Left-Right Politics at Last?
Deaglán de Bréadún
It is being put about that blogging is already outmoded. Twitter is the new black! Certainly after – what, two years now, or is three? – I can say that the blogosphere has its plusses and minuses. There are some highly-intelligent and thoughtful respondents but then there are others who make you wonder if responding to blog-posts is a substitute for the basket-weaving therapy of old. In any case, I have been busy with work for the print edition in the past while and did not get a chance to post anything. Here’s an analysis-piece from yesterday’s paper: politely-expressed comment and disagreement most welcome!
THE PACE of events in Irish society has left little time or opportunity for reflection. The economic crisis has seen one sensational or shocking financial disclosure and business collapse after another. Our high streets and commercial quarters are replete with empty shopfronts and ghost office blocks, and you wonder whether they will ever be rented. Uninhabited housing estates lurk on the fringes of our towns as a guilty reminder of the excesses of the Celtic Tiger.
When the going gets tough, the tough get going. But are we tough? Can we cope with and even overcome our difficulties? “Never waste a crisis,” they say (was that Rupert Murdoch?) Can we emerge as a better, more close-knit community, with a clear sense of ourselves and where we want to go?
The centenary of the 1916 Rising comes around in five years. Debates will no doubt rage as to whether it was a good idea, but there is no denying it was a defining moment. Without it, this State would quite possibly not exist, at least not in its present form.
We have sovereignty in the political but not in the economic sphere.
As I write, officials of the bailout troika are in town for the latest review of our progress in implementing this ignominious bailout.
On the presidential campaign trail, Bill Clinton used to say, “I still believe in a place called Hope”. This was a reference to his home town of Hope, Arkansas, where his grandfather, who ran a grocery store, used to give out goods to hard-pressed customers without charge, making a note of it for future payment. That system used to operate in Ireland too. The local grocer would give out food “on tick” and write it all down in a book (the debts weren’t always paid.) In the supermarket era, people just “max out” their credit-cards.
Yes, this society has lost the personal touch, but there have been other social changes, not all bad. One of the good developments is the apparent final demise of Civil War politics in this year’s general election.
We may complain about the calibre of our politicians and what they do in our name, but at least the debate is about issues, and people are voting on the basis of policies and competence and not family tradition and the horrors inflicted by one side or the other in a previous generation.
The main side-effect of this new approach to politics has been the near-disappearance of Fianna Fáil. This extraordinary development had been threatened for a long time, and even now it is hard to come to terms with it.
That is not to say the party may not revive itself and at some unspecified time in the future come back into government. But it will be on the basis of its economic programme and perceived ability, rather than family loyalty or the old divisions in the republican and nationalist tradition.
The party is holding a think-in at a Dublin hotel on Monday, when no doubt some of these issues will surface. Following Brian Lenihan’s death, Fianna Fáil now has 19 of the 166 Dáil seats, compared with 84 out of 148 after the 1977 general election.
Another remarkable, little-analysed turnabout is the fact that Labour has become the second largest party in Leinster House. It now has 37 TDs, compared with 16 in 1977.
For decades, commentators and observers have longed for an Ireland where left-right politics would be the norm. We now appear to be moving in that direction.
Fine Gael, of course, has been the real success story. Under Enda Kenny’s leadership, the party has come within a stone’s throw of an overall majority, and it is gazing avidly at the glittering prize of Áras an Uachtaráin: heading up the State its forefathers established in 1922.
The demise of old-style politics also reflects a society where political patronage, “jobs for the boys” and “looking after your own” no longer apply with quite the same force as in the past; like the corner-shop, they are going out of fashion. There are other positive developments and grounds for hope, even in these difficult days. This is a more egalitarian society than in previous times, not least due to greatly improved access to second and third-level education.
That process was initiated by Donogh O’Malley and Seán Lemass back in the 1960s and continued by Labour when it eliminated third-level fees.
This is an element of the Fianna Fáil legacy the party can be justifiably proud of which contains a clue to the path it should take towards renewal. Saying this, it is hard to avoid the feeling that, with its growing electoral strength and appeal, Sinn Féin may be the new Fianna Fáil. Like the drinks advert where the customers are blindfolded, it is not always easy to tell them apart.
The party that can seize the banner of equality and fairness is the one that will prosper in the coming years. As in wartime, periods of economic hardship can lead to a greater levelling among the classes if the right leadership is provided.
The one great worry for proponents of social change is that emigration will once again act as a safety-valve. Many of our bright young people are looking to foreign shores for their future. That makes it even more imperative to hold firm and get through our current economic difficulties so we can once again believe in a place called hope.
The challenge for the centenary of 1916 is to regain our economic sovereignty. That would be the best way to ensure we can cherish all the children of the nation equally.