O’Toole’s New Republic – unfinished business or just a dream?

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More as a trailer than a review – as it’s out on Thursday– I draw attention to Fintan O’Toole’s latest polemic “Enough is Enough – how to build a new Republic“. Fintan has been promoting the book vigorously on this side of the water, on Radio 4’s Start the Week and here at greater length in an interview on Radio 3’s Night Waves (first interview)).  A pity he didn’t link both parts of Ireland in his modernisation project. Note his championship of publicly controlled education for the Republic.

Extracts from Night Waves interview

How did we screw it up? There was a sense of wealth being a value in itself and that contributed to the catastrophe.. A new Republic. Let’s try to imagine a political project for the future. The historical project of creating the republic is incomplete. There’s an awful lot of rhetoric and it goes back to 1916 and of course a lot of vile stuff has been done in its name but still it has a kind of meaning. I thought it useful to ask what the (new) republic would be like and if we can really do it in five years.

First, we have a myth we have a parliamentary democracy. Ours is the weakest in Europe. You can change the way politics works. Second, you can fix the (two tier) health system.

Why has public morality failed? It failed because to a large extent we outsourced it to the Catholic church with a very narrow sense of morality based on sex. There has been little idea of civic morality. This isn’t abstract. The church system of primary education that could easily (become) a democratic publicly run system of public education. It matters to create a set of public institutions the public have daily contact with and they have control over.

(Having been attracted to the late historian Tony Judt’s idea of “ethical austerity”)…. if you have to put up with straightened times you can focus on what was important and deliver the basic necessities of life. This is a moral idea.

(If there is no movement to attach these ideas to – without which they’ll fail?)

This is Ireland’s great unfinished story, a nation that was invented in the early C20 and then destroyed – by history, by partition (yes he said that but didn’t develop it,) by the highjacking of high ideals by terrorism in a conspiratorial elite. I think it is potentially potent to say to people in this crisis – we can finish this story. What I’m depending on is the profound sense of anger, shock and dislocation. There is a sense of a revolutionary moment in Ireland. Our political culture has failed so abysmally that some kind of fundamental change has to happen.”

Is Fintan O’Toole right or overwrought? What will knock that change into shape? There is also a less breast beaten version of the story. Ireland had never come close to being rich and the Irish had always been agin the government of strangers.  When they won self determination,  grim necessity after a civil war and then a trade war forced them to make a virtue of austerity, hearking back to a mythical golden age of Irish purity (Dev’s “comely maidens”). Austerity like wealth can cut either way. Neither need produce equity and social justice. The moment they were able to, they binged. Today they have a powerful hangover but the old resilience will reassert itself.

Isn’t that what they’re telling themselves already, down south? False comforter?

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  • fitzjameshorse1745

    Im inclined to believe that the First Republic was a failure. And its hard to imagine that the next ten years will be anything other than unremiitingly bad.
    And of course unionist journalists rejoice in it.
    The political class and indirectly the people they represent have a very stark choice.
    Social cohesion (and social justice in a climate of cut backs where the poor WILL suffer disproportionately) will be a serious problem. Do the three main parties agree on a kinda middle ground to keep most people on board and stave off civil unrest by being very slow to cut.
    Yet the duration and depth of the crisis stretches anything from seven to rwenty years into the future.
    Certainly up to four or five election cycles which is bad news for any Party in government on any Election Day.
    A government of some kinda national unity seems very likely but ultimmately that sorta government does away with the opposition (just like in the North).

    Ultimately theres something very undemocratic about the words “National Government” in any country.
    Im not a big fan of Fintan O’Toole. Too much overclass angst for my liking. Indeed the doyen of that kinda journalism.
    Yet he is right that the First Republic has failed.
    Not that he was ever a big fan.
    Neither was I.
    But rather like the Tories in the DemCon government cheer human misery and the cuts in welfare to further their conservative agenda….so too there is a class of Irish journalist/politician who is happy that the current economic crisis puts their agenda on the table.
    There are perhaps three areas to be dealt with in the relationship between State and People.
    The first is the role of the Catholic Church. Actually very easy to deal with as it is practically in hiding…and wont raise a whimper. But in effect the Church has been treated as a monarchy within a Republic.
    A Republic needs to state and enforce its supremacy. The First Republic did not.
    Second issue is the “property” issue. The Republic has leaned too much on the “rights” of property owners. Indeed one culd argue that the whole laissez faire approach to property is the direct cause of the crisis.
    Third……Europe. A fetish among Irish politicians who for the best part of four decades have taken European money in exchange for sovreignty.
    Being the continents best Europeans does not look so great now that Brussels is calling the shots.
    But St Garret the Good (the good one not the bad guy Haughey) blatantly claimed that the project of European unity HAD to be delivered by stealth as people would only accept it bit by bit.

    So thats the dimna restoring sovreignty and supremacy of the Stae in a Second Republic and the North does not even figure in that agenda.

  • wee buns

    Fintan is right.
    While not in agreement with every proposal he makes; while recognizing he is walking a line that will be viewed as idealistic; he is nontheless right, because he advocates TOTAL reform.

    People are angry.
    The question is, are they angry enough??

    Certainly I am. But it’s still the minority position.

    An elderly woman in the bank queue today (a bank which WE own, she pointed out) fed up of waiting, suggested armchairs be produced, then went on to expand on the wonders of French methods: the guillotine. Her voice pierced through the queue, and while I agreed, indeed applauded her, the rest pretended they didn’t hear.

  • Wilde Rover

    There is some hope that a second republic might allow the nation to free itself completely from the mental shackles of post-colonialism. When Brian Lenihan was lambasted in the House of Commons it was comforting to see that a lot of the anger in Ireland was directed against him rather than at the auld enemy.

    From the immediate surrender of the ideals of the revolution to the Catholic Church in the twenties to the creation of the gombeenocracy that has almost crippled the country today, the foundation of any second republic should be the recognition that the failures of the first republic were the failures of the Irish people, not because of the previously convenient crutch of blaming everything on the Brits.

  • aquifer

    “The Republic has leaned too much on the “rights” of property owners.”

    Understandable when the property was only recently acquired from the colonialists, but ROI has now its own home-grown class of opportunists and rentiers, able to get what they want through the weak political system.

    How to share out austerity?

  • Alanbrooke

    What have Unionist journalists got to do with anything ?

    You simply show that you are stuck in 1916 mode and ignore the fact that Ireland has been running itself for nearly a century. With that approach Ireland is screwed.

  • Anon

    Ireland picked an insane trade war it could never win and in large part brought austerity on themselves. They could have started liberalising much earlier than they did, they also could have had a bit of courage to move away from England and get involved in ther European project earlier.

    I’m also not sure you can just dismiss the boom as binging. This was the first generation that could actual choose to stay at home. That’s bound to have an affect.

    I agree with the need to deepen Ireland’s Republicanism. He’s not the first to say it – Garret Fitzgerald of all people has pushed similar sentiments in the past. I think he’s wrong about focusing on institutions, though that could help. If you look at America, the Constitution and ideas of liberty hold a grasp on all sides, even if they see it leading to different ends. Bunreacht could do with updating and act as something people could rally around.

    I agree with reforming the institutionms. First up, seprate executive and legislature in some way. That empowers Parliament. As it is, it’s just a rubber stamp and that’s mostly true of the UK too.

  • Greenflag

    I don’t believe there’s much for either the UK or ROI to learn from American politics . The USA is virtually strangled with an out dated constitution -elections every 20 minutes (slight exaggeration) with the House of Representatives and the Senate looking more like a a game of never ending musical chairs . Today in the USA the mid term elections end and the 2012 Presidential Election campaign begins . I believe 4 billion dollars have been spent by the main parties insulting each others candidates for every offence alleged or proven under the sun ( The USA electoral system is more about who has the most money or has raised the most 98% of the time :(

    There’s nothing to learn from the USA re politics . We have a written constitution that can be amended . We just need to change the electoral system so as to reduce ‘factionalism’ within all parties . A qualified list system such as what they have in Germany and other EU countries could help . The FG plan to get rid of the Senate is false economy and a backward step for both parts of this island . It is the one institution that can open it’s doors to representatives of both traditions in NI .

  • Archie Noble

    There is of course a great sense of unfinished business and not just over partition. Consider the fact that 50% of the population was forced abroad in order to seek a living for most of the period we are considering. Social justice is high upon the coming agenda but how will it manifest? We are talking about a highly educated and politicaly literate society that still has strong communitarian values and a desire for progress. I can see nothing on offer from the current political establishment that will meet those aspirations. As to Fintan I find myself in agreement with FJH.

  • Anon

    Whatever you say about the US, people there have a profound respect for their constitution. And their commitment to democracy even in lowly offices is impressive. That is a great positive.

    As for the actual detail of governemnt, don’t chuck the baby out with the bath water. Plenty to like and plenty to dislike,. Same as with anywhere else.

  • A.N.Other

    He is of course right to a point.

    However, revolutionary zeal has been hijacked by the one-eyed,
    blind- alley, backwoodsmen of the Republican school, and neutered by the get rich quick materialistic culture that has eaten the Irish soul.

    All revolutions are metaphysical, but the Irish have serious problems vis a vis their own metaphysical identity.

    There is a need for all to become like the Widow Quin in Synge’s Playboy; a realist who accept the fallen world.

  • http://www.belfast.humanists.net Democrat

    FJH wrote: “The first is the role of the Catholic Church. Actually very easy to deal with as it is practically in hiding…and wont raise a whimper. But in effect the Church has been treated as a monarchy within a Republic.
    A Republic needs to state and enforce its supremacy. The First Republic did not.”

    The stranglehold that the Catholic church has had (and still has) on the Republic is the source of many of our political problems, both North and South. Progress towards breaking that stranglehold has been pathetically slow. For FJH to say that church power is ‘actually very easy to deal with’ bears no relation to the facts, the main one being that the political system has kow-towed to the Catholic church for the duration of its existence. Installing Catholic teaching on divorce as law was one of the first actions of the newly-created State. Eighty years later, the recent attempt to prevent a rape victim from going to the UK for an abortion shows how much power the Catholic church still has. Likewise the failure to prosecute any member of the hierarchy over the paedophile cover-up indicates its power.
    The Catholic church controls the education system of the RoI.

    Real political progress for the whole island is being held back by the failure of the Republic to create a truly secular state which keeps all religious interference at bay. There are no signs at all that any politicians there recognise the necessity for a secular politics, never mind campaigning to achieve it.