Ireland imagining an alternative politics

Leinster House, Dublin. Ireland’s parliament building.

Does it not seem that the most important thing about the forthcoming event being organised by Ireland’s new political movement, the Reform Alliance (RA), in the Royal Dublin Society’s conference centre on 25 January is first and foremost the challenge it throws down to us to free our imagination?

Ostensibly “policy” is on the agenda. But unless we break free of the bondage which ties us to habits of thought about ourselves and our society, which have become second nature to us over the past few decades, then we will be wasting our time.

Philip Blond, an English philosopher and political thinker with an Irish lineage, is addressing the conference. This gives us reason to hope that it is all on the right track. Blond has written about the condition of Western society in his paradoxically entitled book, Red Tory [1]. In it he looks at the generally sorry state we have allowed ourselves to get into and how we have enslaved ourselves in all sorts of practical ways.

Philip Blond

 However, he writes, even our minds are not free. In order to be truly liberated we have to be able to imagine an alternative to the prevailing order. This we manifestly cannot do at present. So colonised have we become by consumption, fantasies of glamour, and cynicism about the public good that we cannot envisage anything different from that which we currently experience. In order to create such an alternative one has to look both backwards and forwards. Backwards, because history tells us that things were different once and that what has happened need not have occurred. Forwards because with knowledge of an alternative past in a manner that isn’t simply naive or idealistic, it is possible to envisage a better future that we all might inhabit.

 That must surely be the starting point and basis for any creative political life which will offer us a way out of the mess we are now in. Our thinking about education, health, social and economic policy has to engage in a truly Promethean struggle and to break itself free from the ideological bonds of selfish individualism and once again see the common good as the only foundation stone on which a just and equitable society can be built.

It is hard to know why we lost the plot so badly. Were we so scared of Communism and Socialism that we overcompensated by elevating the individual to the centre of the universe? Did we then surrender ourselves to selfishness and narcissism – which is the inevitable consequence of setting the individual up as master of all he surveys? Whatever the reason for us getting there, we must now find a way out of this prison.

Blond in his book offers an analysis of why this happened in Britain over the past half century, and what the dire consequences were. It does not take a huge leap of the imagination to see how what he describes applies to the island of Ireland in almost equal measure – or to see that the pace of our pursuit of our neighbour’s folly has increased to breakneck speed. Blond is addressing the RA conference and hopefully he will underline all this in the stark detail which he provides in his book.

He traces a good deal of the rot back to the 1960s when what he describes as “fragments of the middle classes”, some of them associated with the ‘new left – the ultra fashionable intellectual left of that era – “preached personal pleasure as a means of public salvation.” They had little idea what they were doing, he says.

 While toxic to civilised middle-class life, this mixture was lethal to the working class. Some measure of sexual liberation was necessary, and could have led to a deepening of loyal relationships between men and women. But, in reality, it was contaminated by narcissism from the outset. For the working class this narcissism meant the dissolving of the social bonds that had kept the poorest together during the worst times of the 1930s – illegitimacy increased and family breakdown began in earnest.

 He then goes on to describe how the “new left”, contaminated by this self-centred ideology became disengaged from the politics and needs of working-class people, “as a politics of desire overwhelmed whatever was good and decent in its prior ethic. This license to express the self allowed the advocates of liberation in the late 1960s to embrace drugs and hedonism as if personal emancipation for bohemians would lead to the liberation of all.” The consequences of this were disastrous for the working class as the cancer seeped into the building blocks of society – the family and the communities which families constituted. This corrosive culture of self-indulgence continues to flourish.

 The family is the first and the most intimate social institution that human beings have, Blond reminds us, – it might vary by extension but nothing can challenge its decisive importance. But just look at what has happened to the British family: in 1964, 63,300 births were recorded outside marriage, only 7.3% of all births. In 2003 it was 257,225, over 41% of all those born.

 If present trends continue, soon the majority of UK children will be born out of wedlock, with all the pejorative consequences for the young that both sociology and statistics have amply elucidated. For example, each child born to unmarried parents has only a 38% chance of seeing out their childhood with both parents present. Marriage is clearly better for children: 70% of children of married parents can expect their mother and father to stay together during their childhood. But marriage is failing too: the number of divorces rose in 2008 to 167,000; in 1961 there were only 27,000 divorces granted.

 Do the Irish think they are immune from this contagion? From the way all Irish political leaders are charging ahead with every piece of permissive legislation the Irish liberal left shouts for, you would think they do.

Last year the Iona Institute surveyed the situation in the Republic of Ireland and revealed the following:
<p style=”padding-left:30px;”>■ There are now 200,000 adults who have suffered a broken marriage. This is five times more than in 1986 (divorce was put on the statute books in the Republic in 1996).

■ There has been an increase of 80 per cent in the number of lone parent families since 1986

and the total now stands at almost 190,000.

■ There are 121,000 cohabiting couples, up nearly fourfold in just ten years.

■ The number of children being raised in non-marital families is now one in four, which is

drawing close to American and British levels.

 As Blond says, “The picture isn’t pretty” – neither in Britain nor in Ireland. With family breakdown affecting so many – and continuing to increase, – “the fundamental bedrock of civic life has been destroyed.” He points the finger without apology – and Ireland knows that the finger is pointing in the same direction there:

 It was some of the very people who thought themselves left-wing – the pleasure-seeking, mind-altering drug takers and sexual pioneers of the 1960s who instigated the fragmentation of the working-class family and sold the poor the poisonous idea of liberation through chemical and sexual experimentation.

 And they haven’t gone away, you know.

The whole problem has been compounded by the disastrous corrosion of political life and political institutions. In both Britain and Ireland huge segments of the electorate have been disenfranchised by the merging of all established political forces, left and right, into one amorphous mass of politically correct puppets pandering to that other increasingly arrogant force in the public life of a country – the mass media.

As the influence of this force grew, public representatives needed to take account of it at all times. To do this more effectively they had to enlist the help of professionals from within the media and the “spin doctor” came into existence. The term itself denotes deceitfulness. All this further enhanced the media’s influence to the point where it can only now be described as power. The unelected tribunes within the media now effectively lead the elected representatives along the path of least resistance to goals which they identify as “progress”, manipulating the politicians who live in fear and dread of being pilloried by this new bardic class. This is the trend in every country but true with far more dire consequences in Ireland where a monolithically liberal-left clique dominates the country’s print and broadcast media. Meanwhile increasing numbers of the electorate look on in helpless dismay.

Blond sums it up like this:

 The real outcome of the last thirty years of the left-right legacy is a state of disempowerment. Nowadays we have the worst of the left and the right combined in one philosophy: an authoritarian, illiberal, bureaucratic state coupled with an extreme ideology of markets and the unlimited sway of capital. Little wonder then that most Britons feel they cannot influence their locality let alone their region or nation. Passive and compliant, all we can do is shop – and after a while that doesn’t make us particularly happy either.

Members of the Reform Alliance in the Irish Parliament: Billy Timmins, Paul Bradford, Peter Matthews, Fidelma Healy-Eames, Lucinda Creighton and Terence Flanagan.

Many in Ireland – it is estimated that between 40 and 50 percent are disillusioned with all the political options presented to them by the current political establishment – are living in hope. Their hope is that what is now stirring in the public square will emerge as a political force to challenge this essentially corrupted status quo. They hope that it will restore integrity to the system, that it will offer them something in which they can again place their trust, their aspirations for the future, the future of their children and their country.

[1] Blond, Philip, Red Tory. How the Left and Right Have Broken Britain and How We Can Fix It. Faber and Faber, London. 2010.

Green shoots of an Irish Spring?


In the New York Times today Thomas Friedman raises a question posed by a former C.I.A. analyst which roused my curiosity and made me half wonder if it might not be a lead-in to a piece about our current discontents here in Ireland.

Why are we seeing so many popular street revolts in democracies? OK, our generally polite demonstrations on the pro-life issue have hardly been revolts. Nevertheless, the underlying anger and resentment which they reveal do not seem to be too far short of something more serious and do suggest that in them there might be a suggestion of the green shoots of an Irish Spring.

In mulling over the analyst’s question Friedman describes a political response which will be familiar to all in a Brazilian, Turkish or Russian context. But it also has a resonance in the context of many political conversations which I’m sure many of us have had on the island of Ireland. The rising discontent is palpable since it became clear that the bigger partner in our current government nakedly betrayed the trust which a sizeable portion of its electorate placed in it at the last general election on the issue of abortion.

The American analyst, Paul R. Pillar, in a recent essay in The National Interest, asks: “The governments being protested against were freely and democratically elected. With the ballot box available, why should there be recourse to the street?”

Friedman believes that the convergence of three phenomena provides an answer. Whatever about the other two, the first certainly has an uncomfortably familiar ring in the Irish contect. It is what he describes as the rise and proliferation of illiberal ‘majoritarian’ democracies. “In Russia, Turkey and today’s Egypt, we have seen mass demonstrations to protest ‘majoritarianism’ — ruling parties that were democratically elected (or “sort of” in Russia’s case) but interpret their elections as a writ to do whatever they want once in office, including ignoring the opposition, choking the news media and otherwise behaving in imperious or corrupt ways, as if democracy is only about the right to vote, not rights in general and especially minority rights.”

Rights is what is vexing the Irish electorate just now – not just any ordinary rights but what most people consider basic fundamental rights, like the right to life and the right of freedom of conscience. The discontented among the Irish consider that these rights are now being trampled on by their government. Not all politicians are ignoring what many consider to be the high-handed and deeply undemocratic behaviour or the ruling parties in government.  Some are resisting being dragooned into supporting the pro-abortion legislation now being pushed through the parliament.

One, who just yesterday declared his rebellion against the Party, summed up the basis for his revolt as follows:

“This bill is not in line with Fine Gael values and some of our long-term supporters are very distressed with the current state of affairs,” Fine Gael TD Terence Flanagan has told the Sunday Independent newspaper. “I am totally in favour of women getting all necessary supports during pregnancies,” he said, but added: “Most people would not be impressed with a TD who voted for something that they believed to be fundamentally wrong.”

Flanagan has declared that in the new law which will require Irish hoppitals to perform abortions there is “real and significant cultural change” being engineered in those institutions.

Highlighting one of the things which is driving pro-life Irish people to despair in their government, he pointed to the way in which the parliament has been simply going through the motions of debate and ignoring the arguments put before it. He said: “Over the course of two sets of hearings conducted by the Joint Committee on Health and Children, we were presented with compelling evidence that abortion is not a treatment for suicidal intent; in fact, it may even contribute to it.”

The Fine Gael TD said: “It gives me no pleasure to dissent from my party, but prior to the last general election, Fine Gael gave a commitment to the electorate that it was ‘opposed to the legalisation of abortion’. In deciding how to legislate on such a uniquely life-or-death issue as abortion, a legislator must have the freedom to follow his or her own conscience on the matter.” He added that he did not agree “with those who say we should set aside our own beliefs when we deal with so grave an issue”. As a legislator he considers that “I am constitutionally free to oppose this bill and I am conscientiously obliged to do so”.

What the protesters in Turkey, Russia and Egypt all have in common, Friedman argues, is a powerful sense of “theft,” a sense that the people who got elected are stealing something more than money: the people’s voice and right to participate in governance. Nothing can make a new democrat, someone who just earned the right to vote, angrier, he wrote. The Irish are not exactly “new democrats”. They have struggled against governments which imposed unjust laws before. They are angry now because they have to do what they never thought they might have to do – give vent to extra-parliamentary rage against their own elected government.

As Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef wrote in the Egyptian daily Al Shorouk last week, on the first anniversary of the election of President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood’s party: “We have a president who promised that a balanced constituent assembly would work on a constitution that everyone agrees on. We have a president who promised to be representative, but placed members of his Muslim Brotherhood in every position of power. We have a president and a party that broke all their promises, so the people have no choice but to take to the streets.”

The Irish now have a prime minister leading his party toward legislation which is the very opposite of what he promised them to get elected. Furthermore, he is doing so in spite of all the expert evidence being given to him that his proposed legislation is deeply flawed. He is seen as not even attempting to address this evidence with any kind of counter-argument. His actions are seen as having all the subtlety of a steamroller. It is the same fuel which is driving all discontented democracies.

Friedman’s second converging element is in the economic sphere and this is not absent from the Irish scene either. The rising anger he sees across democracies comes, he thinks, from the failure of governments to level with their electorates on what is really going on and in particular about all those things which are squeezing the middle class and the aspiring middle class, the working backbone of all electorates.

The last element contributing to this convergence is the crucial one of means to an end. Democracies now have new weapons in their arsenals. “Thanks”‘ Friedman says, “to the proliferation of smart-phones, tablets, Twitter, Facebook and blogging, aggrieved individuals now have much more power to engage in, and require their leaders to engage in, two-way conversations — and they have much greater ability to link up with others who share their views to hold flash protests. As Leon Aron, the Russian historian at the American Enterprise Institute, put it, ‘the turnaround time’ between sense of grievance and action in today’s world is lightning fast and getting faster.” All this is also playing out in the Irish body-politic, playing a big part in bringing 40,000 demonstrators on to Dublin’s street in the beginning of June, the biggest pro-life demonstration in the country’s history.

The net result of Friedman’s convergence across the world is this: “Autocracy”, Friedman writes, “is less sustainable than ever. Democracies are more prevalent than ever — but they will also be more volatile than ever. Look for more people in the streets more often over more issues with more independent means to tell their stories at ever-louder decibels.” Why should Ireland be an exception?