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Fintan O’Toole: Failure of people to feck off and emigrate is destabilising the status quo

A hard rain is about to fall on the old political order

There was an old and not exactly hilarious joke about the jarvey in Killarney telling the American tourist to put on her coat because rain was coming.

"How do you know?" she asks.
"If you can see the mountain, it's going to rain."
"And if you can't see the mountain?"
"It's raining."

For roughly 80 of the State's 100 years of existence, there was a political equivalent to this wisdom. If you could see the mountain, Fianna Fáil was about to take power. And if you couldn't see the mountain, Fianna Fáil was in power.

Even this, though, understates the extraordinary stability of politics in Ireland. For if Fianna Fáil wasn't in government, its place was mostly filled by a party that differed from it only in being (usually) less cunning, less ruthless and less skilled at the game.


There was, moreover, a very deep alliance between this nexus and another whose rule was, in its own eyes, eternal: Mother Church. Michael McDowell wrote recently in The Irish Times, with Sinn Féin in mind, that "At no point in the history of the independent democratic Irish State has any group sought a mandate to govern while tightly controlled by persons unelected by the people."

That’s true enough, but only because the church didn’t seek (or need to seek) an electoral mandate in order to “govern while tightly controlled by persons unelected by the people”. It relied on what the Chinese call the mandate of heaven.

Apart from its indirect influence on governments, the church ran (and still runs) large parts of what in other countries would be State provision of healthcare and education. It even had its own parallel “justice” (actually cruel injustice) system of coercive confinement in industrial schools, Magdalene laundries and mother and baby homes.

This alliance between an utterly dominant political duopoly on the one side and the church’s “moral monopoly” on the other gave us a circle of power that was unbroken between Fianna Fáil’s first government in 1932 and its near-collapse in 2011.

Impressive resilience

This stability is all the more remarkable when we consider, firstly, that there was a violent conflict on the island for 30 years; and, secondly, that a huge economic transformation was engineered from the top down after 1958. Like it or not, the resilience is immensely impressive.

But here’s the paradox we need to think about now: there is, in the history of the State, an inverse relationship between political and institutional stability on the one hand and personal stability on the other.

In what sense was the old Ireland personally unstable? In the simplest way imaginable: it could not contain its own people.

Three out of five children growing up in Ireland in the 1950s were destined to leave at some point in their lives, mostly for the shelter of the old colonial power, England. In 1957, the year before I was born, almost 60,000 people emigrated. By 1961, a scarcely imaginable 45 per cent of all those born in Ireland during 1931-1936 and 40 per cent of those born during 1936-1941 had left.

And it’s not as if this was a state of affairs that existed in the bad old days and then evaporated once and for all after the economic boom of the 1960s. Mass emigration came back in the 1980s.

Mass emigration was the guarantor of conservatism. Getting the young, the dissident and the unhappy to feck off out of Ireland was the way to keep things as they were

Psychologically, it shaped everything. The real fifth province of Ireland was the emigrants’ Elsewhere. At times it loomed larger in the national psyche than the other four put together.

What’s fascinating is that this personal instability and the rock-solid constancy of the political system were not really opposites. The system was fixed in place precisely because the people were not.

Mass emigration was the guarantor of conservatism. Getting the young, the dissident and the unhappy to feck off out of Ireland was the way to keep things as they were. To adapt the famous dictum from de Lampedusa’s The Leopard, in order for home to stay the same, a large proportion of those born in it had to live abroad. In order not to change Irish society, many of the Irish had to change their location.

Inverse situation

So where are we now? Does this inverse relationship still operate? I think it does, except that it now works the other way around.

It used to be that the system was stable because the people were not. Now, the system is not stable because the people are.

By “stable”, I don’t mean settled and contented. It is starkly obvious that the most literal kind of settlement – a place of your own to live in – is being denied to younger people.

I mean simply that Ireland is no longer producing, as it did for so much of its history, a large surplus population that cannot find work at home, or that cannot abide a repressive Irish culture. This can’t be taken for granted as a permanent condition – the same might have been said in the late 1960s and it turned out not to be true for very long.

But as of now, the meaning of migration has been transformed. Ireland is centripetal, not centrifugal.

The deeper problem is that "the curse of emigration" was, for the old order, really a blessing

You might think that this success would make the governing system even more secure. After all, “ending the curse of emigration” was a staple food in the rhetorical diet of Irish politics for most of the State’s existence.

Shouldn’t the achievement of that goal be rewarded with renewed faith in those who have held power? Their great promise has been fulfilled.

But there are, from the point of view of the old system, two problems. One is that young citizens don’t feel particularly grateful for the privilege of being able to live in their own country. Why should they?

The deeper problem, though, is that “the curse of emigration” was, for the old order, really a blessing. Being able to siphon off the unwanted and discontented was its secret superpower. The end of mass emigration is its Kryptonite.

Housing crisis

At the most basic level, the current pressure on the State is the result of a rapidly rising population. This is obvious in relation to the young and the housing crisis.

But it’s true too of older people. A generation ago, there was an invisible force relieving pressure on the health service and social care in Ireland: a large proportion of the older citizens who would have been demanding those services had emigrated in the 1950s.

Those pressures on housing and health are shaking the foundations of the old political order

They were in London, Manchester and Glasgow. It was up to the NHS to provide for their needs. Conversely, the Irish health service now has to care for those who did not emigrate in the 1960s and 1970s.

Those pressures on housing and health are shaking the foundations of the old political order. The failure of so many people to feck off is profoundly destabilising the power structure. And that system no longer has the great consensus-making machine of the church to hold it together.

We can see all too clearly the mountain of deficits in policy, in planning, in institutional capacities, in the political will to respond quickly enough to a rapidly changing society. And that means that, for the old order, a hard rain is going to fall.