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The Crookedness of Irish Politics

In the 2012 documentary ‘Dreamtime Revisited’ poet-philosopher John Moriarity climbed Derada Hill in his adopted home of Connemara. Observing its hinterland he remarked that all about him was crooked, from the contours of the Oranmore River to the crooked coast towards the Aran Islands and the crooked horizon of the Twelve Bens. He calls this his “wonderful crooked world”.

In most of the country that elliptical scene is familiar. And it seems to have found a reflection in a human character where straight lines are avoided: in our literature language has been distorted and remade; traditional Irish music allies bewitching interchange between minor and major keys with polyrhythmic time; in day- to-day exchanges a sense of humour is often prized above other qualities, including honesty. Travelling west from the Pale into wilder terrain these qualities grow more pronounced: mythos overwhelms logos in the sodden bog of collective memory.

In France terroir connotes the long-standing relationship between a people and their landscape that is said to impart distinctive flavours to the food and wine produced there. In Ireland, where gastronomy has traditionally been awarded a low priority, terroir might be observed in linguistic and musical dissonances that spring from the undulating, even chaotic, landscape. We talk about what the Dutch would do if they lived in Ireland, but perhaps they are a product of the straight lines on their sunken horizon, and the practical concern of keeping the ocean at bay. Perhaps they would simply do surprisingly little.

Even the Irish weather, grudgingly benign at least until recent times, finds a reflection in the periodically sullen and infuriatingly inconsistent Irish temperament. We might all recognise its description by Samuel Beckett’s character Molloy: “I know it was warm again the day I left but that meant nothing in my part of the world where it seemed to be warm or cold or mild at any time of the year”. The poor quality of the built infrastructure here would be insufferable in other parts of Europe at a similar latitude where it has been built to endure harsher winters.

Ireland is on the periphery of Europe and this contributes to the strangeness of its culture and the fact that it takes a status quo, bordering on the ridiculous, for granted.

Observed empirically, to some extent Ireland retains the political economy of a post-colonial outpost, now a tax haven. Une isle derriere une isle according to one French geographer – spared both Roman conquest and barbarian hordes – the country did not join the European mainstream. Ireland was a repository of learning and mysticism during a brief golden age, then passed into a millennium of obscurity before a shuddering encounter with an advanced civilisation from the neighbouring island.

The ensuing appropriation imposed a system of individual private property ‘from Heaven to Hell’ distinct from what had been characteristically communal arrangements under native Brehon Law.

Being the victim of the first adventure of the British Empire also necessarily generated an antipathy to rules and laws, since they were imposed in the interest of the coloniser, not the natives.

Sui generis, Ireland is the only country whose population was greater in the 1840s than today, due to the Great Famine and its legacy. The unique trauma of starvation and forced emigration led to short-termism, and the ascendancy of expediency over ideology or even ideas. A current legacy of this attitude is the ingrained hostility to planning and indeed environmentalism: “you can’t eat the landscape”.

The Irish Nation is a product of the late eighteenth century when the movement of the United Irishmen failed to unite all creeds: simultaneously in 1795 the orchestrated emergence of the Orange Order and of Maynooth University that created a quasi established Catholic Church put paid to the aspirations of Wolfe Tone and his colleagues. The Old English descendants of the Normans and the native Gael coalesced inviolably in the end, to form an overwhelmingly Catholic nation.

The Normans might now be perceived as having tempered a native tendency towards the fast and loose, but contemporary English observers bemoaned the cultural slippage that attended the medieval wave of colonisation: as if the rivers flowing from the hilly regions inhabited by the Gael imbued the plain-dwelling Normans with their characteristics. The Protestant New English who arrived primarily in the seventeenth century descended into a familiar decadence albeit preserving a singular sectarian identity by avoiding miscegenation.

Only in the North east corner, within the cultural orbit of lowland Scotland, did a distinct culture emerge.

Ireland’s dramatic landscape is not unique, but what is unusual is first an isolation from and then a quite sudden absorption of its substantial population (by comparison with the equally untamed Scottish Highlands for instance) into as advanced a polity as early modern England’s.

An Irishman Other has long acted as a foil to the sober, judicious Englishman and often revels in his allotted role as revolutionary misfit, bard and poet. From this we might trace a cultural tolerance of drunkenness.

The contradictions between the two cultures engendered a great cultural ferment that ani- mated an Irish literary Renaissance that began at the end of the nineteenth century. In its wake Irishmen were awarded a remarkable four Nobel Prizes for literature, and this with James Joyce, widely regarded as the pre-eminent novelist of the twentieth century, missing out. Even a century later what seem parochial themes resonate beyond our shores such that an unremarkable rock band like U2 compose songs that connect with a global audience.

But translate the crookedness of the Irish character into Irish politics and what do we find? If in literature the distortion of language can be art, in politics it is artifice. Corruption, famously found by the Mahon Tribunal to be “systemic and endemic” is the unreconstructed manifestation, but there are other more insidious twistednesses. They have spawned the laxity whereby a politician can say one thing to one crowd and another to the next. Enda Kenny can assert Ireland’s commitment to Climate Change while almost in the same breath whisper his continued support for Irish agriculture’s expansionary and carbon-intensive ambitions. Fianna Fáil can be both left-wing and right-wing: Bertie Ahern, purveying his “socialist agenda” from the Galway tent.

The media hardly demur as they often engage in the same doublespeak. For example, an Irish Times editorial on December 5th came with the no-nonsense title: ‘Rhetoric must give way to action in push for COP21 deal on climate change’. It criticised Enda Kenny’s hypocrisy in promoting climate-unfriendly beef production but casually accepted his agenda; in the end inveighing lamely: “If that is the case we must make meaningful commitments on other fronts”.

Accounting for the absence of clear ideological demarcation between Irish political parties requires further exploration of Irish history. In the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars the United Kingdom could resume trade with the Continent, making Irish grain relatively expensive and giving a comparative advantage to cattle farming. The Famine accelerated the transformation of the rural economy from labour-intensive tillage to extensive pasture where profitability required a low labour input. Population continued to decline from the 1850s to the 1950s as emigration denuded rural Ireland especially of the youth which might have brought entrepreneurial creativity or, failing that, revolution.

The Land War of the 1880s, while destructive to the Protestant Ascendancy that had been at the apex of an almost feudal society since the seventeenth century, did not alter the fundamental economic structures as pastoral agriculture remained dominant. An increasingly petit bourgeois Irish peasantry sold beef and butter and purchased, mainly imported foods and other goods, on the British imperial market. A declining population, absentee landlords, a lack of state intervention, and distance from markets explain why the Industrial Revolution only arrived in the North east. The large surplus of Irish labour migrated to Lancashire, Glasgow, New York and beyond. Without a substantial urban proletariat socialist movements had little support base.

The onset of Sinn Féin (We Ourselves) in 1905 presented the possibility of a new politics of self-reliance and re-distribution, but throughout its history and that of its progenies the national card has trumped the egalitarian.

The 1916 Rising was driven by poets and led to a romantic view of politics that derided the empirical, the utilitarian and often even the practical. There was an ‘imagined community’ of the nation. Nothing more realistic.

Pádraic Pearse, the poet leader of the 1916 Rising whose rhetoric of blood sacrifice invites comparison with fascism, implanted in the body politic enduring notions of nationalist heroism. From the outset, insufficient attention was paid to dreary niceties such as infrastructure, regional development and planning.

Ideological incoherence and institutional inefficiency fed off each other.

An historic opportunity presented itself at the end of World War I when Ireland became independent and a generation mainly in their thirties came to power.

But this unprecedented generational shift descended into a murderous Civil War whose source of contention was a scintilla of doctrine, in a quasi-throwback to the arcane disputations of a medieval church council: the Oath of Allegiance to the King. That ‘empty formula of words’, as it was later conceded by Eamon de Valera in another example of linguistic contortion, was the main point of contention in the Treaty debates.

Unfortunately Sinn Féin had spawned what were to become more or less all this State’s political forces.

The Sinn Féin gene pool has generated Cumann na nGaedheal (1922-35), Fianna Fáil (1927-), Fine Gael (1935-), arguably Clann na Poblachta (1946-65) and the latest manifestation of Sinn Féin (1969).

Each has played musical chairs with ideology: Fianna Fáil swinging between protectionism and open markets; Fine Gael tense between the idea of a Just Society and the economic conservatism of Christian Democracy.

What really distinguishes one from the other is the degree of commitment to the nationalist cause. Fine Gael became the party of conciliatory nationalism that captured the former Unionist constituency in the South.

The political lines were first drawn between, essentially, two parties that have been the dominant partner in every government since independence. Any individual ambitious to attain high political office has, except in rare, tidal, circumstances, had to work within the confines of these parties.

It is not unusual that two parties should dominate the history of a state but sheer ideological incoherence in Ireland creates a gravitational pull towards the centre and the parochial.

The crucible of the Civil War forged political allegiances often owing more to personal loyalty than ideology. We see these tribal loyalties passed down to descendants a century later.

There is little hope that its current incarnation of Sinn Féin won’t bend their current socialist leanings to political expediency. It should be recalled that in 1969 the Provisionals split with the Officials over the former’s commitment to the nationalist cause and the latter’s attention to the workers’ struggle. The Officials became the Workers Party and then Democratic Left. Sinn Féin became the political wing of the nationalist Provisionals.

As a fundamentally nationalist party it is unsurprising that Sinn Féin should in opposi- tion seek radical economic redistribution but risk, in the minds of the weary and the wise, a deference to ‘economic realities’ on entering government. Certainly its record in the Northern Executive and opposition to a Property Tax in the South, and its performance at local -author- ity level, reveals pragmatic tendencies. That is not to say that parties in coalition should never make concessions to partners, but when a movement’s core value is nationalism it is always possible that commitment to social and economic objectives may recede.

The Labour Party is the enduring mainstream party of the Left. Before independence, leaders such as James Connolly and James Larkin argued in favour of radical wealth-redistribution in Irish society, but without a significant urban proletariat they could not muster a substantial opposition to the different hues of green. As the state has developed the party has grown unhealthily close to a ‘permanent and pensionable’ civil service and other privileged groups. Instructively, its core support is among the wealthier denizens of South Dublin.

Contrast this with the UK where a radical politician such as Jeremy Corbyn can survive in the broad left-wing church of a party of government such as the Labour Party.

It has been argued that Ireland’s embracing political climate shines favourably for foreign investment but the absence of genuinely left- wing administrations has delayed the arrival of socialist measures found elsewhere in Europe that could have alleviated the poverty that has tainted the history of the Free State.

We have not seen a government like that of the post-War Labour administration in the UK which introduced the Welfare State and the The Crucible of the Civil War forged political allegiances often owing more to personal loyalty than ideology NHS. For Ireland we see only an incipient vision of universal health insurance.

An ideology of individual self-reliance has tended to dominate especially as Sean Lemass’s influence superseded de Valera’s peculiar brand of peasant nationalism. The triumph of individualism was epitomised by the ripping out of Dublin’s tram tracks in the 1960s to make way for the motor car. The economic planning of the 1960s under the guidance of the almost- universally lauded TK Whitaker amounted to a liberal rationalisation of the economy. But it has reached a point where maintaining the rate of corporation tax at 12.5% in the face of criticism from European partners seems to be the most fiercely guarded part of our sovereignty, and has been agreed to by all the main parties, where the Taoiseach’s vision of his mission is to make Ireland the best little country in the world in which to do business.

Another problem in Irish politics is that the abstraction of the wider culture permeates the electoral system laid out under the Irish  Constitution. Our single-transferrable-vote proportional-representation electoral system, where 40 constituencies will elect 158 TDs, gives an opportunity to independent chieftains who jealously guard their generally rural redoubts and show scant regard for the country as a whole, let alone the wider world. Moreover, in order to compete with independents, politicians from the established parties must also seek spoils for their constituencies: again national issues fade in importance, and we muddle on.

The election of 2011 was supposed to be a watershed, but the parties originating in the Sinn Féin movement of the early twentieth century remain dominant, perhaps ever more so if Labour suffers its predicted bashing.

Many countries have experienced far more brutal recent political histories: a basic decency flows from Irish people that makes living in the country tolerable, and even pleasurable, despite exasperating inefficiencies and inequalities.

But the want of direct talking, indeed seriousness, common in many parts of Europe, results in stasis and ill-equips us for the long-term.

Writing in the Irish Times recently planning consultant Diarmuid O’Gráda bemoans how the Department of Environment has been incapable of strategic planning: “it must be regretted that the Custom House has not been associated with evidence-based innovation since the 1980s when the minister closed down its research wing”.

Ireland confronts Climate Change with a Green Party that is on the brink of extinction. This is not entirely the fault of its well-intentioned, if conservative, leadership. Most of the population displays little support for environmental regulation. We insist on one off housing, private motor cars and pastoral agriculture, a Tragedy of the Commons that generates high energy costs and emissions.

Unlike John Moriarty most of us fail to climb the mountain and see the whole picture.

Even after the experience of the Celtic Tiger nothing meaningful has been done to curb excessive property costs, the property-speculator class or the deference to the rights of property and finance.

It would be a sign of Ireland’s political maturity if we elected parties with clearly delineated ideologies.

It is difficult to predict what way Sinn Féin, Fianna Fail or Fine Gael will swing if elected. At least the Progressive Democrats unashamedly spelt out their liberal convictions, but that appears to have been too transparent for the Irish population. Lucinda Creighton’s Renua is seeking to inherit the PDs’ dark mantle but lacks the authority and depth of a Dessie O’Malley. The newly formed Social Democrats offer an interesting new dimension on the left as Labour flounder, but they are unlikely to be sufficiently organised before the election to win a substantial number of seats. A broad alliance of the Left excluding Sinn Féin but including the Greens would breathe fresh air into the beleaguered body politic but seems unlikely.

A simple electoral reform that could curb aspects of the Tammany Hall excesses in Irish politics would make it necessary, as is the case in many European countries, for political parties to achieve a minimum threshold of five percent. The likes of Michael Lowry and the Healy-Raes would hopefully disappear from national politics, and politicians could start to focus more on issues affecting the whole country rather than seeking to beat the offers of rival local chieftains.

Any culture is in a constantly dialectical relationship with its social and physical environment. In Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ the character of Stephen Daedalus muses that: “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake”, and often it seems this country is still in dream where actions are taken haphazardly and reactively.

But Irish culture has the capacity to change. Post-colonial legacies fade in time and the originality of the Irish Mind can be deployed constructively.

A native crookedness can help us think literally. Moreover, over ten percent of the population living in the state were born else-where, and in time they will exert more of an influence. Most of the population have also travelled widely and recognise better practice in other countries.

2016 could be a year of renewal in Ireland when we start to think collectively and with a view to the future. Ideally an older generation of tired politicians will exit, with younger and increasing female replacements. Radicalism, or even ideology, may be too much to expect.