Searching for the source of perpetual passivity


ANALYSIS:We are mad as hell (as Fianna Fáil is about to find out) but why we are we not doing anything about it? History may hold the answers

IRELAND’S EXTRAORDINARILY moderate and passive society perplexes foreigners. They wonder at the very limited political and societal reaction to the country’s economic crisis. A weak infrastructure of dissent explains this moderation/passivity. But why is Ireland’s infrastructure of dissent so underdeveloped?

By most measures, Ireland has suffered one of the worst economic crises ever experienced by a developed country. Many lives have been ruined and more are threatened with ruination. Thus far, those at the top – be they bankers, bureaucrats or politicians – have paid little if any price for whatever role they played in the disaster.

Despite the scale of what has happened and the scope for recrimination, social calm has prevailed. This restraint/lassitude marks Ireland out from other peer countries, where public reaction to economic mismanagement has led, for instance, to the toppling of a government in Iceland and violent demonstrations in Greece.

The passivity of Irish society is not new. It has been in evidence at least since the early years of the State. The Civil War, for instance, was a brief and unbloody affair compared with other conflicts of that kind in Europe over the course of the 20th century – from Finland in the 1920s to the Balkans in the 1990s.

What did not happen in the 1930s is further example of moderation or passivity. The new ideas that emerged about government and society at that time – most notably fascism and communism – spread quickly and took root in societies where the infrastructure of dissent was well developed. They fell on fallow ground in Ireland. Those (anti-democratic) ideas were almost completely ignored and, more generally, no country in Europe has been so little influenced by new political ideas.

The non-reaction to the economic crises of the 1980s and 1950s are further examples of this unusual feature of Ireland’s society. The latter two cases have frequently been explained away by emigration acting as a safety valve.

That explanation is being dusted off again now. But emigration can be, at most, a partial explanation: many other countries have experienced outward migration and violent upheavals simultaneously, including 19th-century Ireland.

As scholars of society and politics have not pondered this moderation/passivity a great deal, there is not much to go on when seeking an explanation as to why we are as we are. What follows is a tentative explanation of Ireland’s underdeveloped infrastructure of dissent – by which is meant a diverse range of political organisations and pressure groups and a culture of debate and contestation. The ferment of ideas generated from the infrastructure of dissent drives change and acts as an antidote to inertia.

In other European countries, divisions within societies have been central to the building up of the infrastructure of dissent.

In the evolution of European society some of the most significant divisions have been between aristocratic and merchant classes; between church and anti-clerics; between a politicised labour movement and merchant classes; and between right and left. For different reasons these divisions either did not exist within Irish society or were less deep than other European societies. Among the most important reasons in explaining the absence of such divisions was the long struggle for statehood, which unified many forces in society that would otherwise have been at loggerheads.

Another division causing creative tensions elsewhere has been that between citizens and state. For most of the time since the modern state emerged in Europe, its peoples were subjects rather than citizens and those who wielded power over them – mostly kings and princes – were unconstrained in its use for their own ends. The abuse of power alienated many groups in society. To this day suspicion of the state runs deep. When the Irish State was founded it had no such baggage.

It started with a blank slate and has always enjoyed a high degree of legitimacy. An anecdotal example of this legitimacy and the limited suspicion of how the State exercises power is that political conspiracy theories are far less frequently heard in Ireland than in other European countries.

The timing of the State’s founding was important in keeping the slate clean. In 19th-century Europe many powerful forces strained societies as the process of modernisation accelerated. Regimes, which were overwhelmingly conservative, more often than not sided with those supporting the status quo and clamped down on those seeking change. The exercise of power in this way caused long-term damage to states’ legitimacy and generated a plethora of radical groups interested in ideas and ways to effect change, some of them violent. A classic example of this (but in the 20th century) was the repressive reaction of the Northern Irish state to the minority community’s demands for change in the 1960s and the subsequent development of a very violent infrastructure of dissent.

In Ireland by the early 1920s, much of the modernisation adjustment, with agrarian reform being particularly important, had already taken place, and the new State did not have to take sides in a way that would cause alienation and undermine its legitimacy.

Other factors worked to inhibit the development of an infrastructure of dissent. One was the unusually close attachment of an overwhelming majority of the population to a religion that has not historically encouraged debate or free thinking. Another was the tendency for decades after independence to attribute failure to others. “Britain as the source of all our ills” directed anger at failings – that could have contributed to greater domestic dissent – away from the new State.

There may well be other reasons for Ireland’s underdeveloped infrastructure of dissent. Or, indeed, the answer may be simpler. It may even be that the question (and answer) don’t matter much – perhaps most people are sufficiently content with their lot not to want things to change.

Dan O’Brien is Economics Editor

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