Artillery Row

Free State or failed state?

The collapse of the Irish party system is news, there and abroad

In a 1958 interview, TS Eliot was asked about his famous lines in the poem The Hollow Men, ‘this is the way the world ends, not with a bang but with a whimper’. Specifically asked if he would write them again if he had the choice, he said that he would not. At the time, in the years immediately after the Great War, they had described a certain abdication in the minds and hearts of the generation left to pick up the pieces, but the world had changed and he wasn’t so sure that talk of a whimper was still pertinent.

Their author was willing to let the words drop, but others have found them helpful nevertheless. They well describe something afoot in Ireland, something whose roots reach back to those same years immediately after the First World War.

A century ago, what would come to be described as the Irish War of Independence was underway, shortly to be followed by a split among the protagonists and a comparatively brief but profoundly traumatic civil war. When the guns fell silent, no small number of them ‘dumped’ around the Irish countryside, the two factions evolved into the two main political parties in the Irish Free State and subsequently the Irish Republic. For these two political forces to form a government together would for several generations have been regarded not only as an impossibility but an absurdity. Yet this week a proposed programme for coalition between those two parties, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, has now been published for the first time .

What is perhaps most remarkable about this unprecedented political landmark in the Republic is the desultory lack of interest it has received

The document itself is almost completely devoid of substantive content, a matter which cannot entirely be ascribed to the public health crisis, but what is perhaps most remarkable about this unprecedented political landmark in the Republic is the desultory lack of interest it has received. On Tuesday evening’s television bulletins, the end of a foundational assumption in the Irish party system (still subject to approval by grassroots members) achieved only second, third, and even fourth place billing.

If Ireland is itself so uninterested in this turn of events, should anyone else be less so? There is good reason to think that there is more going on here than people wish to admit.

The first observation which imposes itself is the exhaustion and the demoralisation of the Irish political class, which is obscured somewhat by the vaguely patriotic sense of unity which tends to come with a real crisis only to evaporate again quickly afterwards. Over the dozen years since the financial crisis of 2008, the two main parties have endured enormous electoral attrition while navigating sometimes acutely constrained public finances and a generalised sense that intermittent periods of stability never really take hold well or translate into quality of life improvements for the rising generation particularly. Some of that could have been prevented through less self-indulgent verbiage about ‘contracts’ with voters and a more hard-nosed focus on pushing through new housing, for example, which is held up only by various forms of political and regulatory capture by vested interests. Foolishly, and very consequentially, there was an attempt to coalesce around an unnecessarily aggressive response to Britain’s vote for Brexit in 2016, which ultimately left few reputations enhanced and contributed to the impression that nothing constructive was being accomplished. After a decade of tight finances, Brexit frustrations, and two divisive referendums on moral matters, there is a fatigue which comes across quite clearly when listening to parts of the Irish establishment. When the incumbent party of government, Fine Gael, initially responded to February’s general election result by putting it about that they would be quite content to retire to the opposition benches, there was every reason to believe that they meant it.

If Ireland is itself so uninterested in this turn of events, should anyone else be less so?

The Covid-19 crisis is one reason why that has not happened but the real reason for the emerging coalition between the two ‘civil war parties’ is, of course, the breakthrough Sinn Fein achieved in February, placing first in terms of overall votes cast and falling only one seat behind a similar placing in terms of the parliamentary tally.

There was a grim but accidental reminder of what exactly the problem is in the response made to the coalition programme by Sinn Fein’s Housing spokesman, Eoin Ó’Broin. ‘Housing’, he remarked, ‘was the single biggest issue for voters in the election last February, and the issues haven’t gone away.’ However unintentionally, the words echo the infamous remark made by Gerry Adams during the early years of the negotiations towards the Belfast Agreement when he said of the IRA, ‘they haven’t gone away, you know’, one of those comparatively infrequent moments in which he allowed the fundamental and the permanent duplicity of the republican movement to be seen straightforwardly for what it is. There is no real sense either within Fianna Fail or within Fine Gael that uniting the fundamental alternation of Irish politics into one coalition is desirable on its own terms. The capitulation to reality which animates the move on both sides is the dutiful but unenthusiastic decision not to capitulate to parliamentary arithmetic which could in principle have seen Sinn Fein enter government this year.

While appropriate as the indicated course of action to defend the integrity of the Republic at the present moment, it is also the declaration of a basic defeat that has already come to pass. The provisional movement can now be excluded from power only at the cost of sacrificing the organising structure of Irish political life. There is in some quarters a deep sense of foreboding about the future course of events now that the shape of daily politics is to consist of Sinn Fein enjoying the luxuries of opposition against not one or other but both of the main parties. A former Justice Minister Michael McDowell, whose clarity in office on questions of subversion was exemplary and merits private study by his successors, noted a month ago that the responsibility is only ever to deal with one parliamentary term at a time. That is a legitimate organising principle for government formation, but there now needs to be real focus and real structural analysis across the board to face squarely the possibility, perhaps the likelihood, that Ireland could quite conceivably be in its last years before the election of a Sinn Fein Taoiseach.

If a foreigner were to ask Irish people of their writers, two names one might well hear about are Seamus Heaney, who eventually received the Nobel Prize, and James Joyce. Listen carefully when the Irish talk to each other about our literary tradition, though, and you can discern a decidedly different emphasis. Names crop up such as Patrick Kavanagh or Patrick McCabe and there is a reason for the difference. The shift once conversation is among compatriots tends to be from those Irish writers who mastered language towards those who conveyed with psychological fidelity something of a darkness within Irish life which doesn’t readily find expression elsewhere but which cannot be excluded from a complete analysis of the political predicament.

During the Irish election campaign recently completed, there was a significant focus on a murder committed in Country Monaghan in 2007, in which a young man who had been lured to a farm was beaten by nail-studded bars until every major bone in his body had been broken. He died in hospital later the same day. The attack is reckoned to have required more than half an hour of continuous violence to have inflicted the level of physical damage sustained and while, as the standard journalistic phrase has it, nobody has ever been convicted for the murder, it is known and accepted which unit of the IRA was irresponsible for the killing.

To think properly about what this week’s coalition agreement foretells and what it means for a quarter of Irish voters to have chosen the IRA’s political wing at February’s election, Monaghan is a good place to consider. As well as being the location of a historically recent and brutal murder which effectively did not register with a quarter of the country as a legitimate consideration in their voting intentions, it is the county of the poet Patrick Kavanagh, who voiced something of the underlying malaise in his own generation. Of Monaghan in one of its darker modes he wrote:

A mean brutality reigns

It is really a horrible position to be in /

And I equate myself with Dante

And all who  have lived outside civilisation.

This is a very severe sentiment and it is describing something under the surface of things as experienced by a man whose expectations of life were repeatedly frustrated. I have more than once been surprised by the familiarity with Kavanagh’s work by Irish elected representatives, not generally known for their poetic inclinations, and I suspect that it is this anxiety about finding themselves outside the tribe which resonates, along with a sense of a latent capacity for brutality somewhere in Irish society. Similarly, one of the Irish novels to have come close to winning the old Booker prize was ‘The Butcher Boy’ by Patrick McCabe, published in 1992, and again a surprisingly tenacious point of reference ever since. Set in the early 1960s, between the IRA’s border campaign in the 1950s and the onset of open conflict after 1968, the novel describes the disintegration of a child’s social and family situation and the descent into what one reviewer described as ‘violent fantasies’ whose intensity and fury read more like a depiction of outright psychosis. What bears emphasis here is the directness with which a threat to social position leads to an indifference in the novel to violence and the tenacity with which the novel has held its place in the Irish imagination for several decades since then.

What if anything does literature from one and two generations back respectively have to do with anything today? Or with the agreement of a text for a political coalition whose wording could hardly be emptier or more vacuous?

Ireland is now due to be disproportionately affected, as an open economy, by the downturn precipitated by the pandemic, and it is likely that the gulf between life expectations and life outcomes will soon widen quite sharply. Already a quarter of the country were prepared to overlook the activities of the IRA when casting their ballots in February. The structure of the new coalition sets up Sinn Fein very favourably indeed to profit further from that underlying malaise of unsatisfied, and somewhat unsatisfiable, aspiration. A tired political class may well decide over the course of this parliament that they will no longer attempt to prevent the ‘inevitable’ and quietly conclude that Sinn Fein in government should not in principle be prevented indefinitely. If this should happen, there is little reason to believe that resistance to a Sinn Fein government would be generated spontaneously by the country at large, which tends to rally to constitutionality only when very deliberately induced to do so. It may be that the coalition agreement this week is the moment when resistance to Sinn Fein in government went out, not with a bang, or indeed with a whimper, but with an almost unreadable text which much of the media struggled to report at all.

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