Irish Liberalism & The Gay Marriage Debate

[This column was published in the Irish Times on April 20th 2012]

AFTER LAST year’s introduction of civil partnerships for same-sex couples, the debate has swiftly progressed to the question of introducing gay marriage. Several characteristic limitations of the case for doing so are apparent in Kieran Rose’s argument in favour (The Irish Times, April 10th).

A number of self-contradictory or inaccurate arguments must be dispatched before the kernel of the question can be reached.

Public opinion data showing majority support for the introduction of gay marriage is now increasingly cited. This is doubtless accurate.

Public opinion is, however, no more conclusive a reason to legislate for gay marriage today than hostile opinion was good reason to delay reform concerning homosexuality.

Gay activists retrospectively give false legitimacy to the criminalisation of homosexuality in Ireland until 1993 by adducing opinion polling to a debate requiring resolution by reference to the common good. If majority opinion today is good cause to introduce gay marriage, it must have been similarly good cause for the profound imprudence of the law until two decades ago.

That this is absurd betrays not only a shallowness discernible in the case for gay marriage but also what has to be identified as a degree of intellectual dishonesty.

One is as likely to hear both that the Irish public desires the introduction of gay marriage and that the Irish public harbours a dangerous degree of homophobia.

Rose draws on both claims, yet they are clearly self-contradictory.

Separately but similarly, Rose says summarily “the court of public opinion has spoken”. This constitutes an attempt to shut down the debate on gay marriage.

One could appeal to the injustice of this commonplace summary cloture, visible at the recent Fine Gael Ardfheis at which no dissenting voice was allowed speak against the pro-gay marriage motion, but it is wiser to appeal to the imprudence of the imposition of gay marriage by decree rather than by decision.

Closely allied is the frequency with which opponents of gay marriage find their arguments pathologised rather than engaged. This is true despite the existence of gay opponents of gay marriage, such as this writer.

As for claims raised in the name of the gay community, I would prefer if someone with whom I share nothing but sexual orientation did not use that rather uninteresting fact to raise in my name political claims I and others do not share.

Rose states that gay marriage would have “resonance in related areas of difference and inclusion such as ethnic origins”. In short, we are asked to believe that Irish social cohesion through demographic change rests in enough measure to warrant mention on the introduction of gay marriage.

That such arguments can be made with a straight face indicates not only a certain hubris one detects in Irish liberals today.

Perhaps more tellingly, it bespeaks the absence in this country of much willingness in the media or in the political debate to scrutinise Irish liberalism rather than genuflect to it.

In terms of its attitudinal centre of gravity, Ireland has swung from one pole to another in recent decades. Yet comparing today’s Ireland with the Ireland of Archbishop McQuaid reveals that neither the deferential quality of debate in Ireland nor its intellectually undernourished nature have much altered.

The essence of the gay marriage demand is stated by Rose in the assertion that “the right to marry is a basic human right”. So far as claims of justice are concerned, this is the most serious contention that can be raised in support of the introduction of gay marriage.

In Rose’s account, the claim is buttressed by the UN Charter of Human Rights and “other human rights treaties”. Such claims are raised increasingly frequently. They rest on no more than assertion.

Recently, France’s supreme court has found that no discrimination is implied in the distinction between marriage and partnership provisions. The European Court of Human Rights has found there is no right to gay marriage in the European Convention on Human Rights and this does not amount to discrimination.

In considering gay marriage, it is essential to see treating different situations differently in no way constitutes discrimination.

What is more fundamental here is the co-option of human rights language by an increasingly hegemonic strain of intolerant liberalism. Whereas the “right to marriage” as pertaining to couples of the same sex is a recent invention, the right of a child to both a mother and a father where possible is not.

The reason for opposing the unnecessary elevation of civil partnerships to the notional status of marriage is that marriage then loses its nature as the one institution supported by society because it is the family form which on average gives a child the most advantageous upbringing.

It is agreed by most that civil partnerships mostly suffice in practical terms for same-sex couples. Altering the focus of marriage from children to relationships disadvantages future generations to no more necessary end than the further march of an increasingly cavalier and triumphalist liberalism.

Ireland’s Unasked Question

A prevalent set of presuppositions militates against grading the political behaviour of a nation. At a vulgar level, this gives expression to such sentiments as ‘the people are never wrong’ and its variants. ‘People get the government they deserve’ is heard, but bespeaks cynicism rather than sober evaluation.

Debating the health of a polity is not uncommon. Some do; some do not. One benchmark of political health is the ability to scrutinise foundations dispassionately. A subtext to much ancient Greek philosophy was the decline of Athenian democracy, a superficially unlikely concern even in Plato’s Symposium but one present to any adequately careful reading of a dialogue ostensibly about love. One cannot certainly cannot read Thucydides rightly without due attention to the reserved commentary on Athens and her fate from one of her own citizens. Allan Bloom’s ‘The Closing of the American Mind’ was published twenty-five years ago in the United States. Its analytical critique of the decline in American public debate and institutions sliding from the pursuit of excellence to the levelling of a relativistically-rooted egalitarianism sparked prolonged discussion from philosophical journals through the magazines of higher journalism to the public who purchased the volume in sufficient numbers to keep it on the bestseller lists for over a year. France routinely examines the character and functionality of its democracy and at present is doing so through the prism of a problematic presidential election campaign.

The difficulty for democratic polities in discussing the health of their public debate and political institutions is the possibility of negative verdicts. The alternative is to persist with unsatisfactory situations.

The Ireland of April 2012 presents a case in point. Controlling neither fiscal nor monetary matters, circumscribed in many other domains by EU or by unwise treaty obligations, the Republic exists only in a residual and incomplete sense. It does not exist insofar as providing for any meaningful manner of self-government.

Rather than elucidate the moral consequences of surrendering self-government, public debate is concentrated at this moment on a number of minor changes to the tax codes; there have been similar distractions before, as there will be others to come. When not even budgets are set in Dublin and the Republic’s ability to finance itself remains in jeopardy, these do not merit more than a moment’s attention. Yet Ireland is focusing its public energies on what amount to no more than footnotes to details.

These priorities highlight deficiencies. There is the deficiency of a public sphere in which the space for higher reflection on fundamental questions of national self-constitution does not have sufficient space. There is the deficiency of an electorate whose members view themselves unworthily as servant supplicants of a bankrupt State. There is a gross failure of leadership from a political class which has spent several decades preening its cosmopolitan credentials by means of enthusiasm for the European project, an enthusiasm which has trumped Ireland’s national-interest at multiple junctures and which continues today to prevent, through a straightforwardly ideological commitment to defeated nostrums, necessary reflection on the very question of national-interest.

Self-government is fragile and it is always an achievement. The absence of self-government is the absence of healthy self-respect on the political level and the absence of a context in which the particular political virtues have full breadth for expression.

The extent to which this is the fault of the Irish populace, rather than the consequence of a set of mistakes by individuals in positions of responsibility, is the most urgent question in Irish public debate and it is the most egregious for being unasked.

Ireland’s Association of Catholic Priests & The Hermeneutic of Continuity

‘Why is it that the churches where their every ‘remedy’ has been introduced are not thriving? Worse than that, why have they shrivelled up even faster than the churches that have not altered their teachings?

I have never heard a satisfactory answer to this question from liberal Christians.’

David Quinn

Ireland’s Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) has published opinion polling data to a clamour in the Irish media. These findings show majorities of lay Irish Catholics in favour of the ordination of women and other innovations contrary to both Tradition and Magisterium, but also classically characteristic of liberal Christianity. This note inquiries not solely into the under-appreciated radicalism of the ACP, but more especially into the deficient intellectual probity of its campaign. These observations apply also to similar campaigns being waged in many parts of the world and to those aiding them, in some cases perhaps opportunistically for motives of their own.

In questioning the probity of the campaign for liberal Catholicism, let us not start with any assumptions that could be disputed in good faith. That is to say, I do not here for the purpose of assessing the ACP take it as self-evident that the Catholic Church possesses revealed truth, that magisterial doctrine is true, or that the Pope possesses teaching authority by virtue of his standing in succession to St. Peter as the Bishop of Rome. Let us ask merely whether the campaign being pursued by the ACP alongside others is defensible on the level of mere coherence, non-self-contradiction, and intellectual honesty.

We are confronted most immediately with the spectacle of a collective of priests commissioning an opinion poll. Questions necessarily ensue.

Should the poll have found that a majority of Irish Catholics reject the ordination of women, would the ACP have accepted the result? Let us rephrase the question to exclude speculation about what the ACP might or might not do in certain eventualities. Ought the ACP to have accepted the result, we should say, were a majority of Irish Catholics to reject the ACP’s own campaign?

We answer this question using only the ACP’s own implied ratio decidendi. Their referral of doctrinal matters to opinion polling demonstrates a belief that polling data is doctrinally authoritative. To be consistent, this must be true whatever opinion polling might return by way of a result.

The most obvious observation is that opinion polling, which is to say public opinion, is not stable. Results obtaining today may not obtain in the future, and may contradict the past. This would mean that the Catholic Church was correct not to ordain women in 1900, is correct to ordain women in 2012, and will be incorrect in ordaining women in 2100, should opinion polling then show settled opposition to the ordination of women. This is absurd.

Or, we may ask whether the ACP’s referral of doctrinal matters to the judex of opinion polls has any limiting principle built in. At no point has the ACP stated that in which, on their account, the core of Catholicism consists; that is to say, never has the ACP clarified that which, in their account, is not up for negotiation or alteration. If there were no such core, anything particular to the Catholic Church could in principle be altered or discarded. No core means that the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ, or the doctrines of the Resurrection and the Eucharist, or the authority of Sacred Scripture, would all, and much else besides, in principle be liable to be discarded at the point when a majority of lay Catholics should renounce them, whether through the mechanism of a priest-commissioned opinion poll or otherwise.

If that were in principle possible, there could be no Church in the sense of a claim to embody transcendent truth. In other words, if everything is negotiable in principle, nothing is stable; no basis exists on which Catholicism could with any intellectual honesty assert its self-definition as being a religion rather than merely a volunteer community group with a rich artistic and architectural heritage.

Let us presume that the ACP would indeed, if it spoke to the question, agree that there is a core of Catholicism that is beyond negotiation, or alteration according to the vagaries of what a scarcely catechised laity might tell pollsters over the telephone. If this non-negotiable minimum exists, it necessarily, according to no more than the rules of logic, remains non-negotiable even if it is some day contradicted by an opinion poll. Indeed, it remains non-negotiable even if contradicted by the settled opinion of Catholic laity over a protracted period of time. If the ACP were to accept that the Resurrection of Jesus Christ never has been, is not, and never will be something the Catholic Church can be required to deny, that would remain true for centuries. No quantity of centuries’ worth of opinion polling would overturn the Catholic Church’s requirement to uphold that doctrine, even if polling results throughout the centuries returned a contrary viewpoint.The consequence is unavoidable from the admission that in principle there must be a non-negotiable core doctrine of Catholicism: ultimately, no number of opinion polls could ever prevail against it. We can by now see the intellectual fraud perpetrated by the Association of Catholic Priests. Their method of proceeding to address the question of the ordination of women and other questions requires the Church to deny its right to make any claims to truth, in other words, to remain a religion rather than an unnecessarily-vested liturgical counterpart to secularism’s denial of the possibility of revealed truth.

While some reactionary fringe groups have contrived to portray our association as a small coterie of radical priests with a radical agenda, we have protested vehemently against that unfair depiction. We are and we wish to remain at the very heart of the Church, committed to putting into place the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.

Association of Catholic Priests

If opinion polling is a legitimate vehicle for deciding the future of Catholic doctrine, we may ask by what right the Association of Catholic Priests constitute themselves as the spokesmen of Irish priests. Their membership is a very small fraction of the number of priests in Ireland. In other words, an overwhelming majority of Irish priests have rejected the option of becoming members of the Association of Catholic Priests. Logically, according to its own rules of adjudicating such decisions, the ACP should bow to the majority opinion and either disband itself or speak the doctrine of the Catholic Church as stands.

The defensive tone in the above quotation is striking. A small number of petulant Irish priests have undemocratically appointed themselves as spokesmen for Irish clerics in defiance of their own rules of reasoning, while proceeding in such a manner as would catastrophically dissolve any teaching authority on the part of the Catholic Church by asserting what could be termed the hermeneutic of majoritarianism.

That this intellectual fraud should be wrapped in language resonant with the characterisation of its priestly members as persecuted dissidents is grotesque and shaming, coming after a century in which brave priests bearing witness to the Gospel and their priestly ordination died for the Church and for the Lord under conditions of unprecedented darkness and persecution of the Church, conditions which still afflict the Church in some parts of the world today.

Liberalism in religion is the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another, and this is the teaching which is gaining substance and force daily.

Cardinal Newman

Is Ireland’s Political Culture Rotten? Brief Comments

Is Ireland’s political culture rotten?

In the aftermath of the publication of the Mahon Tribunal report, Professor Diarmuid Ferriter stated:

‘We face a stark conclusion: this is a State bereft of meaningful sovereignty due to its bankruptcy and a State whose governing culture has been exposed as rotten.’

To this claim, Cormac Lucey has offered a calm but critical response. Lucey is always worth reading through, no less so this article. I would characterise his approach to political writing as that of a particularly hard-headed, elegantly spoken conservatism, informed by unsentimentality regarding the human condition and man’s capacity for depravity balanced by an unfazed regard towards the possible. This strain of rigorously prudential conservatism is rarer in the West today than in other ages, notably the late nineteenth century. In Ireland, Lucey may well be alone in his worldview.

Be that as it may, let us return to the question of Irish political culture. The four following excerpts from Lucey’s article stand out:

‘Human beings are inherently imperfect. Our institutions, being human creations administered by humans, are therefore also going to be imperfect. The challenge then is not to create “perfect” institutions. It is to create institutions which minimise the cost of the inevitable human errors.’

‘Our national system of government doesn’t do too badly when one considers another, more fundamental, indicator of performance: Europe’s post World War I settlement… Ireland has the fifth-longest continuously operating democracy in a Europe of 60 states. Again, that’s not bad for a country with a “rotten” governing culture.’

‘To argue, as O’Toole does, that “it was public consent that made abuse of power the norm” is a profoundly wrong. Voters didn’t get to vote on the abuse of power. They got to choose between different candidates and different political parties.’

‘The hard fact is that while some of our leading politicians have let Ireland down, we have also been let down by intellectuals who prefer false simplicity to the complexity of the truth. The result is a view of Irish society which is hyper-critical rather than a balanced view which accepts the good and bad in our political system and politicians.’

My sole straightforward disagreement is with the third excerpt. Voters did on several occasions have the opportunity to vote for or against candidates against whom some verdict or well-founded suspicion of corruption or criminality attached. Frequently, those candidates were re-elected; not uncommonly, they were re-elected comfortably or several times over. If behaviour towards tainted politicians is a litmus test of political culture, it is one litmus test Ireland would fail. But the political is only deficiently accessible through the binary.

The durability of the Irish political system noted in Lucey’s second excerpt echoes similar observations emphasised by a variety of Irish academics and former Minister for Justice Michael McDowell. One hesitates to undermine a measured respect for the Irish Constitution’s perdurance, especially at a time when the Constitution is a target of the Irish Left who expressly desire to rewrite it for their own ends. Nonetheless, the comparison carries less weight when it is allowed that Ireland escaped much of the constitutional turmoil of twentieth-century Europe by being for the most part a mere bystander to the Second World War, decolonisation, and the collapse of communism. A certain paucity of political thought in the higher sense of the phrase may be a more accurate causal diagnosis of Irish constitutional longevity, limiting ‘ideological’ impulses towards constitutional innovation characteristic of peacetime constitutional change on the continent.

It is where the first and last excerpts combine that things get particularly interesting. Some readers will have readily seen in these a succinct expression of an impeccably Burkean approach to the political, not distant from the nowadays rare prudential strain of conservatism I delineated above: the folly of aspiring towards perfection, the critique of the ‘false simplicity’ of the ‘intellectuals’; indeed substitute ‘metaphysicians’ and we could be in Reflections. That this need never shade into cynicism or indifference is evident from Burke’s own restless life.

Lucey’s thrust here seems to amount to an intention to preserve what Leo Strauss termed a ‘decent respect’ for the prevailing order; to situate failures in public standards in the context of what would constitute sober-minded public expectations. In the absence of any affective political loyalty to the existing order in Ireland, expressed most comprehensively through the Republic’s institutional arrangements, decline towards political immoderation is more possible, as in any polity where the old ways fall into disrepute.

Ireland possesses a basically decent political regime: stability is allied to a quite considerable latitude for statesmanship when office is held by those with the natural ability to exercise it more fully, a latitude which has been fulfilled to no small effect in Irish history and certainly by several Taoisigh. The political culture of the country assessed in respect of public expectations of what politicians can and ought to do may calmly be said to be mired in all the usual enthusiasms and levellings of democracy but the greater risk over the longer term, should Ireland succeed in preserving enough sovereignty for the consideration not to be moot, lies not with manifestations of corruption conventionally understood but with the corruption of the political spirit that privileges unfounded optimism in respect of fundamental innovation, enabling the partisan politicisation of a defensible political order in a context in which, as has been said before, new will mean worse.

Fisking Kieran Rose on Gay Marriage

The debate on gay marriage in Ireland has been scant and unsatisfactory. As the lobby supporting its introduction grows more confident of success in the coming years, it is becoming more careless. It is worth pausing over an article in the Irish Times by Kieran Rose (‘chair of Glen, a member of the board of the Equality Authority, and of the Working Group on the Merger of the Irish Human Rights Commission and the Equality Authority’). The column is lazy and intellectually undernourished, leaning heavily for support on the familiar rhetorical ticks of the Irish equality industry. Critiquing the case in favour of gay marriage over and above existing civil partnership provisions would require for probity engagement with much more serious writers. What is worth noting here are some of the presuppositions of the ideological equality agenda in Ireland. For brevity, I will proceed by quote and comment. This is not intended to be comprehensive.

‘The move to civil union for gays and lesbians is not an immense legislative leap, but an incremental step built on civil partnership law.’

First comes dishonesty. When the task was to introduce civil partnerships, it was routinely argued by those actively pushing the initiative that the provision fell far short of marriage and what was required. This was in order to make the move seem insignificant and harmless. Now, with unapologetic self-contradiction, it is said that the gap between partnership and marriage is trivial. Of course, this is in order to make the next proposed move seem insignificant and harmless.

‘The right to marry is a basic human right’.

Kieran Rose goes on to cite ‘human rights treaties’. He does not note that France, a far more secular country than Ireland, recently rejected this argument in its courts, on the grounds that the State is perfectly within its rights to continue to consider marriage as traditionally defined. The reason for that ruling was the commonsense reasoning that it is not discrimination to treat different situations differently.

‘Public opinion is in favour of opening out civil marriage to same-sex couples. In a recent Government opinion poll 73 per cent were in favour of same-sex marriage.’

Kieran Rose cites public opinion as a reason to legislate for gay marriage. Again, this displays an intellectual dishonesty at work. Public opinion was consciously set aside when legislating for the legalisation of homosexual acts in 1993. When public opinion agrees with Irish liberalism, it is cited as another reason why something must happen. When public opinion disagrees with Irish liberalism, it is either ignored, termed dangerous, or cited as a reason why the vast industry of equality quangos and agencies must be preserved if not expanded.

‘I suggest that the people of Ireland in this open-hearted welcoming of civil partnerships, have spoken and are saying we are entitled to marry.’

This is particularly stupid, arguing that endorsement of X means endorsement of Y.

‘The introduction of full constitutional equality would be another great signal and support for young people who are coming out, perhaps feeling isolated and vulnerable to bullying in school, that this State says that they are equally cherished under our Constitution.’

A frequent tendency in Irish liberalism is the resort to empty emotional blackmail, as above.

‘The opening out of civil marriage to all couples would enhance our shared national values of equal citizenship and would have resonance in related areas of difference and inclusion such as ethnic origins.’

This is another breathtakingly silly argument. We are asked to believe that social cohesion through immigration and demographic change is impaired without the move from civil partnerships to gay marriage. One doubts whether Kieran Rose himself believes such codswallop even for a moment.

‘I suggest that the “court of public opinion” has spoken, and that now is the time to take the next incremental step to the right to marry.’

Duplicity of Irish liberalism concerning public opinion has been noted above. What is striking here is the reference to the ‘court of public opinion’. There is a pronounced tendency, amongst advocates of gay marriage and other reforms which could be characterised as socially liberal, to behave and argue in such a manner as suggests that they are litigating their intellectual opponents. The frequency with which one hears quasi-judicial language invoked to attempt to shut down debate is revealing of a deep-seated antipathy to debate on these issues.

‘In a relatively short period of time, Ireland has moved from being one of the most unwelcoming countries to gay people, to being one of the most progressive globally.’

This may indeed be true but the sentence constitutes another instance of intellectual dishonesty and self-contradiction within Kieran Rose’s argument. Either Ireland is now ‘one of the most progressive’ countries in the world, or it is so mired in intolerance of homosexuality that children will be bullied for being gay without the superimposition of gay marriage on top of civil partnerships.

That the Irish Times considers an account of the case for gay marriage so riddled with contradiction, intellectual dishonesty, double standards, and emotional blackmail worthy of its comment pages says something about the newspaper in question, but the appearance of so weak a piece from so central a figure in the push for the introduction of gay marriage in Ireland increases one’s suspicion that Irish liberalism is entering territory marked hubristic.

There’s More and Worse to Come in Ireland

[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.


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