This column is dedicated to those who still believe that the island of Ireland has a foreseeable political future. I have stolen that dedication from Breandán Ó hEithir's now 31-year-old book, The Begrudger's Guide to Irish Politics. Another publication on my mind this week was the late sociologist Paddy O'Carroll's 1987 article in Irish Political Studies on Irish political culture, which had the distinctly non-academic title "Strokes, cute hoors and sneaking regarders: the influence of local culture on Irish political style."
O’Carroll outlined how loyalties and partisanships triumphed over choice and open discussion, and highlighted the importance of being seen to have the “pull” to deliver, noting “the fact that most of that which is delivered is imaginary in no way lessens the degree of confidence in the person who is seen to have pull”. It trumped long-term social and public well-being. It still does. That I have to reach back decades for references to encapsulate our “new politics” tells you much about our “new politics”.
With a straight face, it seems, Sinn Féin this week accused Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil of engaging in “connivance and cute hoorism” over its deal on the water charges report. Indeed they did, and Fianna Fáil’s somersaults on the water charges are as cynical as anything witnessed in Irish politics in the last few years. Fianna Fáil changed its “principle” for electoral reasons and because it is far more concerned with looking over its shoulder to see what Sinn Féin is doing and what ground it might be making. But Sinn Féin, of course, does not do irony; its embrace of the water charges protest movement arose because Paul Murphy was elected a TD in the Dublin South West by-election in 2014, defeating the Sinn Féin candidate, Cathal King. Not a whiff of connivance or cute hoorism in all that.
Let me reach back ever further to question why Irish politics has remained about power rather than national interest. In 1903 Sinn Féin’s Arthur Griffith warned of the danger of “ a cocky disparagement” of those who were seeking to give serious thought to solutions to serious problems; he saw it as “characteristic of the shoddy side” of Irish nationalism.
Pious patriots praised an imaginary medieval Ireland and then wondered why Ireland was decaying around them but were determined to preserve their picturesque ignorance: “Ireland’s clever young men . . . while knowing better in private, announced in public that Ireland’s innocence was more sacred than the wisdom of an infidel world. More than anything, Ireland needed free thought.” But Irish politics instead became, in Breandán O hEithir’s phrase, about “how the bottom rung of the ladder to power is hammered into place” and then about how to keep that power once won.
In the mid 1970s journalist Anthony Butler bemoaned "the tepid quality of our democratic passion"; instead of finding the heat, the Irish public laughed at the Ballymagash Urban District Council of Hall's Pictorial Weekly. But they were also laughing at themselves; they were only too happy to embrace the abolition of rates that finished off all pretence of autonomous local government, enhanced an unhealthy concentration of power at the centre and had serious consequences for the funding of local services. Short-termism triumphed in what O hEithir termed "Fianna Fáil's Great Rate Robbery of 1977", but the long-term implications of the reckless promises of the 1970s left few laughing.
The decades of connivance have cast a long shadow. There was some hope after the last general election that politicians would embrace the new political fragmentation, and thus a more powerful Dáil, as a positive rather than a negative and make some attempt to generate a different type of political culture. But the tribal sneers of Barry Cowen and the distraction of the Fine Gael leadership issue exemplify why still, in O hEithir’s words, “questions of personality shoulder serious questions off the stage”. Instead, difficult issues are continually referred to “expert groups” to avoid taking responsibility; to fudge and buy time and then, when a decision is required, it is diluted, often to the level of farce.
The Expert Commission on water charges last year said, “Making recommendations that meet the standard criteria and that may theoretically align with best practice but do not take account of the relevant background and context in Ireland – including the criterion of acceptability – would not be useful.”
This is a fitting summary of our political culture. Rebellion against Irish Water and how it was handled was justified and there was an onus on those in Government to respond to a national protest movement by coming up with meaningful, long-term and viable solutions instead of deliberately falling between all the stools associated with this issue: charges, pollution, fairness and conservation.
Rather than having the courage to approach the issue in a progressive and environmentalist way, the mantra became about abolition and that is unlikely to serve anyone’s long-term interests.