“War contaminates everything, even the imagination. That is why I work for peace.”
-Klemens von Metternich
I was asked recently if I thought the present southern government would last the year out. I’d seen odds suggesting Micheál Martin would not last the year out, but above all Martin is a stoic, and his internal critics have the same problem they’ve persistently had in recent years, Fianna Fáil has no alternative.
On the other hand, the previous administration has left him with a number of serious external threats to deal with. With the Brexit deal under strain, his refusal to trade in near-ubiquitous anti-British rhetoric may just clear a sane space for the kind of economic rescue that was always needed from the start.
As tomorrow’s Cargo of Brick’s guest Dan O’Brien notes “the world is becoming less stable and less democratic”. Not that many in the Dublin political press corp seem to have noticed. Trump is generally laughed off as a peculiarity of the USA that will run its course come the November elections.
But, as many Irish Americans are working in prominent positions within the Trump administration, it’s clear that Ireland is pretty fond of its own bad boys (and girls) too. However political reporting in Dublin seems too busy with poll watching and Kremlinological guestimating to have noticed.
There are several exceptions, most notably Mick Clifford in the Irish Examiner who looks for no favours from any party and shrugs the general abuse routinely handed out even to mild critics of any populist project of the nationalist right. But it’s probably Eoghan Harris who frames the problem best.
First he states that he doesn’t attack Trump because, “we can’t affect the American election and, we don’t get the mind of Middle America”. Harris has it mind (and his guns) focused on the local Trump project whose fortunes he believes he can affect.
Then getting down the business of talking tough to his fellow commentators (which he clearly relishes)…
Diarmaid Ferriter writing in The Irish Times echoed the chorus of Martin critics who complain his attacks on Sinn Féin are “backfiring” and presented Martin’s views as personal rather than political.
“As Fianna Fáil leader, Martin has adopted the habit of going for the Sinn Féin jugular, to little effect. It is clear his dislike of the party is visceral and over the years his contempt has been summed up in his assertion: ‘How dare they claim to own Irish republicanism!'”
The words ‘dislike’ and ‘visceral’ demean Martin’s cogent moral and political reasons for calling out the Sinn Féin narrative on Northern Ireland. Surely a historian like Diarmaid Ferriter can see the leaders of all constitutional parties in the Dáil have a duty of care to the rising generation to challenge Sinn Féin’s sectarian narrative?
Harris’ argument is that Diarmaid is essentially playing the man thereby reducing the Taoiseach’s moral objection to Sinn Féin as Ireland’s Trumpian (promoting anti-British as opposed to anti-immigrant feeling) project par excellence to a personal trait rather than tackling the substantial point.
In The People Vs Tech, Jamie Bartlett shows how we are giving over a lot of practical judgments to technology in making everyday decisions, in medicine for instance. But, on bigger questions, tech is still just “a cold calculating machine that [cannot] grasp the subtleties of human decision-making”.
For instance, we see broad deference to polling as the key arbitrator of political fortune in most modern democracies has the effect of not only withdrawing from commenting on the substantive issues of democratic government and ends in what Bartlett terms “a driverless democracy“.
This happens, as he explains when citizens (venerable commentators or not) let the AI (artificial intelligence) do all the work on our behalf. We are not simply data points on a computer-generated graph, we are communities of real people having our “jobless futures” described by algorithms.
This absence of humanity within the machine is what drives good people towards tell-them-what-they-want-to-hear populists like Trump and Mary Lou. And this silent complicity, as I would put it, is something almost universally missed by those who claim to oppose them.
It’s easy to criticise Trump in Ireland, Sinn Féin not so much. Actually, it is easier to do both if you spend less time on the sort of BUMMER platforms that both Lanier (in Ten Arguments) and Bartlett claim is making it impossible for us to enjoy the fruits of a working liberal democracy.
For Harris (and I think I agree with him), Martin despite his misfortune at the ballot box in February is one of the few voices in Irish politics standing against the wave of populist sentiment. I cannot speak deftly about the complexity of southern responses (which are partly generational experiences of FF).
But on Northern Ireland, Martin is one of the few, if not the only leader in the south to take seriously the historic Belfast Agreement of 1998 and Hume’s governing idea of an Agreed Ireland. Here’s his response to Sinn Féin heckling in the discussion of his Shared Island Unit last week:
Working with others, Fianna Fáil was essential to the Good Friday Agreement. Fianna Fáil enabled the Deputy Conway-Walsh’s party to give up the gun. Sinn Féin endorsed violence as the way to unify Ireland and did more damage to Irish unity than anybody else.
Sinn Féin continues to endorse that narrative of violence, not understanding that every time it does so it makes more difficult than ever to get a united Ireland or to get consent.
When Deputy Conway-Walsh’s colleague, Gerry Kelly, celebrates a prison escape which resulted in the murder of a prison officer, is that okay? Does she think that advances the cause of Irish unity?
Of course it does not, nor does saying that Sinn Féin is more pure than Fianna Fáil because of my position on a shared island unit. That sums up Sinn Féin’s view. Its members see it as something to appease the base.
How many more votes can I win if I shout “united Ireland” more often than somebody else? That is the essence of what I have just heard from the Deputies opposite.
These exchanges don’t earn the Taoiseach much favour elsewhere, but they do show a grasp of north-south relations that’s been shaded from the public square by Sinn Féin’s ethno-nationalist populism and the previous administration’s deployment of anti-British rhetoric viz a viz Brexit negotiation.
And on a more human basis Harris’ analysis returns (as he almost inevitably always does) to the moral question at the base of this particular Irish populist conundrum:
…the rank and file of the party [ie, Fianna Fáil], if not the parliamentary grandees, know that Sinn Féin absolutely hates being called out on moral grounds, hates any mention of Jean McConville or Paul Quinn.
Unlike the grassroots, the grandees in FF have never grasped that the party’s Unique Selling Point is Martin’s moral fervour in showing the stark difference between Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin is finally moral.
In answer to a question from Mary Lou about the highly questionable decision by a former Minister of State at Finance (actively involved in policy formation in the Financial Services sector) to leave the Seanad to become chief executive of the lobby group Irish Association of Investment Management.
After agreeing with Mary Lou on the need to regulate such conduct, Martin then added:
I have long been concerned at the fact that parties and movements can raise foreign donations to an extraordinary amount. I think that should be examined by the Standards in Public Office Commission. Deputy McDonald’s party has raised $15 million over the years in the United States. I worry about that.
That money has been raised from big vested interests, from construction and financial elites, in the United States with which Deputy McDonald seems to have no difficulty. Referendums have been influenced by large amounts of money the origins of which we do not know.
That is a more fundamental area to our democracy. Some people have funded projects, including commemorative projects celebrating 1916 and so on. My understanding is that one particular project – I am open to correction and Deputy McDonald might correct me – was funded by loans from abroad but there was a political agenda attached to that as well.
I would favour a review and reform of the SIPO legislation. Any cooling-off period should have the force of law and sanctions and penalties attached to it. That review is on the way by the Government now.
Mary Lou’s response was remarkably calm and measured; largely because she ignored the Taoiseach’s substantive point other than to conclude with “we do not need a lengthy review; we need this change to happen quickly.” I’m sure that’s true: $15 million is an awful lot of ‘dark money’ to lose.
To return to the top quote in this article, according to Christopher Clark’s gifted essay in the latest London Review of Books, Metternich’s attempts to “dam the streaming flood” later gave way to Bismark’s particular gift of “steering one’s boat on the broad and turbulent stream of history”.
We may be in for a very bumpy ride ahead.
Noreena Hertz in a piece for the FT noted last week that populism’s success lies in its “appeal to the feeling of exclusion and marginalisation that many citizens have come to experience in recent years, a sense of being ignored, even abandoned, by those who hold political and economic power”.
Sinn Féin’s capacity to speak directly to communal fears and a sense of economic and social abandonment, while claiming that they alone understand and care for them has put them on a course for power and with that the island on a course for conflict (if not necessarily the violent kind).
That makes it harder for traditional politicians like Martin to act and more importantly, be seen to act in the national interest. Meanwhile too few journalists in Dublin seem to sense the danger of that moving towards its logical conclusion, never mind being inclined to sound even a tentative alarm.
“You [demagogues] are like the fishers for eels; in still waters they catch nothing, but if they thoroughly stir up the slime, their fishing is good; in the same way it’s only in troublous times that you line your pockets.”
– The Knights, Aristophanes
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty