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Fianna Fáil in government has changed us all

Only the allegiance to the personal over the political kept us – relatively – sane.
Frank Callanan

One of the least-considered characteristics of Irish politics is that which has most defined it: the ascendancy of Fianna Fáil. This asserted itself between 1932 and 1973, broken only twice, gave way to a pattern of alternance (rotation) over the quarter century 1973-1997 and then seemed to re-establish itself in the general elections of 1997,  2002  and 2007. It was as if the electorate had acquired, and then lost, the knack of turning Fianna Fáil out. There is a remarkable dearth of analysis of, and reflection on, what might be called the macro-psychological effects of the decade of three consecutive Fianna Fáil election victories on civil society including the media, opposition and civil service. These were considerable, even devastating.

The most obvious effect of a return to Fianna Fáil dominance was on the public service whose independence and professionalism were placed under attack at a number of levels. However, it certainly did not stop there. Every person in the state who was not in one way or another signed up to Fianna Fáil had to come to terms with its dominance of government in Ireland. There was what might seem a mild form of self-censorship: not that one feared to express opposition to Fianna Fáil or identify with an opposition party, but that one did not wish to appear a raving lunatic. One did not want to bang on, to appear at odds with the fact of Fianna Fáil governmental hegemony, to seem unreconciled to a semi-natural law. At a political level, opposition politicians – however dismayed –  persevered in opposing, but in civil society opposition became in some degree a matter of a mild form of passive resistance, a refusal of mental assent, almost a bearing of witness: but all a little intellectually muted. This was partly to do with the pace of what purported to be economic development, but owed something too to the political genius of Bertie Ahern, whose most under-rated skill was that he knew as Taoiseach to give the minimum of tribal offence, of gratuitous provocation, to those not of his clan.

I can perhaps transcend any perception of personal partisanship by identifying and addressing what I think is an important historical phenomenon: an overwhelming political characteristic of the years through which we have lived.

So, what was the effect on each of us individually of the remorseless electoral ascendancy of Fianna Fáil from 1997? We all had to choose a mode of being, a discursive protocol in that Ireland. We can’t grasp what happened without asking that question, without pondering the impact on others of sustained ascendancy, over a very sustained period in a small state, of  Fianna Fáil (and the Progressive Democrats).
In his superb recently-published extended essay ‘Ill Fares the Land’, the contemporary historian Tony Judt discusses intellectual inhibitions – in the wake of the Thatcher and Reagan revolutions – on the discussion of social democracy (whether called by that name or not) and on public provision. He considers that “our disability is discursive”. That discursive disability afflicted economic debate in Ireland too. One might throw in the peculiarity that many, if not most, Irish people somewhat bizarrely continued throughout to think of Ireland as, socio-economically, a centre-left state. My principal purpose, however, is to borrow from Judt the term ‘discursive disability’ and to apply it to the dearth of analysis of the effects on civil society of the reversion to Fianna Fáil hegemony without alternance from 1997 to date.
It may be that the thesis requires a novelist, a combination perhaps of Colm Tóibín and Ross O’Carroll Kelly, or awaits a historian still in primary school. In the initial upswing of the boom, my own sense was that people wanted to be left in peace, to enjoy undisturbed, only for a while, a modest onset of prosperity, and not be hectored by church or state, not to be nagged by economists and intellectuals – never mind opposition politicians. In the longue durée of Irish history and the shorter course of Irish statehood, the wish  for a momentary respite –  to be allowed to come out from the chill of the shadows and stand for a while in the sun – was not without poignancy. It is hard, however, to bring such respites to a close, and the craving for remission was thoroughly understood and exploited to the hilt by the then Taoiseach.

My point is that there was, and continues to be, a striking lack of self-awareness, of reflexive consciousness, of the peculiar state of living in Ireland over the Ahern decade, and not being Fianna Fáil or Progressive Democrat. This also had a marked effect on the media, which had to negotiate this strange psychological state. Some commentators, without necessarily having thought too much about it, came to regard Fianna Fáil’s ascendancy over the opposition parties in brutalistically Darwinian terms.

The country had seemed to lose the most modest and most under-rated virtue of democracy, the habit of alternance. The phenomenon was cumulative. Without changes of government, the sense of the necessity of politics atrophied. The electorate was habituated to Fianna Fáil governance, and – somewhat unfairly, certainly by the 2007 election – the lack of governmental experience became a reproach against Fine Gael and Labour.

The abuse of power to which the state transpired to be most vulnerable was the remorseless use by a government of its powers not for the conventional ends of government but consciously and systematically to perpetuate itself in office.

Legal and political accountability is achieved primarily through the political system and the political culture. The origins of our present discontents are political rather than economic, something we remain a little shy in acknowledging. That the Irish state, so jealously nurtured by successive regimes from 1922, went off the rails for a decade is in the first instance a political issue, though the most devastating consequences were of course economic.

While it might seem a little late now, we still need a greatly-sharpened alertness to the dangers of the consolidation of quasi-single-party rule by a combination of grossly irresponsible and politically-self-interested economic policies, and the systematic erosion of conventional institutional constraints.

The Department of Finance was traditionally the institutional economic check on the policies of Irish governments, and was from time to time accused of playing that role to excess. Politicians routinely complained about the Department of Finance, but there was a more-or-less good-humoured acceptance of the necessity for its role.

It is instructive to look back to what was said of the Department in the Dáil in November 1951 (cited in Ronan Fanning’s history of the Department of Finance). Both John A Costello and Éamon de Valera, respectively leader of the opposition and Taoiseach, emphasised the primacy of the government in relation to economic policy, but acknowledged its unique role in the administration of the state. While grumbling about the “wails and woes” of the Department, Costello paid tribute to the officials of the Department “who have stood rock-like against the assaults of all sorts of queer characters in the shape of Ministers since 1922. They have their point of view. They have …a very distinct, a very valuable function to fulfil in the machinery of government of this State”.  De Valera said:

“…my chief complaint against them is that they have been trying to be better than the government. But in their anxiety to serve the public weal, they have been constantly at pains, on every occasion on which expenditure is being contemplated for which the means are not obvious, to make that fact clear to the government. I think it is very good that they should do so. Surely no government wants to hide its head in the sand and to proceed in a direction in which there are dangers, if these dangers can be pointed out to them?”

It is the duty of the Department of Finance to point out to the Minister for Finance, if he does not see it himself, and, through him, to point out to the government, the direction in which they are going.

These observations relate of course to the old pre-Economic-Development Department of Finance. But they are of abiding relevance, and afford a striking benchmark against which to measure the induced institutional decadence of the years from 1997. The erosion of the authority and capacity of the Department of Finance, the subject of two devastating articles by Eddie Molloy in the Irish Times of 8-9 April 2010, led to and was epitomised by, the events of 28 September 2008, around which a veil of silence has been so tightly drawn.

Most of all we need to be conscious of the fragility of civil society in a tiny island with a centripetal proclivity to consensus that is susceptible to governmental manipulation.

The modest decencies of holding out, of not conforming: virtues that became for a time unfashionable, as manifested in an Ireland that has passed into history, are discreetly celebrated in a non-fiction piece by John McGahern, a review of Tim Pat Coogan’s Michael Collins biography, Taking us from Abbeylara to Granard, McGahern’s review opens with a passage on which I end:

“In the town of Granard in the low Cavan/Longford mountains, a surprisingly attractive Victorian canopy of iron and glass covers the entrance to the Greville Arms. Inside, a large blown-up photograph of Michael Collins in full uniform hangs over the handsome fireplace, his hand hovering over his holstered revolver. All through the decades of Eamon de Valera’s presidency it hung there arrogantly, as it still does in Charlie Haughey’s Ireland. For this was the home territory of Seán MacEoin, a blacksmith turned guerrilla leader, and later a general in the Free State Army  – Collins’ close friend; and the Greville Arms was owned by the Kiernans, Kitty Kiernan being one of the four glamorous sisters of the hotel, and the woman who was about to be married to Michael Collins when he was shot dead in August 1922 during the Civil War. It is this allegiance to the local and personal above the narrow rule of Church and State that has kept most of the people of Ireland as relatively sane as they are”.