The happiest people in the Republic of Ireland right now are the members, and supporters, of Sinn Fein. After a long and bloody march through Irish history, and having finally surrendered their guns less than two decades ago, the political wing of the provisional IRA is now the second largest party in terms of seats in the Irish parliament, and is about to be made, with the connivance of its opponents, the official opposition, and Government in waiting.
How this situation came about is a long story, and besides, an irrelevant one. The mistakes of the past cannot be undone. It is the mistakes of the present that we should worry about.
In early February, the Irish political establishment suffered a dreadful general election. Leo Varadkar’s Fine Gael, a party which has been re-made in recent years in the image of upper middle-class progressive orthodoxy, collapsed from first to third place. The main opposition party, Fianna Fáil, a party almost identically re-made, along identical lines, suffered disappointment, staying in second place. Sinn Fein surged into first place on a Corbynite manifesto. The rest of the votes scattered to the winds – a rump of conservative independents here, a few socialist revolutionaries there, and a modest bump for the Greens, who surged from two to twelve seats thanks to the bountiful nature of our proportional system.
In broad terms, Ireland is now divided, politically, between two tribes, which might be best described, in terms a British reader will understand, as Lib Dems and Corbynites. On one side is the Dublin establishment, which might be the most middle class and progressive anywhere in the world. It thirsts for relentless social change, and prides itself in Ireland’s recent record of being a beacon to progressive activists the world over, by becoming the first country in the world to introduce same sex marriage by popular vote, and then becoming the first country in the world to introduce abortion by the same mechanism. For this tribe, the priorities for the next five years are clear: Gender equality, a war on racism, climate action, and becoming a global leader in trans rights. In this cause, the tribe is supported by every major newspaper, a phalanx of NGOs, and most of the US corporate giants who have made this country their home, and the rainbow flag their second logo.
All the conservative dragons in Ireland, like our snakes, are dead, and yet the thirst for change is not satisfied
In the other corner stands a very different tribe. Sinn Fein is, to be sure, supportive of every progressive cause, but such causes do not animate them. Their true thirst is for an economic revolution, of the kind for which there is growing, and troubling, support, in much of the western world. Their sympathies, internationally, lie with Cuba, Venezuela, and the Palestinians. Their attitude to the very state they seek to govern is best described as ambivalent, being, as they are, the heirs to those who fought for so long to destroy it, and Northern Ireland, by force of arms. Their dream, which they do not hide, is of a 32 county, socialist, Republic.
In February, they swept to their strongest ever result on the basis of widespread public discontent on bread and butter issues. Rents are too high, they say, and wages too low. The wealthy are hoarding the gold, they allege, and the young are impoverished. Ireland is, they claim, a land of wealth, but not of opportunity. Only a fundamental re-making of the economy can restore happiness to the people, they assert.
In their analysis of the problem, they are, of course, correct. Rents are indeed too high, and wages too low. Ireland does indeed have a millionaire class, and a generation of frustrated young paupers. Chances to advance in Ireland are rare, and frustrations are mounting. In a country that has been pursuing social equality for twenty years with a relentless zeal, economic inequality has quietly entrenched itself.
To this analysis, the establishment has no answer but more of the same. This week, you may have read, Ireland’s two old parties, Fine Gael, and Fianna Fáil, agreed a proposed programme of coalition government with the Green Party. What it contains is predictable enough: More referendums, on issues ranging from the status of women in the constitution, to property rights (which they propose to dilute, in a sop to Sinn Fein), subsidies for the media and academia, a new focus on rights for trans people and immigrants, a campaign against racism, and cutting our carbon emissions by half in a decade.
What’s significant isn’t what’s in the programme itself, but the surrender that it constitutes. Already, from their newly elevated perch as leaders of the opposition, Sinn Fein are dictating the policy priorities of the new Government. Fiscal restraint is to be abandoned, in favour of a huge programme of public house building. Emergency welfare payments, brought in during the Covid crisis, are to be extended.
Not enough, said Sinn Fein. The new coalition has bent the knee, but, Sinn Fein’s deputy leader said, still it “would be one of the most right-wing Ireland has seen in many years”. No journalist, apparently, raised an objection to this assertion.
And why would they?
When the choice is between continued cultural revolution, or a radical economic revolution, the cultural revolutionaries must indeed seem as if they are the right wing.
And in one sense, they are. For the Irish establishment is now banding together to conserve and preserve its diminishing power. The two old parties, sworn enemies for the century long history of the state, have laid down their arms to seal an alliance against the new threat. The newspaper owners, and their writers, have united to celebrate the new marriage.
But the outcome is inevitable. A generation of young Irish people have been brought up, by the old guard, to believe that radical change is good, and that those who stand in the way of radical change are the enemy. This generation of Irish children saw the once unassailable power of the Roman Church swept away before it, and celebrated as it crushed the remnants of Irish conservatism under its heel. It marched, arm and arm, with the establishment, through the streets of Dublin in pursuit of one progressive dogma after another. But all the conservative dragons in Ireland, like our snakes, are dead, and yet the thirst for change has not been satisfied.
The Irish establishment, in its utter folly, has now chosen to make Sinn Fein the main opposition party. And to make themselves the very last dragon that remains to be slayed. They will come, very soon, to regret it.
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