Everything & nothing has changed


Something remarkable has taken place – an election that has changed Irish politics forever. But the question remains: what’s really new?

ON RTÉ RADIO on Thursday the new super-junior minister, Willie Penrose, remarked of the momentous general election that propelled him to the cabinet table that “the last thing people wanted to hear was a promise or anything of that nature”. This summed up the sense that something remarkable has taken place: an election without promises that has changed forever the nature of Irish politics.

The day before the election, however, people in the lovely south Galway village of Kinvara got a letter on official Seanad Éireann notepaper through their doors. It was signed by a Fine Gael candidate, Ciarán Cannon. The subject was not the momentous issues of mass unemployment, crippling debt, emigration and poverty. It was sewage.

“You the people of Kinvara have been promised a new sewage plant on numerous occasions and to date you have been badly let down. I have spoken this week with Fine Gael’s environment spokesperson, Phil Hogan TD, and he has committed to delivering a new treatment plant within the lifetime of the incoming government . . . So that you can trust this commitment from Fine Gael. I will commit to you that if this promise is not honoured, I will resign from politics and not stand for election again.”

The letter did its work. Cannon got nearly 7,000 votes, took his place in the swollen ranks of 76 new TDs occupying their Dáil seats on Wednesday and the following day was elevated to the ranks of junior minister. He is one tangible embodiment of the mood of change that produced the biggest shift in Irish politics since 1932: a youngish man achieving ministerial office on his second day in the Dáil.

Yet much older politicians, even those of 50 years ago, would have had no difficulty recognising the methods that got him elected: promise the people something big and make the promise on official notepaper, with a gold harp gleaming at the top and your signature on the bottom. Leave niceties like the appropriateness of using official stationery for electoral purposes to the po-faced nit-pickers.

On Wednesday Phil Hogan became Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government. He has at most five years to build a sewage plant in Kinvara or accept the awesome responsibility of having ended Cannon’s promising political career. Presumably, as he was quietly committing the incoming government to build things in Kinvara, he was also giving similarly cast-iron guarantees to Fine Gael candidates all over the country. Sitting down at his desk on Thursday morning, his head full of the stirring rhetoric of “democratic revolution” from the day before, the new minister faced an old dilemma: building all those sewage plants and bridges and roads that his party’s candidates have sworn on their honour to deliver, while having very little money in the kitty.

This little vignette illuminates a larger truth: everything has changed and nothing has changed. We have had a political earthquake, but much that is familiar has been left standing. One of Fine Gael’s great heroes, the Free State minister for justice Kevin O’Higgins, famously remarked of his colleagues that “we were the most conservative-minded revolutionaries that ever put through a successful revolution”. If O’Higgins were alive to see the astonishing sight of one of his spiritual successors elected Taoiseach with a majority of 90 votes he would have sensed a familiar mix of revolution and conservatism.

If, like an eager college debater, one were told to argue for the motion that “Irish politics has changed for good”, there would have been ample evidence in the events surrounding the election of the new government. Fianna Fáil sitting on its hands and not voting against the election of a Fine Gael Taoiseach. Ming Flanagan standing proudly in the chamber and scolding fellow TDs for their bad manners. A new Cabinet clambering into a minibus to be driven to the Áras for the seals of office. The Department of Finance, epicentre of the permanent government since 1922, tamed and reduced. Impossible, ridiculous notions, things that couldn’t happen in a million years – but all of them unfolding before our eyes.

But then imagine the same college debater handed the motion that “nothing has really changed in Irish politics”. Easy-peasy. The proof was all there.

A Cabinet that includes not one, not two but three former leaders of Fine Gael or Labour. The oldest first-time Taoiseach since Seán Lemass. The astonishing elbowing aside of Joan Burton, crucial to Labour in establishing authority on banking and taxation issues in Opposition but not fit, apparently, to be let near the piggy bank in power. A Cabinet with even fewer women than the last one. Enda Kenny giving just two of the 18 ministerial appointments at his disposal to women. How could seismic change look like this?

The reality, of course, is that each of these contradictory claims is equally true. It would be as foolishly cynical to insist that nothing is changing as it would be absurdly naive to believe Ireland has leaped into a new era. The cynicism would miss the dizzying sense of relief that Fianna Fáil is really and truly gone. It would be a wild exaggeration to compare this feeling with the sense of liberation that comes with the fall of a dictator, but it breathes a little of the same air. Equally, though, naive optimism would miss the inescapable reality that Ireland won’t be leaping into the future, or anywhere else, with the ponderous ball of debt that is tied to its ankle.

“The crisis,” wrote the political theorist Antonio Gramsci in a much grimmer context, “consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born.” Rumours of the death of the old tend to be greatly exaggerated in Ireland, but there is the feeling that something really is on its way out. What has happened to Fianna Fáil isn’t just about Fianna Fáil: it has thrown the whole relationship between people and power up in the air.

Fianna Fáil’s rhetoric about being not a political party but a national movement was merely another aspect of its hubris. But it wasn’t just a political party. It was one of the key institutions of Irish life, on a par with the GAA and the Catholic church.

To witness its impotence in the Dáil this week, unable even to muster a defiant shake of the fist at the old tribal enemy, was to realise that it may have suffered the same fate as the church. For years middle Ireland paid only scant attention to those who criticised the power of the institutional church, to which it extended a patience and tolerance rooted in the simple sense that, whatever its faults, it was ours. And then, very quickly, the patience snapped. The church ceased to be us and became them. Once this happened there was no going back. The church will still have believers, but it will never, ever be woven back into the fabric of what it means to be Irish.

For years, too, middle Ireland extended that same kind of forbearance to Fianna Fáil. It wasn’t always loved, and it was often hated. But it was always there, and it was always going to be there. If it was out of power it would be back soon. It was like the old west of Ireland saying that if you can see the mountain it’s going to rain, and if you can’t see the mountain it’s raining.

And then, just as suddenly as with the church, middle Ireland lost its patience with Fianna Fáil. This wasn’t about marching in the streets or even talking to Joe Duffy. It was the same process of withdrawal: quiet, even silent, non-confrontational, but cold, hard and ruthless. At a given moment middle Ireland decided Fianna Fáil was not us but them.

As with the church, Fianna Fáil will go on, and some people will continue to worship at its altars. But it can never again have the same aura of invincibility, authority and inevitability. It will never again be what Irish people since the 1930s meant when they said the words “Fianna Fáil”: the Irish for “politics”.

This is a big thing, not just for Irish politics but for Irish culture. Fianna Fáil itself was the successor to perhaps the greatest Irish contribution to the modern world: the political machine invented by Daniel O’Connell in the 1820s. That machine was the first in the world to organise ordinary people into a mass, non-violent political force. It had a large impact on Britain through the Chartist movement. It shaped the great Democratic Party machines of US cities. It is not accidental that the language of Tammany Hall – boss, ward-heeler, “walking around money” – was the language of Fianna Fáil.

WHAT HAS BEEN shredded, therefore, is something with deep roots in Irish culture. For the first time in 80 years there is no norm for public power, no fixed, standard way for Irish citizens to interact with their state. Hence the contradictions of the present moment. Fianna Fáil gave us a particular way of being citizens: we dealt with the State through middle men (and they were almost always men). We entered deals: we gave them votes, they gave us street lights or sewage plants or houses or jobs. Rights and duties – the underlying concepts of a real republic – didn’t come into it. And this culture became so powerful, because Fianna Fáil was so supremely good at it, that everyone else (whether Fine Gael, Labour or Sinn Féin) had to function on its terms. In order to survive other parties had to be Fianna Fáil-plus: do everything a Fianna Fáil TD would do but add your own ideological touches. Fianna Fáil was the base, the tomato and the cheese of the Irish political pizza. After that there was a choice of toppings.

If you overturn this ancient system the obvious question is: what’s new? How now do Irish people relate to the State and to public power? What do we expect of our politicians and of government? It is not surprising that there are no coherent collective answers to these questions. The old may have died, but the new must struggle to be born in the most woeful of circumstances. We are trying to grope towards a new republic without one of its most basic elements: economic sovereignty.

We have therefore seen contradictory responses to the changed situation from both voters and politicians. It is worth remembering firstly that in 2011 just over half of us voted exactly as we voted in 2007. Continuity is thus as big a factor as change. Secondly, according to RTÉ’s exit poll, much of the voting was negative rather than positive: 23 per cent (the largest percentage overall) said the single biggest issue influencing their vote was “I am angry with the Government/ political system” and a further 13 per cent cited “Politicians/Government have let us down”, which amounts to the same thing.

If you put together these two factors – the large number of people who did not change their vote and the large number who voted primarily out of anger – you’re left with a relatively small number who changed their vote for positive, optimistic reasons. In this light the “democratic revolution” seems strong on emotional response to the immediate past and weak on its sense of the future.

It is hard, therefore, to blame politicians for being uncertain about what we expect of them. Was Ciarán Cannon wrong to believe voters want TDs who will deliver on local issues? No: the exit poll showed 37 per cent of voters cited “choosing a candidate to look after the needs of the constituency” as the main factor behind their vote – almost the same percentage as in 2007. Yet “local issues” barely registered in the list of issues cited by those same voters, chosen by just 2 per cent. And, in practice, Mick Wallace topped the poll in Wexford by telling people he wouldn’t hold clinics and that they should vote for someone else if they wanted a TD to act as a constituency fixer.

Cultures change slowly and Irish culture changes more slowly still. We don’t do revolutions: even the upheavals that led to the foundation of the State masked huge continuities in institutions, in attitudes, in the economy. And, in our present case, the idea of transforming the way we do politics is limited by the overhanging gloom of the economic and fiscal crisis. Can any government, let alone any TD, make a real difference?

Yet this very question opens up an enormous opportunity for the new political order. The anger has been vented for the moment, and there is a deep desire to move beyond despair. Public attitudes to politics are there to be reshaped. If TDs behave with modesty, self-respect and diligence, citizens seem ready to stop regarding them with the old mixture of deference and contempt. If the Government gets some quick wins, not just on the economy but also in the reform of our health and education systems, citizens might begin to believe politics can make a positive difference. We are still too bruised and wary for optimism. But we’re open to the possibility of hope.