Jude Collins

Monday, 3 January 2011

Off with his head!

I was at a social occasion a few days ago and a man I’d describe as a northern nationalist was talking. His theme was Brian Cowen, and the way he talked it sounded as though Brian Cowen, single-handed, had brought the twenty-six counties to its knees. I murmured something about world-wide recession, lies told by the banks, over-dependence on the housing market. No good. Cowen was to blame - sure didn’t he give an RTÉ interview and him half-cut?

Today and for some several days now, Conor Murphy has been coming under similar fire over the water supply crisis. Murphy is spoken of in some quarters as a future Sinn Féin leader, although personally I can’t see it. But maybe that explains the ferocity of the unionist onslaught he’s undergoing. “Pressure grows on Murphy over water debacle” is the unionist News Letter headline. The paper claims he didn’t seek help from British engineers nor had he requested emergency water supplies from the UK. Murphy’s colleague in the Executive cabinet Sammy Wilson draws a parallel with the transport standstill in Scotland during the snow, which led to the Scotland Transport minister resigning: “Will he [Murphy] be as honourable as the Transport Minister in Scotland or will the punishment parcel be passed down the line?”

Sammy is half-right, in that the punishment parcel has indeed been passed down the line, to the Water Service. Where it should have been passed is up the line, to the successive British direct rule administrations who consistently ignored the state of water and sewage systems here, leaving us to cope with the smell and mess we now face. But blaming decades of British misrule would have meant distributing blame over a whole range of people and over a decades-long time-period.

Not satisfying enough. What people want when faced with a mess is a single head, which can be chopped off and sent rolling along the floor to public applause. Cardinal Brady is to blame for clerical child abuse so he should resign. Brian Cowen is to blame for the south’s financial crisis so he should resign. Conor Murphy is to blame for the failure to maintain the water supply so he should resign.

In Old Testament times the scapegoat, a symbol of Satan, had all the sins of the people heaped on it before being driven into the wilderness. So today. Locating a problem in the system of things or identifying a decline as rooted in international events about which we can do nothing - that sort of analysis is no fun. Much better satisfy the public blood-lust and produce a goat called Brady or Cowen or Murphy. That means if we can just hit the goat a skelp and send it skittering off into the desert, we’ll have addressed the problem AND given vent to our rage.

Oh God. The surprising thing is not that we have water supply problems. What’s surprising is that we haven’t acute problems with water, heat, light, air, food, everything, given the infantile way in which we respond when there is a problem.


  1. No you can't blame Cowen and Brady for everything but you can blame them for some specific things.

    Cowen was finance minister for a good part of the time that the banking and housing bubble was being inflated. He sat round the cabinet table which approved all sorts of insane tax reliefs for those sectors while at the same time destroying a sustainable tax base.

    Cowen was also the man leading the Irish government for the last 18 months when a whole series of terrible decisions were made - not least that Irish citizens would be on the hook for unlimited banking losses. And before you start to blame the global recession read the Regling and Watson report which lays out in forensic detail how Ireland's disaster was home grown.

  2. Anonymous - thanks for your comment. I could be reading reports for several lifetimes before I'd be persuaded that somehow, of all the Western states in crisis, the twenty-six counties did a home-grown job. I'd be among the last to defend Fianna Fail - a self-serving shower indeed - but to imagine that the source of the problem or its major impetus came from Cowen or FF is to given them more weight than they are or were capable of wielding.

  3. Ok fine, if you prefer instinct to evidence that's your lookout. But Regling-Watson is a mere 43 pages. The exec summary is just over two. You can read it here:


    For what it's worth I think the Murphy witch hunt is bullshit. As NIW is a GoCo his role is not as an executive but as a shareholder.