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Engage!

Kirby and Murphy tackle Ireland’s intellectual and political crisisReview by Niall Crowley 

 

President Michael D  Higgins has, on a number of occasions, suggested that we are experiencing an intellectual crisis that is far more serious than the economic crisis. He has challenged universities to be sources of original, creative and emancipatory scholarship and intellectuals to seek to recover the possibilities of alternative futures. Peadar Kirby and Mary Murphy are two intellectuals who clearly take up the challenge in this book.

Culture and institutions are at the heart of their analysis and vision. Culture is the mix of ideas and values that shape what we aspire to. Institutions are those political and administrative entities that enable us to make these aspirations real. Interests and the balance of interests are then central to this analysis in determining the direction, or even the possibility, of change.

The authors offer an uncomfortable analysis. They make the case for a Second Republic and identify the changes that must be sought in culture and institutions.

They point to a popular discourse dominating Irish politics that poses as value- free. This has allowed dominance of the neo-liberal ideology. They blame the absence of a counter discourse on monopoly ownership of the media; co-option into social partnership of civil society; creeping state control of civil society; the absence of a  radical critique by cultural writers and artists who are supported by the state; and a diminution of robust debate and political satire in public broadcasting.

They describe Irish politics as profoundly populist and localist in nature and culture. They draw from a range of sources to point to two key problems with our political institutions. We have a centralised parliament notorious for its ineffectiveness in making policy or overseeing the executive and we have an electoral system that promotes localism and clientelism over policy-making, values and leadership. In relation to the state administration they point to issues of accountability and transparency alongside a relatively weak policy capacity and implementation record at national and local level.

The terrain of political struggle is usefully set out in terms of three different political economy models.

The weak liberal model is pretty much what we currently have and is based on foreign investment, low tax and market dominance. The authors point out that this model is incompatible with the achievement of their second republic.

The developmental social model involves a strengthened state capacity to develop the economy and state involvement in the economy. It is based on higher levels of taxation, high-quality publicly-funded universal social services and strong redistributive mechanisms to address inequality.

The ecological or ethical socialist model would entail radical reforms to the economy and society. It is based on recognition of the unsustainability of economic growth as the motor for development. It is based on a steady state economy, flourishing local economies, tax reform to place the burden on ecological ‘bads’, public transport and locally-based healthcare.

Despite the scale and nature of the crisis we are encountering there is no optimism from the authors that crisis will inevitably lead to progressive change. They identify powerful proponents of the weak liberal model who remain dominant in politics, civil society and the private sector. However, they suggest forces are seeking to coalesce around a project for a more regulated and just form of capitalism.

A significant challenge is posed by the authors to civil society and to citizens. Civil society is seen as an incubator for new ideas and values and as a potentially transformative agent. They point to the diversity and fragmentation in civil society and set a challenge for a leadership capable of building alliances and shared agendas.

The authors conclude ‘The first Irish republic was built on the initiative of nineteenth century civil activism; building the second republic requires an equivalent twenty-first century civic initiative’.

Towards a Second Republic provides easy access to a wide range of academic thinking in Ireland, Europe and further afield. It is a treasury of ideas and sources. It is an academic work that has been written, in the authors words, “in the white heat of battle”. They emphasise that ”the realm of ideas has for the first time in a century become a lively battleground”. The book leaves readers well armed to engage in this vital battleground.