'National interest' the last refuge of ruling class
The aim of all this talk about consensus and national government is to make citizens redundant, writes FINTAN O’TOOLE
‘THE MEN who have led Ireland for 25 years have done evil, and they are bankrupt. They are bankrupt in policy, bankrupt in credit, bankrupt now even in words. They have nothing to propose to Ireland, no way of wisdom, no counsel of courage. When they speak, they speak only untruth and blasphemy. Their utterances are no longer the utterances of men. They are the mumblings and the gibberings of lost souls.”
Thus wrote Patrick Pearse at Christmas 1915, about the Irish Parliamentary Party that dominated nationalist politics. Its leader, John Redmond, had made a catastrophic mistake, throwing his weight behind the British military effort in the first World War and sending Irishmen to die by the thousand in the fields of France and Flanders. The scale of this disaster was not yet clear. It was even less obvious that Pearse was destined to be anything more than a marginal enthusiast with an addiction to increasingly lurid rhetoric. But there was undoubtedly a sense that the established leadership had lost its legitimacy.
Is it not striking that Pearse’s words are so precisely applicable today? Bankrupt in policy, bankrupt in credit, bankrupt now even in words – that about sums it up. Turn on the radio at any newstime, and the mumblings and gibberings of lost souls stream out into the uncomprehending ether.
There is, though, an irony at work here. Pearse correctly identified the moribund nature of the Irish political Establishment of the time. He went on to light the fire from whose flames the new Establishment would eventually emerge. But that new Establishment is now the old one. The successors of Sinn Féin in the South, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, are the ones who now seem to be on the wrong side of history. In the most recent Irish Times poll, their combined support adds up to a minority of the potential electorate.
The last refuge of a threatened Establishment is always “the national interest”. This amazing cloth covers a multitude. In the last 30 years, it has justified everything from bailing out Allied Irish Banks (the first time) to underwriting Larry Goodman’s dealings with Saddam Hussein, from winking at organised tax evasion to dragging a dying woman (Brigid McCole) through the courts. Now, it is being invoked to justify an extraordinary notion – that a Government without a mandate will join with an Opposition without a mandate to commit the Irish people to a detailed four-year budgetary strategy.
Or, to put it another way, that everyone will get together to avoid the horrors of democracy. Everything is tolerable at the moment, from the vicious cruelties of cuts directed at the most vulnerable to the pouring of €40 billion into dead banks. Everything, that is, except one thing – seeking the consent of the people for the policies that will shape their lives. The aim of all the talk about consensus and national government is to make citizens redundant. We will be allowed to vote aftera deal has been done and sanctioned by the EU. Our choice will be limited to deciding which Mr Whiplash gets to dole out our punishment.
A key part of this “consensus” is the limiting of the definition of the problem. The National Economic and Social Council (NESC) pointed out a long time ago that we don’t have a crisis – we have five crises: banking, fiscal, social, economic and reputational. (The council politely avoided the sixth crisis: the overarching political crisis of a loss of credible authority.) The great and the good wish to address just one of these crises – the fiscal one – on its own.
This makes no sense intellectually: the fiscal crisis can’t be separated from the economic crisis of mass unemployment and neither can it be separated from the implosion of trust in the political system. But it makes a lot of sense from the point of view of a threatened Establishment. It means we don’t get to talk about the staggering incompetence of the bank bailout. It means that those in the loop – and their advisers – can keep paying themselves huge salaries. It means a political system that is a parody of democratic accountability can survive intact. It means that basic questions of justice will remain off the table. Cui bono?
What is really in the national interest is that our political system, which has betrayed us so outrageously, performs the one service it has always avoided. It owes us a choice. It has to formulate two coherent plans for dealing – in a comprehensive and integrated way – with our multiple crises. And it has to put those plans to the people in an election.
If Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael find themselves on the same side of that argument, so be it. Sacrificing tribal loyalties would be a tiny recompense for the damage the system has done and for the pain that cannot be avoided. Only genuine debate and a genuine choice can create real popular consent. Another stitch-up will merely deepen the crisis.