “we’re in power now, so change as little as possible” Fianna Fail style government took less time than even I imagined, and I have no doubt that they are trying to dream up gimmicks for the convention to avoid changing anything major. That’s the thing: After the convention, constitutional reform will be off the table for a generation, and yet these guys, in their own party political interest, will try and stymie the process. Think I’m being too harsh? Ok, here’s what I think will happen:
1. The convention will be dominated by government TDs and government appointed NGOs who will be able to outvote the citizen members.
2. Many of the NGOs will side with the government to oppose radical political reform such as an elected Taoiseach, citizen initiated referenda, and term limits, and will get, in return, the insertion into the constitution of their pet political declarations.
3. Political reform will be limited to tinkering with the Seanad (possibly implementing elements of the 2004 “minimum change” report) and, bizarrely, changing the length of the presidential term. Electoral reform will be passed over, with the convention, after claiming that the only alternatives are party lists and first past the post, plumping to remain with STV exactly as it is.
Of course, perhaps I’m wrong. If Fianna Fail, Sinn Fein and the United Left demand that the convention be permitted to submit minority proposals to the voters, as the price for those parties participation in the convention, then maybe there is hope. It would be very hard for the government to continue with the convention without all party support, and this will be our last serious attempt at political reform for a generation.