As Ireland slides somewhat apathetically towards a potentially crucial general election in the centenary of the 1916 Irish rebellion against the British Empire, there are signs – and hopes among some – that this might be a watershed year in Irish politics.
The old party political structures which have persisted for nearly 100 years are tired and have gone far beyond their sell-by date. Worse, they are corrupted and for many they reek of some of the worst vices that relativism and it progeny, unprincipled pragmatism, can bring to any political culture.
In 1961the social and political philosopher, Hannah Arendt, was sent by The New Yorker magazine to Jerusalem to write about the trial of Adolf Eichmann. She was appalled by what she saw and heard. The spectacle which she saw unfold before her was of a man – indeed of many men and women – who set conscience aside to carry out the orders received from a government to which he had committed allegiance.
This appalled her at least as much as the catalogue of atrocities which the trial revisited. These she had anticipated and indeed lived through as a victim. In some senses was prepared for the repeated blows to her sensibilities which rained down on her. The former was something she was not prepared for and until her death in 1975 it haunted her. Well it might, and well it might haunt us all. The abnegation of conscience and its inevitable consequence, the abnegation of humanity, still stalks our public square today.
We may like to think that it does not manifest itself today in the horrendous proportions which it did in the case of Adolf Eichmann – and his co-criminals – but in essence it does. It does so in the same banal guise as it did in the case of that monstrous “ordinary” bureaucrat. It is at our peril that we think that it does not.
The coalition government of Enda Kenny, a politician more reviled by a sizeable proportion of the Irish electorate than any in living memory, is seeking to be returned to power along with his liberal coalition partners, the Irish Labour Party. He may well succeed. It is now widely expected, however, that there will be a strong representation in the new parliament for those who have been crying, “a plague on all your houses.” Kenny’s party may be the largest one in the Dáil after the election but its majority will be greatly reduced.
A poll at the start of the election campaign indicates that over 60 per cent of the electorate want rid of the present coalition. However, party fragmentation and independent deputies of all colours may result in them just getting more of the same. If Kenny can form a government he will have to do so with the help of all the colours of the rainbow, always a volatile and often a short-term mix.
There are multiple reasons for the disaffection of the Irish electorate. Ireland is not immune to this virus now found in many Western democracies. But in Ireland one in particular stands out. Enda Kenny is the leader of a party which in 2013 cut a number of its members adrift because they would not and could not, in conscience, support his government’s abortion legislation.
The members in question opposed the legislation on two grounds. The first was the ground of their moral conscience which told them that the termination of the lives of innocent unborn human beings in their mothers’ wombs was evil. The second, although not a matter of life and death like the first, was no less moral. They believed that promises made, undertakings given by politicians going into an election, should be honoured. Kenny’s party explicitly undertook not to legislate for abortion if it got the votes to enable it to form a government. Once in power, under pressure from their coalition partners and the media, they turned around and did just that.
But revulsion at Kenny goes even deeper than that. Not only did he unjustly punish those he could not bring with him. He corrupted the consciences of those too weak to stand their ground against him, those who in their hearts knew that what he was doing was both morally wrong and a betrayal of the trust of the electorate. These people, under pressure from him and his bullying acolytes caved in and voted for his legislation.
For many, sadly, this is just the stuff of political life. For others it is much more than that. Those who opposed Kenny did not see this as a matter involving the extermination of a race. For them it was about a law which was going to open the door to a regime of abortion through which their country would join a community of nations which have callously organised the extermination of millions of unborn babies over the past five decades. In secret meetings abortion advocates in Kenny’s coalition told their supporters that although limited in scope, the legislation he was introducing would open the door to abortion on demand in Ireland. That was no surprise to anyone.
Lucinda Creighton was a minister in Kenny’s government and was forced to resign when she was unable to support the legislation – legislation to which she was opposed in principle and which she had promised her electorate that the party would not introduce or pass into law. Media outlets in Ireland are overwhelmingly pro-abortion and Creighton is now their number one target. She is seeking re-election and is the head of a new party with a radical and comprehensive platform of policies. It is campaigning, among other things, to rid Irish party-politics of the paralysing and freedom-denying version of the parliamentary whip system it has be operating under.
Creighton’s new party is taking a much more liberal line on the application of the party whip because everyone sees that the system as used at present is simply turning the elected representatives in moronic “yes-men” – and women.
In their hue and cry pursuit of her Irish media show themselves, no less that the majority of the politicians in the traditional parties do, totally insensitive to the ethical quagmire which Hannah Arendt discerned in heart of Adolf Eichmann at his fateful trial in Jerusalem.
One journalist typified this a few weeks ago when she attacked Creighton for her conscientious stand. “I think she was wrong. She was wrong to leave over abortion and she was wrong to leave at all,” she said. Creighton should have understood, the journalist argued, why the party whip had to be imposed. According to her the TDs – an acronym derived from the Irish term for a parliamentary representative – and senators needed the “protection” of the whip. She denied that it was a method of ensuring group think and mind control. Read another way that means they needed the “protection” of the whip to shield them from their own consciences and to absolve them of personal responsibility for the consequences of their actions.
Creighton’s spirited and inspiring defence of her stand in 2013 obviously meant nothing to this journalist. It did, however, to many, right around the world where it was read, listened to and admired.
I never bought into the line about matters of conscience…., the journalist went on. If you can’t stand being told what to do, how do you intend to take part in Cabinet decisions, which are constitutionally collective and confidential? So in the end, you can dress it up in principles all day, but ultimately, Lucinda is just another splitter.
She concluded, the following applies, not just to Lucinda, but the rest of them: Compromise can be framed as the means by which ideals are undone, one vote at a time. You can sacrifice your soul on the altar of loyalty, but nothing changes the fact that politics is a collective business.
So yes, there’s a game to be played. But it’s a long game.
There are chilling echoes of Eichmann’s defence in those words. In the light of what she observed in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt raised the question of whether evil is radical or simply a function of thoughtlessness, a tendency of ordinary people to obey orders and conform to mass opinion without a critical evaluation of the consequences of their actions and inaction.
All this is symptomatic of what many see as a cancer at the heart of not just Irish political life, but of Western democracy generally. Politicians today are fond of telling us that their thinking and their principles are “evolving”. That, in most cases, is just a euphemism which describes political thinking devoid of principles.
For the next three weeks some Irish men and women are living in the hope that, 100 years after men went in good conscience to their deaths for an ideal, they might again have representatives in their parliament for whom conscience and ideals, as opposed to power, mean something.