Monday, October 07, 2013

Seanad Result: An Irish Identity Crisis

There are those who would argue that the Seanad result is a vote against the government, a protest vote. Others say that it is a vote in favour of reform. I think it runs deeper than that, however. What we are seeing in this country is a pattern of negativity and absence in our politics that has become progressively worse over the last ten years.

The problem is that there is no vision, no direction being articulated by our elites.  Elites have never been a problem in this country, we are a people seemingly happy to subjugate ourselves before our betters, whether that's the British, the Catholic Church, or Fianna Fáil, though each of them found that there was a limit to our patience.  Each represented a kind of vision, an identity, a belief that we could attach ourselves to.  With the British, we were a part of Empire; with the Church, we were a Catholic Leader country, with education, healthcare and the entirety of our social fabric tied up in the Church; and with Fianna Fáil it was the political extension of the late nineteenth century Gaelic Revival, a kind of Irish exceptionalism, we saints and scholars, a cult of the extraordinary that was almost fascist in its design.

The British are gone, the Church is emaciated, and Fianna Fáil betrayed our trust for the last time on the night of the Bank Guarantee. Who is Ireland today, who are the Irish? They're not in Ireland, for starters. Anyone who has traveled will tell you of the striking national identity of ex-pats, who have constructed a sense of identity for themselves based on misty-eyes memories of the old country. It's not a new phenomenon, nor is it one that is unique to the Irish. What's more worrying however is the emigration patterns that we are seeing. People are leaving the country, leaving full time permanent jobs behind them, because they see no future here. That is a shocking indictment on our elites, and on us all, in truth.

Our government is full of smart, well-intentioned people.  Their exclusive focus however has been on the economy, and that is a failing that I believe renders politics ineffective.  The country was in a deep hole, and as Enda Kenny explained in an address at Harvard in January 2012, his government had three priorities: "restoring Ireland’s place as a respected and influential member of the international community; resolving the crisis in our banks and our public finances; rescuing our economy." He wanted to make Ireland the best small country in the world to do business.  In the same speech, he talked about how small nations create great art, great literature.  He said that our wealth “can never be accumulated in banks or measured by the markets or traded on the stock exchange because it remains intact, alive, sacrosanct . . . in the proud territory of our people, in the transforming currency of the Irish heart, imagination, soul.”  But there seems to have been a gap between that part of his speech, and the result.  Because while he says that wealth is not in the banks, the entire strategy of the government seems to be to restore wealth to the banks.

Today, Ireland's people don't know who they are anymore.  It's partially - some would say substantially - as a result of the demise of the church and its social infrastructure, a void that politics and the state simply cannot fill.  That results in an insouciance, a detachment, and apathy towards the State.  Elites have always been there, but rather than those elites being in a bubble, it is the rest of us who have detached ourselves from the State, as it has scrambled for relevance.  So we vote less frequently in elections.  When we do, it is to express sentiment, not to secure representation.  

Fine Gael was not elected in 2011, Fianna Fáil were deposed.  It was a negative result (the votes had to go somewhere; Fine Gael has not earned the right to govern yet).  In 2007, only fear of the unknown kept Fianna Fáil in power, another negative result.  The referenda on Europe were negative statements; political reform choices like Oireachtas inquiries and the Seanad abolition simply addressed the wrong things, and were defeated.  At current course and speed, the general election of 2015 will be another political bloodbath.  The reform alliance may sweep the board in Europe if it secures enough candidates, in the absence of any alternative. 

There are two core issues.  The State has become detached from the people; and there is a loss of identity, a sense of drift, a lack of vision.  The restructuring of Ireland's debt will deny choice for future generations - what future does that represent?  In order to recover the country, the government needs to look a lot deeper than simply the banks.  Ireland's identity has been outsourced - to Arthur's Day, to the tourism industry and The Gathering (a diaspora shakedown if ever there was one), and to Irish Dancing contests where eight year old girls wear hair extensions and false tan.  Leadership is not just about administration.  In this country, with the entrenched civil service as the permanent government, it could be argued that leadership doesn't involve administration at all.

Articulate a vision, a real, human, positive vision, one that swirls through the fabric of everything we do, in the economy, in our schools, in our social services, and in our foreign policy, and people will engage again.  It's that simple.  Define who we are as human beings, as living, breathing, smiling, crying, growing and dying people, and we can show the world how liberal democracy can genuinely provide the architecture for human expression and true freedom.  That's how to win an election, or a referendum.

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