Irish politics as ugly as Trapattoni's bogus tactics
The Irish soccer team’s humiliation exposed the false pragmatism that rules our political life
WE IRISH do love our metaphors. Give us a football tournament and we’ll give you back a symbolic episode, a parable, a state-of-the- nation image. Thus Euro ’88 symbolised the new ascendancy of urban culture; Italia ’90 and USA ’94, with Jack Charlton’s assemblage of Irish, English, Welsh and Scottish-born players, embodied the plurality of a hybrid Irish identity.
Saipan 2002 dramatised, in its clash between Roy Keane’s relentless will to win and the “give- it-a-lash” mentality, the tensions between an older Ireland and a new, success-driven economy.
So what is the misery of Poland and Ukraine 2012 a metaphor for? A paradox: impractical pragmatism. What has been so ruthlessly exposed in the fantasy world of football is, as it happens, precisely the thinking by which we live in the real world. It is a way of behaving that looks exactly like hard-nosed, calculating pragmatism. Except for one little twist – it doesn’t work.
In the football universe this is farcical. When applied to real people’s lives, as the governing principle of Irish politics, economics and society, it is a tragedy.
Trapattoni’s awful football is the essence of impractical pragmatism. It is based on the principle that everything that is pleasurable about the game – fluency, rhythm, invention, imagination, inspiration – can be replaced with one simple truth: results. It reduces everything to numbers – the final score – that justify everything. The process may be painful to watch but the outcome will be fine.
Which is all very well except that, in the end, the only results produced by this “pragmatism” are humiliation and failure.
At its core there is a sleight-of- mind. The idea that “it’s ugly but it works” slips into “it works because it’s ugly”. The assumption comes to be that if there’s no pleasure in it, it must be good for us. The false logic goes like this: cod liver oil tastes horrible but is good for you, therefore everything that tastes rotten must be doing us some good.
This happens to be a pretty good metaphor for what’s happening in the political sphere as well. The governing idea with which we’re stuck is the political version of Trapattoni’s tactics. It has all the outward appearances of actual pragmatism.
It is stern and without illusion. It makes a virtue of being dogged, literal-minded, obedient. Its face is permanently set in a frown of grim determination.
It shuns any hint of imagination, creativity, boldness or innovation, regarding such indulgences as not just distracting but dangerous. Its watchwords are “get real”, “do whatever is necessary”, “never mind the process, wait till you see the results”.
It makes a virtue of its ugliness, taking it for granted that the more painful it is to watch, the better it will be for all of us in the long run. Like Trap’s football, it has all the elements of a hard-nosed, down-to- earth, get-the-job-done approach – except that it doesn’t work.
This whole attitude is essentially religious. The great comfort of religion is the belief that pain is not wasted, that every moment of suffering is a deposit in the great bank of the hereafter, when it will be repaid with interest. But politics – especially the politics of contemporary Europe – doesn’t work like that. Pain is just pain. Being bled doesn’t make the body healthier, it just makes it weaker.
Trapattoni’s shell of false pragmatism shattered when it was exposed on the big stage and the same is happening to the Government’s political strategy.
When you translate it on to the European stage, it doesn’t look heroically doughty. It just looks flat-footed and slow-witted. The appeal to pragmatism that might win an election or a referendum in Ireland is not good enough when you’re in with the big boys and girls.
If you’re dealing with an existential crisis for both Ireland and the European Union, you can’t function with nothing but grim determination, dogged obedience to the plan and a naive faith that pain must have its rewards. You need those other qualities that you ditched along the way – courage, imagination, boldness and a willingness to take calculated risks.
While Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore get caught in the Trap trap (when Plan A fails, try Plan A), the serious players leave them chasing shadows. Basic goals, like the scrapping of the odious promissory notes, can’t be reached because Ireland can’t get even momentary possession of the agenda.
Impractical pragmatism fails because it is, in its own way, deeply delusional. It pretends to be about “getting real” but it avoids the most basic realities. In one case this is the fact that you can’t actually pass the ball. In the other it is that, as Peter Mathews has pointed out, total Irish debt levels, as a proportion of national income, are almost twice those of Greece. Ours are 494 per cent; Greece’s are 273 per cent.
To go on telling everyone that this is “manageable” if we just stick to the tactics that have got us this far is pragmatic in the same sense that Sisyphus, who got on with the job, was a great pragmatist.