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A people’s republic?

February 24, 2011

Although you could claim that detachment lends insight, it is always dangerous to risk comment on electoral matters in a jurisdiction in which you are not entitled to vote. Like many, I possess an Irish passport but not the qualification to vote in tomorrow’s election. Though the Irish media are observing a moratorium on comment for the 24 hours before the polls open, I hope my Edinburgh location allows me to post a few thoughts on the state of play. Certainly, my obsession with Irish politics, north and south, for the better part of forty years, suggests how difficult it would be for me to remain silent on the issue.

In the wake of the fleeing of the Celtic Tiger and the widely reported economic meltdown, there were suggestions that this would be an epoch changing election in Ireland: the people were angry, the Taoiseach was ousted, change was the mood of the day. This was reflected in crowds marching and an emergence of new political groupings. The received wisdom was: out of governmental and economic chaos, the Irish political system would get the change of ethos that it so desperately needed. Grand!

However, as the campaign progressed, it soon became obvious that change with any kind of capital C was not about to happen. According to the polls, tomorrow the Irish voters will do what they’ve always done when they’ve felt the need to give Fianna Fail a good kicking: they will vote for a government which will be led by Fine Gael, with or without Labour as a coalition partner. It won’t be exactly business as usual: Fianna Fail will probably hit an all time low; there is still a chance that Fine Gael could govern as a majority and Independents and Sinn Fein stand to make gains. However, given the cataclysmic events that have befallen Ireland over the past two years or so, the change will not be seismic.

Watching from a distance, you might be tempted to wonder how this could be; how a people who have totally lost faith in their country’s governance, and those who purport to effect it, could vote, generally speaking, for more of the same.

There’s not room here to reflect on Irish political habits in depth, and others are far more qualified than I to do that, but there are some ‘known knowns’ that are worth mentioning.

Patterns of voting and party support in Ireland follow their own particular traditions. Broadly speaking Fianna Fail, which styles itself ‘The Republican Party’ is descended from those who opposed the Treaty after the Civil War in the 1920s; Fine Gael, traditionally more right of centre, developed from those who accepted the Treaty. Family tradition is important, as is geography and other elements of local history. In terms of political ideology, though Fine Gael would espouse small business and Fianna Fail a more populist approach, there is little to choose. Indeed both parties have been more than willing to cut their political cloth to suit the voting patterns of the time: Fianna Fail keen to play the Republican card if they felt it was advantageous; Fine Gael veering towards the monetarist when times were hard and they felt the voters would respond well to strict measures. In brief, which of the major parties you voted for was affected more by tradition than by political beliefs. Around the edges, various parties of the ‘Left’, from Labour through various Republican groupings, and the Greens, have enjoyed isolated success in some urban areas, but, as various coalition arrangements have shown, were not much more wedded to ideology than the big two.

This situation proved ideal breeding ground for the development of classic clientelism. You voted for ‘the man who got things done’ – whether it be new tarmac for a country road, a speeded up hospital building programme, or, in the case of Mayo, an international airport built on wild and remote bogland. The ideal was if you had a government minister as your TD, you would keep voting for him as he (nearly always he) was in the best position to make things happen. Conversely, the parties would promote inadequate politicians to Cabinet because they needed more votes in their neck of the woods. The business of government came second to the business of keeping constituents happy. I should admit ot benefiting from this system, as , in the sixties I was brought drinks by eventual President, Paddy Hillery, and also former Tanaiste, Brian Lenihan Senior, by virtue of being present in a West Clare hotel bar when they entered and ordered ‘drinks all round’.

For long enough, it was system that people tolerated – especially if their TD was in a position to make things happen locally. An additional complication was the multimember PR voting system, each constituency having multiple TDs. Recent figures suggest that TDs in constituencies where the other members were of their own party, worked almost twice as hard as those where the constituency had mixed representation, obviously concerned at losing out to party colleagues in the popularity stakes. Which is very odd in terms of the democratic process. Voters tend to favour this system as they can approach TDs to operate as ‘super county councillors’ almost:’ If you don’t get the sewage fixed, you’re no friend to this constituency’. Consequently, the central civil service spends unbelievable amounts of time responding to local issue queries from the minister rather than on wider government strategies. Of course, all political systems contain some of this clientelism, it’s just that, in Ireland, you could say it is the central plank of the political process.

Such lack of national focus inevitably held back the country’s development – a fact that was comfortably disguised by the effects of the Celtic Tiger. It was like a spendthrift finding a bag of money in the street and using it to convince his family that his spending habits were under control. When the bag was empty, the (big) cat was out of it.

This narrow approach to politics also led to the ‘cute hoor’ phenomenon. In the 70s and 80s, the antics of Charles J Haughey and his associates were obvious to all: over familiarity between developers and politicians; an inexplicable income for Haughey that enabled him to buy a lifestyle including the likes of his yacht in which he sailed far too close to the wind for the best part of two decades. His defence would have been basically that he was doing it for the people; the voters in turn, in a small developing country, trying to make its way in the world, were only too happy to turn a blind eye and even admire the guy who was ‘putting one over on the big lads’ – even if, in the process, they were being hoodwinked as well. After all, what Haughey and co were doing at national level was replicated to the delight of the villagers and townspeople at local level.

It was a system that was indefensible in terms of civic morality or even political effectiveness, but it served its purpose in maintaining the ruling party, overwhelmingly Fianna Fail, in government through the years. Your Government programme was based not on ‘What do we have to do for the good of the country?’ but on ‘What do we have to do to keep in power’. Again, this is not an unusual political approach, but one which the Irish carried to the ultimate extremes. It was, as Haughey memorably said of another situation: ‘An Irish solution to an Irish question’, and the question was, more often than not was: ‘Who did your granda vote for, and is there anything I can get done for you?’

Ultimately, a Haughey inspired acronym, best describes the whole sad state of affairs: Grotesque, Unbelievable, Bizarre, Unprecedented; it was GUBU.

And what of the media and political commentators in the misdt of all this? What was their stance? Well, it varied from responsible to conniving, but enough of it was controlled by ‘government sources’ to weaken its expository power, and, in any case, the political chiefs were never above bypassing the press and bribing the people directly with tax handouts and feel good announcements. It is notable that, until the crash happened, the biggest denunciations were reserved for those in the media guilty of warning of an incipient implosion; a displacement actively encouraged by government personalities.

With this history of blind eye giving, it was maybe a bit previous to anticipate a major change in this election – but those in the know suggest the change must come, if not now, later. The uncertainty is where it will come from. There is a left alliance running in this campaign – the latest in a long story of realignments, arrangements and amalgamations on that side of the political spectrum, hamstrung as always by the rural nature of much of the country and the earlier disapproval of Church authorities; the FF offshoot – the Progressive Democrats, flared briefly then crashed and burned in the last couple of decades; new parties tend not to cut the mustard on the Irish scene, so is there any possibility from within the current set up?

In his excellent book on the current situation ‘Enough is Enough’, leading political journalist, Fintan O’Toole, argues that change is needed desperately and that perhaps the way forward is to establish a true Republic in Ireland, rather than using the word as a totemic and rather ill fitting cloak of patriotism. The 1916 proclamation was of its time and visionary in its aims for the new Republic, but the Democratic Programme of the First Dail in 1919, was, as one would expect, rather more detailed and politically circumspect. The men of 1916, of course, had been a fairly strained amalgam of romantic nationalism, working class socialism and bourgeois small businessmen. They were concerned more with achieving freedom rather than what to do with it when they gained it. Labour Leader James Connolly, finally convinced to throw in his Citizen’s Army lot with the Nationalist Volunteers, was not averse to advising his men to hold on to their weapons as they might be needed in a class struggle after the Rising. The First Dail, all Ireland elected, and overwhelmingly Sinn Fein, wanted to face up to the realities of Government. Sadly the ideals of the Democratic programme were largely lost in the War of Independence and the Civil War, and the Ireland that De Valera shaped throughout the forties and fifties was a different animal altogether.

There are lines in the Programme, as O’Toole points out, that echo very loudly in today’s Ireland.

We declare that we desire our country to be ruled in accordance with the principles of Liberty, Equality, and Justice for all…

…it is the duty of the Nation to assure that every citizen shall have opportunity to spend his or her strength and faculties in the service of the people. In return for willing service, we, in the name of the Republic, declare the right of every citizen to an adequate share of the produce of the Nation’s labour.

It shall be the first duty of the Government of the Republic to make provision for the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of the children, to secure that no child shall suffer hunger or cold from lack of food, clothing, or shelter, but that all shall be provided with the means and facilities requisite for their proper education

It shall also devolve upon the National Government to seek co-operation of the Governments of other countries in determining a standard of Social and Industrial Legislation with a view to a general and lasting improvement in the conditions under which the working classes live and labour.

Like any Government programme it is high on language and non specific on detail, but its aims are true and its provenance is interesting. Though contemporary newspapers referred to the Easter Rising as ‘The Sinn Fein Rebellion’, that was misnomer. Indeed the Sinn Fein party, as it was originally founded, was far from being revolutionary; it was rather the product of a respectable and bourgeois small business class. Events overtook it and it became the Republican Party after Easter 1916. The Democratic Programme of 1919, however, showed the extent to which it was able to re-invent itself and how it had learned from its brief history.

My question is: could this happen again?

The derivation of ‘Republic’ res publica, can be translated as ‘pertaining to the public’ and O’Toole is right in that what Ireland needs is a system of government which puts the needs of the public first. Too often in the past, certainly since the founding of the State, a repressive ambience has meant that citizens were told what to do ‘for the good of the state’, whereas, ideally, the state should be told what to do ‘for the good of the public’. This highly patriarchal approach, and overstrong reliance on authority ‘to know best’ led to predictable abuses of the political process and, in a parallel sense, horrendous, and literal, abuse by the authority of the Church. In addition, it led to a legislature that has been not only overwhelmingly male in its make up, but also containing gross over representaiton of teachers, lawyers and medics. For all their self sense of being ‘rebels’, the Irish are, like many rural countries, essentially conservative. Getting on with their local business while leaving ‘them in Dublin’ to do as they wished, eventually led to their downfall. O’Toole reckons that, self evidently, reform can only come from the bottom up, or from ‘the people’. Thus the need for a true, operational Republic, rather than one represented by the almost comic reflex of ‘Up the Republic’, as a way of playing the green card and stifling both opposition and even any incisive thought about the country’s governance.

Sinn Fein, as it did previously, between 1916 and 1919, has gone about re-inventing itself. Challenged by the UK Government during the Troubles to put its policies to the vote, it has gradually lessened its grip on the armalite and tightened its understanding of the ballot box. As even its most severe critics admit, its grassroots organisation in the North and its commitment to community politics has been behind its rise to powersharing. Again, even those critics admit that it works for its consituents, in every sense.

It has a way to go in the 26 Counties and more organisation to build. In addition it has an additional hurdle to leap. Many in the South still view Sinn Fein with distrust tantamount to hatred. The majority position in the Republic during the Troubles was one of fear that the conflict would spread south; indeed, there was almost a sense of deliberate avoidance for many people who, literally didn’t want to know. Others, understandably, focus on the death and mayhem caused by the combatants in the 6 Counties, and refuse to have anything to do with Sinn Fein. This is position which particularly suits media and establishment in Dublin – for whom Sinn Fein are either the ‘real deal’ and will threaten the status quo, or are in some way still wedded to violence, and must be shunned at all costs. Reporting on the party is frequently hostile, and polls are scanned for evidence of a collapse in support or a lack of success. Many feel it’s better the devils you know than the one you are scared of. Hence Fine Gael’s current standing in the polls.

However, possibly change of some kind is in the air. The election of Pearse Docherty as TD in Donegal may have been a turning point. Fianna Fail had left the seat unfilled till Docherty took them to the European Court and won a decision that the by-election had to be held. Assiduous constituency work led to an overwhelming victory; it seems a good illustration of ‘res publica’. Furthermore, an electrifying maiden speech in the Dail, where he laid into parliamentarians for forgetting to work for the people and allowing the crash to happen, made people sit up and notice, as has Gerry Adams decision to stand in the Louth constituency.

There is resistance to Sinn Fein, because of their past, but they have come on a far greater journey than any other party in Ireland in the past decade or so, and it’s not the first time they’ve done it. Maybe they deserve the chance to show if they can institute a new brand of politics, maybe they should be challenged again – to produce the Republic that they cherish?

Change can come. In a tour of Belfast’s City Hall last week, a venue long associated exclusively with Unionism in the city, I found great hope in the words below, on a stained glass window celebrating the city’s Dock strike of 1907, led by Jim Larkin. Now there’s a man who fought for change!

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