Last chance for system engaged in a mirage


ANYONE scrambling around in the entrails of last week's by election results for signs of hope will find themselves on a collision course to disappointment. Our political system is now, in almost every conceivable way, within a hair of rock bottom. Irish politics has reached the Last Chance Saloon. There is no further scope for pulling the wool over people's eyes.

"Change" has been one of the great buzzwords of the past few years. The level of "change" "modernisation" in Irish politics has been subject of relentless media comment, both here and in Britain. After the 1990 presidential election, the trickle became a flood. Everyone cock a hoop about the massive that was under way.

Everything was, of course, changing, in the way that everything is changing all the time. But the flaw in the analysis had to do with the arrogance and ignorance which lay behind attempts to describe those changes.

There's a certain kind of Sunday newspaper version of change, which holds that, as we emerge from the mists of traditionalism, we will become more like more civilised societies - the kind of place which the authors of these analyses would have dreamed up had their input being solicited.

This home grown version of the transformation of Irish society was bought off the peg by British media outlets like Newsnight and the Guardian. It is deeply gratifying to the liberal sentiments of our English neighbours to learn that the Irish may very soon be as civilised as themselves.

At the heart of the analysis was the proposition that, in order to modernise, Irish politics would have to divide into left and right. This was the preferred option of virtually every media commentator in the land. Once this began to happen, the great enemy - traditionalism - would melt away.

For over a decade now, the Irish media have been cheerleading the drive towards modernisation, nurturing and facilitating signs of growth in areas which were compatible with their analysis.

Thus, the overwhelming early media support for the PDs, which later shifted to the Labour Party.

There was a sort of informal understanding between the controllers of the media, who preferred right wing parties, and the people who worked for the media, who preferred left wing politics. Interestingly, although many commentators would have been vaguely left wing in personal sympathies, they much preferred the hardline economism of the PDs to any truck with "traditionalism".

When hardy came to hardy, it didn't really matter whether a party was left wing or right wing: the important thing was that it be clearly perceived as one thing or the other. In reality, there has for some time been no left wing voice in Irish politics, as the parties which previously occupied that territory snuggled up to the centre in order to participate in government.

But the important thing about the "left wing" parties was not whether or not they were left wing, but whether they could be presented as modern against the alleged traditionalism of Fianna Fail. (The position of Fine Gael in all this is interesting. On the one hand, it might be described as a "traditional" party, with no clear focus as to whether it is of the left or right. But much more important is the fact that it is riot Fianna Fail. And it might prove necessary in making up the numbers.)

IT goes without saying that this process called for a wholesale abuse of language. Because of the left right trickery that was required, it was vital that the battle be removed from the field of belief. Thus, arguments about what kind of society this putative modernised politics might deliver were not useful to the particular struggle that was afoot.

In such a debate, the odd coalition of interests might begin to break down. The focus shifted to ethics and morality, a subject on which the newspaper magnate in his castle and the journalist in his snug could find common cause.

If you think a little about the subtext of recent political events, you will realise that the important element is not the content of the never ending parade of "scandals", but the abuse of language which has created such a degree of confusion about their meaning.

Why is it that one "scandal" can result in a politician being excoriated as an unspeakable blight on Irish politics, the collapse of a government and the endangerment of something as sensitive as the peace process, but another "scandal"results only in official silence? This happens because public language has been corrupted.

Thus, the modernisation of Irish politics is a big sham. The only "change" that has occurred is that the public has become more and more confused about the meaning of concepts like "ethics" and "integrity".

In reality, the creaky, crumbling, rotten edifice that has existed for decades has been appropriated by a new set of custodians who use its resources in the same way as their predecessors. So far, this has happened with the aid of covering fire from a media sector desiring, above all, that its own agenda be implemented.

But now it is obvious to just about everyone that the "changes" in Irish politics were a mirage. Not only has "modernisation" failed to deliver any real improvement in the running of the country, but the cracks are now beginning to appear in the linguistic veneer which has hidden the true reality from public view.

The public, in my view, has been remarkably gullible in accepting the corrupted language at its word. It had become a conventional wisdom that "Fianna Fail" was a byword for corruption. But, as in Animal Farm, you can only do so much to tamper with the writing on the wall before someone begins to notice that what is changing is not reality but words.

Thus, the erstwhile media followers of the "modernising" parties have recently been finding it more and more difficult to gather up the slack. From time to time they have even had to dispatch the odd blank shell over the heads of their political allies, to take the bare look off the discrepancy between their treatment of Fianna Fail and their treatment of everyone else.

Never again, I believe, will it be possible for a party to climb to high office on a platform of "integrity" or "ethics", and a good thing, too. But the downside of this is that we have now reached the point where all of the permutations have been exhausted by the bogus wave of modernisation, so there is now little or no scope for genuine change.

The last three governments of this State consisted of combinations of parties which not only did not canvass any such partnerships before the electorate, but actively ruled such options out, almost invariably on "ethical" grounds. The most likely partners in the next government are probably those parties which now state most definitively that they will never enter into any such alliances now or in the future.

Last week's outcomes resulted more from the absence of inspiration than any form of hope or optimism. Like myself, the electorate just about prefers the unpretentious dubiousness of Fianna Fail to the shoddy hypocrisy of the rest. We would like to opt for a radical alternative, but there is no such thing.