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Sunday 26 June 2005

Snipers must learn principles mean little without pragmatism

'Morality is often the attitude we adopt to people whom we personally dislike." So wrote
Oscar Wilde, and he hadn't even read Ruth Dudley Edwards' piece On Planet Fianna Fail,
principle is simply a joke
in last week's Sunday Independent. In it, Ruth was not just
speaking for herself, but for all for those possessed with (to use her own word) a
"visceral" hatred of Fianna Fail.

The condition is not new, it's been around as long as Fianna Fail itself. The symptoms
vary. For some it shows itself as an uncontrollable desire to slam the front door in the
face of the local Fianna Fail TD when they call around.For others the condition appears
as an odd hallucinatory fit, causing the sufferer to meander aimlessly, uttering such
inanities as: "I think FG and Labour could set aside their differences and govern
effectively."

Unfortunately, to judge from Ruth's tirade last Sunday, she falls into a third category:
those who know they have the condition, but cannot rationally explain it.

The headline on Ruth's article was stark indeed. Charging FF with being totally
unprincipled is a devastating indictment, not only of the largest political party on the
island, but of those whose votes have made it so.

Ruth's case consists of a few scattered anecdotes and memories of some former party
personalities.

The clincher, however, consisted of one humorous aside from the avuncular Brian Lenihan,
who replied to a question from Ruth - asking if integrity mattered to him - with the
line: "J****s cousin, you're great gas."

There it is. Case proved. QED. Proof beyond any shadow of a doubt that for 75 years the
Irish people have been the willing victims of an elaborate hoax. Did it ever occur to
Ruth to look at her 'cousin' Brian's record as a legislator to ascertain if principle
mattered to him?

To this end I can loan her a copy of his own book, For the Record.In it Brian writes
about his political belief in the pluralistic approach of liberalism, in FF's
social-republican ethos and its values as a social democratic party.

"Idealism of one kind or another is the petrol of politics," Brian writes, expressing his
desire to see "a balance of principle, policy and reality" in political life.

Ruth should also read John Horgan's excellent biography of Sean Lemass. If she did, she
could hardly conclude that Lemass was an unprincipled charlatan. The charge that she, and
others, are really levelling at FF is not that the party is unprincipled, but rather that
it is pragmatic - in their eyes a far greater crime.

To them the word principle means intellectual, erudite, genteel, high-brow; while
pragmatism denotes uncultured, unsophisticated, regressive.Whatever it is, they believe
you cannot be both principled and pragmatic, as they see the two as poles apart. The fact
is that you can and indeed must be both if you want to see change.

Life requires a balance of principle and pragmatism. This has been the basis of Fianna
Fail's success in Irish politics, from de Valera to Ahern. This success is gauged both in
electoral terms and in changes made in Irish society.

Doctrinaire policies - principles untouched by pragmatism - are of no benefit to the real
needs of people. That approach is best summed up by the old French joke: "Yes, it may
work in practice, but will it work in theory?"

But just as principle without pragmatism achieves no real change, pragmatism unguided by
principle can herald chaos and disaster.

Yes, there have been individuals in Fianna Fail whose personal venality transgressed the
trust placed in them by the people.

Other political parties have had similar experiences, yet don't attract the scorn of Ruth
et al. Could there be a double standard?

Could it be that Ruth and her pals are just like Lord Goring in Oscar Wilde's An Ideal
Husband, when he says: "I don't like principles. I prefer prejudices."

Willie O'Dea is Minster for Defence and Fianna Fail TD for Limerick East

Willie O'Dea

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