[Originally published with Critical Reaction, February 28th 2012]
To say that Ireland’s general election last week garnered global headlines would be true up to a point, if typical of the local tendency to exaggerate the rest of the world’s concern for all things Irish. The New York Times despatched of the event briefly on its tenth page while even Le Monde’s usually exhaustive coverage of Europe’s vicissitudes confined itself to a short note mention of Sinn Fein’s expected surge. Yet although Ireland’s citizenry scarcely number that of a largish but not particularly populous European city, the election is nonetheless an extraordinary and revelatory event. Irish voters went to the polls only four months after the abject humiliation of being forced to accept around €100billion in new debt at the behest of its EU creditors, a so-called bail-out that burdens Irish taxpayers with impossible obligations to foreign bondholders who gambled unsuccessfully on their stricken banks. Rarely do Western democracies vote while quite so close to the abyss as Ireland just has; stripped of her fiscal sovereignty by the IMF, indebted far beyond hope of eventual repayment, and hobbled by a political culture soft on cronyism, corruption, and the extremist pasts of prominent public figures.
Although it is hard to overstate the magnitude of the political earthquake the election has produced in Ireland, some have. The performance of the victorious Fine Gael party, who might be said to constitute the backbone of the next government had the party not by now acquired a richly-merited reputation for spinelessness, has been widely called ‘unprecedented’. Yet is not quite so. While they have never before won so many seats or been the largest party in the Dail, the lower house of Ireland’s parliament, Fine Gael’s vote share was three percentage points short of their previous best. In political circumstances favouring opposition parties to a degree that truly was unprecedented, that is little vindication for the party’s tepid centre-right approximation of European-style Christian Democracy. It is still less of a triumph for the party’s insipid leader Enda Kenny, who in the venerable tradition of Irish politics effectively inherited his Dail seat from his father. Few are any more mindful to point out that the conquering hero nine months ago narrowly avoided being deposed as leader by his own exasperated colleagues in a failed putsch wit which most of his shadow cabinet collaborated.
The Irish Labour Party also recorded its best ever result in terms of seats won, but the much-heralded historic breakthrough out of its traditional urban bases and geographical catchment area simply did not happen. The slogan pushing the Labour leader Eamon Gilmore for the top job in Irish politics – ‘Gilmore for Taoiseach’ – became one of the wry jokes of the campaign. By polling day, the party had been reduced to pleading with voters for a place in coalition with the embarrassing billboard pitch, ‘It’s Only Fair’, as if quota-allocated redistribution should apply to votes as well as to income or the gender balance in political representation.
Even the extent to which long-dominant Fianna Fail has been routed can be overstated, although not by much. Historically one of the most successful political parties in the democratic world, they retain a formidable membership base and a large number of local councillors. Their stunning repudiation at the hands of voters does not necessarily amount to obliteration, as the tenor of much commentary would suggest. As a party whose purpose has been patronage and power-brokerage rather than the pursuit of political principles as such, they may however find the task of self-definition as a niche party a possibly insuperable challenge.
What has been missed in the reshuffling of the positions of Ireland’s three main parties last weekend is a pronounced lurch to the left in Ireland, facilitated by the intellectual irresponsibility of the Irish establishment. The myth-making of the Celtic Tiger and the Irish economic miracle is long over. The country is being dragged down by a failure to confront the reality of its predicament alongside a retreat to Ireland’s traditional instinctive statism.
The leftward slide is sharp and has been overlooked in the concentration on Fine Gael’s victory. Most of Fianna Fail’s vanishing vote went not to Fine Gael but to movements of the left. Sinn Fein more than doubled its parliamentary representation. The unreconstructed United Left Alliance won five out of 166 seats. Taking both combined with similarly-minded independents, there is now to the left even of the Labour party a grouping amounting to almost a fifth of the Dail. That so large chunk of the Irish electorate has reverted to the comfort-blanket of class war rhetoric of an antique vintage is ominous. There is little sign that the electorate understands the extent of the austerity that Ireland must bear in addition to the cuts endured to date. With an indulgent and mostly leftist media failing to engage with the threat, the hard left is well-placed to do still better at election after this. The possibility that the next Irish government will be formed by Labour and the hard left, including Sinn Fein, is a real one. The ramifications would extent to Britain and the European Union if it came to pass.
The failure of the Irish establishment to check either the soft leftism of the Labour party or the resurgent far left is entirely in keeping with its instincts and the record of recent years. Instead, while mainstream politicians who support same-sex civil partnerships but not gay marriage face concerted calls for their summary dismissal, there is little if anything which Sinn Fein or leftist politicians can do in Ireland that will draw sincere and vocal criticism from the guardians of Irish conventional wisdom. Labour party leader Eamon Gilmore, the most likely Irish Foreign Minister, is a former Stalinist whose Cold War links included ties to Castro’s Cuba and the dictatorship in North Korea. He was an active member of the Workers’ Party during the period in which that organisation was the political front for the Official IRA, which in turn was linked to murders, bank robberies, and counterfeiting. None of this was a campaign issue. To raise the question as to whether a man with such a past is suitable for public life let alone the control of Irish diplomacy is almost universally considered to be something between a faux pas and a below-the-belt smear.
Likewise, Sinn Fein faced less hostile scrutiny from the Irish establishment during the campaign than did, for example, the entrepreneur Declan Ganley, who almost single-handedly defeated the Lisbon Treaty when it was first put to a referendum in Ireland in 2008. The contrast is dramatic and instructive, especially considering that the tacit designation of Sinn Fein as a whitewashed and normalised Irish political party contributed to it very nearly becoming the largest opposition party in the Dail.
Mr Ganley would be recognised in most English-speaking countries as a mainstream pro-market centre-right conservative but was vilified as a far-right authoritarian and xenophobic bigot for breaking with the pro-EU consensus that encompasses almost the entire Irish establishment. During the period of contention over the Lisbon Treaty, the state broadcaster RTE devoted a full episode of its flagship investigative programme to trawling through his affairs, despite finding not a single discreditable discovery. The Irish Times, a newspaper that matches the tendentiousness of The New York Times to the circulation of an American provincial daily, assigned a reporter to spend half a year on a similar, similarly fruitless trawl. The intellectual irresponsibility exhibited by the two enormously influential organisations in denouncing Lisbon Treaty opposition as extremist was closely followed by political figures across the Irish party spectrum. The determination of Ireland’s opinion-leading institutions to collapse the distinction between Euro-critical classical liberalism into a hankering after jackboots and coloured shirts helped leave Ireland intellectually defenceless against an imperial Brussels during the endgame before last November’s hostile ‘bail-out’. It is part of the reason why there has been no mainstream acknowledgement that rampant Europhilia and the catastrophic Irish decision to join the Euro are root causes of Ireland’s supplicant helplessness today. Despite the centrality of the EU membership and the euro to any analysis of the causes of the Irish crisis, neither properly became an election issue in their own right.
Equally conspicuous by the studied refusal of the Irish establishment’s refusal to raise the matter was the resurgence of Sinn Fein. Faced with what actually is a politically extreme organisation, the contrast between that party and Lisbon Treaty opponents was breath-taking in what it reveals about the assumptions and priorities of Irish public life. Gerry Adams faced no serious challenge to his suitability for office, duly topped the poll in his multi-seat constituency, and topped it off by remarking that he would never disown the IRA, all without incurring more than the most cursory of uninterested tut-tutting.
More often, the treatment of Sinn Fein has felt like a conspiracy of normalisation. A month before the election Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness was invited on to the national broadcaster’s weekly flagship programme, watched some Fridays by as many as one in four people in the country, and treated as an avuncular elder statesman rather than a former IRA commander. More spectacularly if less importantly, RTE’s Irish-language political editor emailed the family of the IRA victim Jean McConville to say ‘please do not send my anymore of this obnoxious crap’ after they issued a press release during the campaign highlighting the widely believed involvement of Gerry Adams in her murder. The political editor in question is himself a former member of the IRA, something not deemed a relevant consideration for his fitness to be in the job in the first place. There is no suggestion that he will be disciplined, let alone summarily dismissed, as would occur in any country with a minimally adequate culture of standards in public life. The consequence of the collective decision not to treat Sinn Fein as the anti-democratic force in Irish life that they are came quite close to seeing Gerry Adams become the leader of the Irish opposition.
Ireland’s election is being written and spoken of in terms that suggest that it truly does amount to Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny’s description of the event as a ‘democratic revolution’. In truth, it more closely resembles is Act Two of a five act tragedy, taking the period following the 2008 banking collapse and its prelude as the first and wit a great deal of anguish and self-discovery to go.
There has, as Paul MacDonnell of Ireland’s Open Republic puts it, been no DNA-change in the Irish political culture. There is as yet little organised opposition to the Irish establishment’s enthusiasm for corporatism, Euro-federalism, and radical chic of both the communist and paramilitary varieties.
The danger of false hopes being dashed will make up the next instalment of the drama. The sense of catharsis Ireland experienced in removing Fianna Fail from office may not easily be understood outside the country but ran very deep. Expectations that the election of a new government will provide respite from the despair and dull grind afflicting the country will be roughly disappointed. The hard statistics of Ireland’s indebtedness mean that the crisis and its legacy will write off the aspirations of a generation of Irish men and women and the political consequences of such hopelessness cannot be foreseen in advance. The soul-searching and intellectual probity required after the fourth profound failure of the Irish state in ninety years of existence did not begin with this election just past. A new administration cannot but prove largely beside the point until that starts to happen.