Fintan O’Toole has a brilliant agenda but doesn’t know how to implement it
Michael Smith interviews Fintan O’Toole
First of all, Fintan O’Toole is very charming. He’s one of those people, like one of his Nemeses, Bertie Ahern, you think you know even if you’ve never met him. Because he is angry and a master of invective I’m expecting intensity, even testiness, and after a few unanswered emails and mutterings from some people who’ve met him I am a little nervous but, no: during our discussion over coffee and then lunch in the wine-bar below the Village office he’s almost disappointingly well-rounded, self-deprecatory, humorous, serious, a little shy.
I open by asking him what he thinks of his Apres Match persona (all huffing and expansive angularity). He thinks it’s frighteningly like him. A lady in the chemist mistakenly congratulated him on “his” performance on the Late Late Show. I should say, during our extended interview, his arms remain exactly where you’d want them to be.
Fintan O’Toole, of course, is a columnist, assistant editor and drama critic with the Irish Times. He has written over a dozen books, on drama, history and politics, including two in the last year. Ship of Fools outlined many of Ireland’s main social and economic problems. The first part of Enough is Enough again outlines the problems, centring on ‘Five Myths’ including that we live in a proper representative democracy when in fact “the Irish parliament is probably the weakest in the democratic world”. It’s the well-rehearsed exegesis of how public waste, disadvantaged schools, inadequate infrastructure and a two-tier healthcare system co-exist with crass displays of personal wealth. The second, more original, part of the book outlines solutions centring on ‘Five Decencies’.
So here’s the agenda. He believes all the principles have been tried somewhere. If you go to his website www.fintanotoole.ie you’ll find it expressed in ten points; if you go to his book it’s in fifty.
1 Establish a genuine system of local democracy. Introduce a property tax to fund it.
2 Transfer the useful functions of quangos to local councils.
3 Bring in legally binding national standards for planning and development and give the National Spatial Strategy statutory status.
4 Implement the Kenny report of 1974, allowing councils to purchase development land for its existing value plus 25 per cent.
5 Establish “deliberative democracy” experiments in every substantial community.
6 Severely limit the ability of governments to use the guillotine mechanism to pass legislation that has not been debated in parliament.
7 End the fiction that Ministers are responsible for everything that happens in their departments. Make them responsible for decisions they take and for information they ought to know. Make senior civil servants responsible for the decisions they take.
8 Restore the right of the Oireachtas to inquire into all activities involving the use of public money.
9 Make all appointments to state and public boards open to public competition and subject to Oireachtas scrutiny.
10 Reduce the size of the Dáil to 100 members.
11 Either make the Seanad representative of civil society, social partners and the new local councils within a short time frame or abolish it.
12 Change the Dáil electoral system to the additional-member system.
13 Introduce a gender quota of at least 30 per cent, to be enforced by reducing public payments to political parties by the degree to which they fail to introduce gender balance.
14 Hand primary schools over to local and democratic ownership and control.
15 Replace GDP as the primary measure of progress with a well-being index.
16 Radically curtail tax incentives for private pensions and stop putting money into the National Pension Reserve Fund. Use the money to increase the state pension for everyone to 40 per cent of pre-retirement income.
17 Switch spending from both social-welfare rent supplements and tax breaks for landlords to the provision of decent social housing.
18 Introduce a national system of social health insurance, abolishing the two-tier health system and radically reducing the size of the Health Service Executive.
19 Switch more health spending towards community and preventive services. Implement the primary-care strategy.
20 Charge university fees to those who can afford them. Increase grants for those who are currently excluded.
21 Expand adult and continuing education. Consider the idea of individual “education funds” attaching equally to each citizen.
22 Identify children at risk of failure from an early age and intervene immediately with personal and family supports.
23 Make the pay of those at the top a fixed percentage of that of those at the bottom.
24 Bring taxes up to average European levels. Reduce tax breaks to average EU levels, saving more than €5 billion.
25 Limit to three the number of directorships of public companies that any one individual can hold at the same time.
26 Give coherent legislative protection to bona-fide whistleblowers.
27 Restore the Freedom of Information Act to its former status.
28 Create a register of lobbyists and publish records of all meetings between lobbyists, ministers and public officials.
29 Review company law to end impunity for white-collar crime.
30 Ban all significant private donations to political parties and force all registered parties to publish full annual accounts.
Like David McWilliams, and perhaps Shane Ross, Fintan O’Toole offers an analysis so acute that he has become a messiah. Like them he is offering, more or less coyly, political solutions. So what drives the thinking of the Cassandra of Ireland’s journalistic left? He says he’s “obviously a socialist”, though not a “scientific socialist” and he considers socialism evolves. He believes there are levels of income beyond which people should not be allowed to rise, though pointing to China where he has lived, O’Toole says that “the depradations of an attempt to impose equality are greater than those of the market”. He’s influenced by Fabianism and British views of socialism – “Victorian socialism”. Still he’s quite prepared to half-describe himself as a social democrat too “in the context of radical institutional change”.
Though he cites thinkers like Philip Pettit and Ernst Bloch as influences, he is uncomfortable with the idea of heroes (at least outside the arts) and this turns out to be a profound and recurring concern for him. Beyond socialism he’s interested in resurrecting the notion of republicanism. Pettit sees republicanism as a balance between collective values and liberty but the paramount republican value is political liberty, understood as non-domination or independence from arbitrary power. O’Toole says he has been influenced by post-Marxists: Freud said sex was the driver of humanity but Bloch says hunger’s the driver while also believing in Hope and our orientation towards a socially- and technologically-improved future. O’Toole was inspired by the attempts by German-Jewish thinkers to deal with the alternatives to Barbarism. Walter Benjamin and Bertold Brecht applied Marxism to culture and art. From much of this he culls the notion of the importance of decency. He considers that a post-War Western consensus on decency was cruelly and deliberately undermined by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Thatcher radically revolutionised political culture in an ideological and even epic way. On a human level it was disastrous and cruel so he’d hope a balancing left-wing revolution would be more “modest” and “decent”, though he thinks crises can be used for “shock tactics” to change values in areas that might need it such as, at the moment, banking and government.
I suspect he has been wedded to a self-view as socialist for many years and suggest it doesn’t really capture his agenda which is also liberal, with a strong preference for transparency. He could describe his agenda simply as equality, sustainability, transparency in an Irish context, but he does not. It strikes me that his cogency is not particularly of an ideological nature. He prefers in his columns and books to iterate his agenda. Still this interviewer, at least, finds the wide-ranging agenda above compelling.
Quibbles might include that he is a little light on the theory of equality (including its most famous indicator, the Gini co-efficient), if not on the requirements of an equality agenda. His book is also surprisingly quiet about climate change and sustainability though, when asked, he declares this is an overarching principle. He doesn’t go into much detail about his vision of reformed local democracy.
In general he does not seem to rate public-sector reform as a priority, though of course he has long advocated enhanced accountability and transparency – there as elsewhere. He justifies this on the basis that we don’t have an oversized public service by international standards and that if there is excessive staffing then people can be redeployed. His premise is that in Ireland there is always scope for public servants to promote services that improve society and the quality of life. He concedes that we have no way of assessing productivity in the public sector and is appalled that we do not even know what most government departments, and even the likes of teachers, are trying to achieve, but outside the HSE he is reluctant to cite areas where productivity is scandalously low, while conceding there are some. Pointing to the privatised Eircom, he does not regard it as evident in any useful sense that the private sector is more productive than the public sector or that the profit-motive improves performance.
I ask if he considers the unions exert a positive influence on Irish society and note Social Partnership doesn’t figure in his book. He stresses the exploitation of vulnerable migrants and that Irish society would be vastly worse off without the Unions to defend the weakest. Unions were faced with a dilemma – their mostly conservative members were mostly voting Fianna Fáil and calling for tax cuts rather than radical change in society. Social Partnership led to the bargain of wage moderation for tax cuts – compromising the Unions who were left on the one hand arguing for improvements in society but on the other for tax cuts. Many of them became unfortunately comfortable with this horizon. They got plum positions on state boards and started to become part of the establishment, though they were by no means all “corrupt chancers”. Social Partnership neutralised dissent and indeed sidelined democracy, since the negotiations were secretive. He claims not to have answers as to what form Social Partnership should take in the future.
I wonder if he’d think of entering politics and suspect he finds the idea flattering. But he doesn’t want to get above his station. I suggest this is a peculiarly Irish tendency but he sees it as none the less real – a desire not to (be seen to) be “the Messiah, egotistical”, a need to avoid what he calls “the George Lee factor”: the danger of “going off half-cocked, of pretending to take an opportunity – of a few media stars getting power, not knowing what to do with it and then walking away after two years”. He thinks this is the “biggest danger”, one that could lead to “real despair”. I wonder if this is a real concern”. Surely O’ Toole is not George Lee. But, contrary to dispatches there’s a nervousness there, a certain humility. He is worried that he will be perceived to be arrogant. I ask if this is a reality and he says he knows it isn’t and in fact people accuse him of being too cautious. This blushing bridery is not necessarily a good thing. It strikes me that the same weakness besets the protagonists in other left-of-centre initiatives like Claiming the Future, Agora and Tasc. With the imminent election likely to generate an unexciting and hamstrung coalition, led by an unedifying Fine Gael, surely the best minds on the left need to be proposing an (electoral) alternative, not just a supplement. And then pushing it. But, though he has just set up a gushing website called fintanotoole.ie with an online 12000-signatory petition and even his diary for the next few years, O’Toole claims to see himself as a journalist who stimulates public discussion. He will be part of a movement but he (em almost definitely) will not seek electoral office, he has no ambition and he loves his current job. On the other hand he finds Claiming our Future “interesting” and suggests its mandate is superior to his own. He is not, however, particularly excited by the new United Left Alliance, fearing that the revolutionary left has failed to engage with the nature of the particular economic crisis we face. And he doesn’t approve of the “surfing by some of its components on the back of protests” with undercurrents of violence, which apart from being unethical alienates the mainstream.
He thinks the crisis is beginning to generate new movements but progress is slow because we’re such a conservative culture. By conservative he means not that we preserve anything (we don’t) it’s the conservatism of an emigrant culture (he thinks this more important than colonial past) – we’ll adapt to anything to avoid change. And he admits the left was a disaster during the Celtic Tiger and that many were subsumed into FF. He notes in passing that Bertie, the socialist, was “not a fool or at least was half-fool/half-genius”. Now people are beginning to talk about making sacrifices for the common good if someone could define it. He thinks the first step is to create space by removing Fianna Fáil which has been brilliant at killing energies, translating good into gombeen politics. He thinks the incoming government will find its policies don’t work – fiscal austerity and putting too much money into banks will deflate the economy and society. But a civic movement – as opposed to a political party – should emerge, focused on holding the balance of power, but dissipating after it achieves its agenda. He sees this as having happened in Iceland and sees parallels also in Eastern Europe where civic platforms drove politicians but didn’t take power.
But in Ireland we’ve the immediacy of an election. And it seems to me he’s not focused on this. The most he concedes is that it is possible an electoral force will emerge from a genuine movement. I suggest that our best may be victims of the conservatism he refers to, and he agrees. “None of us know what to do. The landscape is very different from what it was. The traditional left has got used to telling the story that we’re so rich we shouldn’t have poverty. This was predicated on the availability of wealth (which still remains) for distribution but the narrative is up. People like myself are struggling with what the narrative is. There are no solutions that are not radical. With banks there are no solutions outside default. Amelioration and tinkering are not enough”. I ask him if he feels a burden. That history might be unkind if the forces don’t coalesce to avoid five years of reactionary Fine Gael and neutralised Labour. He says he doesn’t know the answer.
As to himself, he considers himself economically middle- to upper-middle class but culturally working-class. He concedes that the national economic implosion hasn’t really affected him financially, though he’s taken pay cuts.
In his career he’s always been sceptical about the possibility of his becoming editor of the Irish Times. He doesn’t get up in the morning and set himself five goals of self-advancement. I ask if he’s happy with the editorial direction of the Irish Times and he says it’s a very good newspaper with a diversity of opinion. They afford him free rein. He won’t say what editorial differences he’d implement if he were editor and now he’s becoming cagey. I ask if he thinks there’s a continuing bias in the paper towards the property sector and he thinks it’s a thing of the past, “largely”. He notes the future of all newspapers is somewhat precarious – facing economic and technological existential threats. It’s not sustainable to charge people for the paper and make it available for free on-line. The notion of a newspaper of record is inappropriate: though the ethic of accuracy and comprehensiveness is good , the record can’t be reflected in 36 pages of print. Overall the Irish Times has to survive in print as that is what makes money. It could be made more attractive physically. But the future of newspapers will be determined by international pioneers, not the Irish Times.
Beyond that I ask him how it was to work for Vincent Browne (on Magill) and he replies conventionally that it was both liberating – he was, for example, willing to give O’Toole a big job at 24 – and difficult. We agree that the general calibre of young journalists is not what it might be probably because academic education has replaced newsroom inductions and the sense of its being a trade; and because the internet has compromised standards. Does he wish he’d left the country? No, he took a conscious decision to come back and is happy with it.
So has his life changed as a result of the new-found celebrity, the topical books and all the international media interest? Not really: “I’ve been saying the same thing for thirty years. The difference is that people are now listening”. Finally, how does he want to be remembered? Humble Fintan is back: “At all”.