I’m grateful to Greenflag below for drawing attention to Dan O’Brien’s historical sweep, Searching for the Source of Perpetual Passivity he’s dashed off for the Irish Times. The piece should provide readers with many happy hours of historical rumination. But although a fan of Dan’s, I’m less sure what it does for the development of Irish democracy. Dan echoes Fintan O’Toole’s Enough is Enough which has much to commend it as inspiration. But the Irish are hell for getting distracted by the great game of history. And why fasten on dissent as the big deficiency? Surely it’s more important for a political system to reflect the interests that make it up. And for that, dissent plays only a small part.
I have my own sweep as I daresay you have yours. I suggest in considerable measure the Irish State was a victim of its own success. Dan is right here:
Among the most important reasons in explaining the absence of such divisions was the long struggle fo statehood, which unified many forces in society that would otherwise have been at loggerheads.
The big word he doesn’t mention is nationalism. Contrary to1 Marxist analysis which most historians use to some extent, the winning (or the award) of Irish freedom made even the self imposed land war tolerable to its victims. WW2 likewise. Post war, we have Lemass, planning and the beginnings of growth with the accelerating switch from the land to the cities. This left behind indigenous change idealists from Thomas Davis to James Connolly. In this huge transition, the development of social partnership greatly aided national cohesion – after dissent a-plenty like the endless bank strike and bus strikes. Perhaps in the end social partnership bred complacency. The danger of too much cohesion in a small country is the development of a corporate state which gives a structure to clientelism.
The abuse of power alienated many groups in society. To this day suspicion of the state runs deep. When the Irish State was founded it had no such baggage.
Is Dan right here? Was the foundation of the Irish State as clean a break as all that? The State that was created was in large measure the same State they had replaced with a new top. The 1937 constitution changed the language and symbolism but not much of the substance. And surely too “agin the government ” survived independence, as over evictions and the obsession with private property which continues to this day and inflated the bubble. Dan continues:
Other factors worked to inhibit the development of an infrastructure of dissent. One was the unusually close attachment of an overwhelming majority of the population to a religion that has not historically encouraged debate or free thinking.
You could say! This the northern Protestant well recognises. Indeed the prevailing analysis of the role of the Church uncomfortably resembles nothing so much as Paisley’s in the 1950s. The problem with the Protestant analysis on that point is the beam in their own eye.
Yet for me and with all its rectifiable faults , the Republic remains the mature State we thought it was before the crash. It enjoys enviable cohesion that will get it through the crisis. I can’t believe many would actually welcome the alternative. What Dan fails to identify is dissent against whom? The mythic Golden Circle, Fianna Fail, all owner occupiers since about 1990, encumbered credit card debtors, Bono? How can you dissent against yourself?
The really intriguing result of the general election would be a Fine Gael majority government which could lead to a left-right rhythm in Irish politics well short of revolution. It’s time to rub out the fault line of the civil war, time to set history aside. Whichever the outcome, this change of government will mean real change in governance to replace the old spit on the palm and shake on it. And given the choice, as between northern conflict and notions of southern “passivity,” I’d know which I’d chose.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London