by Frank Schnittger
Fri Oct 21st, 2011 at 10:11:14 AM EST
David Adams, in a misguided but perhaps tongue-in-cheek piece in the Irish Times, seeks to cast the lambasting of Dana and Martin McGuinness in the Irish presidential election campaign as a reflection of the "fact" that southerners hate northerners and are just as comfortable with the partition of Ireland as his own northern Unionist and Loyalist community.
Reality is us northerners are not liked down here
It has become crystal clear during this campaign that people "down here" don't like us northerners very much. Not in any individual sense - I'm sure lots of southerners could think of a likeable person from the North, if they tried hard enough - but in an abstract way. To the southern mind, we're too abrasive, overly aggressive and, when it suits us, pigheadedly literal (the grating accent doesn't help much, either). And that's not the half of it. Ultimately, we're seen as outsiders - if not quite foreigners - poking our noses into a polity that's none of our business.
The shock on the faces of Dana and Martin as the harsh reality of southern partitionism sank in has been something to behold. Dana's previous outings coincided with the tide of goodwill that swept Mary II into the Áras and, a couple of years later, herself briefly into the European parliament. Dana must feel like she's landed on a different planet from 2004 Ireland. As for Martin (who can only be cursing himself for not being more suspicious of Gerry opting to stand in a Border county, rather than run for president), his taken-aback demeanour has, to me at least, often suggested the previously unimaginable: "Good God, these people make even the unionists seem friendly."
So along with everything else, and contrary to some gloomy predictions, the presidential election has, in its own fashion, even helped with mutual understanding in Northern Ireland. Pity there couldn't be one every year.
One can understand his joy, as a northern Loyalist, at northern nationalists being savaged by the "southern" media in a manner which would never have happened in Northern Ireland - in a still divided community sensitive to the risks of reopening a sectarian divide. However he provides no evidence for his assertion that 'southerners hate northerners'. The reality is that all of the presidential candidates have been criticised almost equally, and what we are seeing is "politics-as-normal" in a maturing, functioning, democratic polity. This is a case of Dana and McGuinness being slated for being old style catholic nationalists, not northerners.
Far more interesting is the fact that the election campaign can also be understood as a "protestantisation" of Ireland. Protestant, with a small 'p', to be sure, but nevertheless a seminal movement away from the catholic nationalist certainties of yore. One could also use the less controversial term of 'secularisation' of course, but many Catholics are no less religious in their outlook: They have just lost faith in their church hierarchy and in the conservative nationalist political forms that Catholicism has traditionally been associated with.
The separation of church and state is a more typically protestant obsession, as is the privatisation of religious practice and a "dissenting" approach to hierarchical forms of church leadership. Protestant churches in the south are actually thriving and many "mixed marriages" are opting to worship and raise their kids in protestant schools and churches in stark contrast to the historic Ne Temere decree which required that children be raised as Catholics and which devastated many small protestant parishes in the past.
This election is actually a rejection of two old style northern sectarians and an embrace of a southern protestant, David Norris, despite the absolutely disastrous campaign he has run (which would have sunk any other candidate without trace). Dana is the embodiment of old style catholic conservatism and stands at 2% in the polls; McGuinness the embodiment of militant republicanism who looks like doing no better than Sinn Fein's party vote. Gay Mitchell will do badly because he too represents old style partitionist politics.
Sean Gallagher, another "northerner", will do very well because he represents neither republicanism nor Catholicism. . Michael D.Higgins will do well because he represents neither a failed capitalism nor Catholicism, neither republicanism nor civil war politics.
This isn't about North vs. South. It is the protestantisation of Ireland in response to the moral corruption and bigotry of old style Catholicism and the republican project. David Adams should be glad, but it is he who has a partitionist attitude and who yearns for southerners to hate northerners. The fact is the electorate have become regionally blind and far more concerned with moving on from past antagonisms. If we do ever achieve a united Ireland, it will be one in which protestantism will have been a major influence and where regional and religious differences are of very little import.
So how has the campaign been going? The following table lists the opinion polls published since the field of candidates was formally finalised:
As I feared David Norris, the early front runner has run an absolutely disastrous campaign and has fallen rapidly in the polls. He is not alone in this, however, as Dana, Mary Davis, and Gay Mitchell have done similarly badly. Gay Mitchell's performance as the candidate for Fine Gael, the main government party which is currently still commanding 36% in the polls, has been particularly poor.
Michel D. Higgins has consolidated his status as a front runner, but the real surprise has been Sean Gallagher, former Fianna Fail apparatchik, businessman, and TV reality show panellist. Despite his recent Fianna Fail past and dodgy business career - he has admitted taking an illegal company loan - he has succeeded in projecting himself as a more youthful, energetic, forward looking entrepreneur: the sort of person, allegedly, that Ireland needs to dig itself out of the depression.
I have written more about the candidates here. Despite widespread cynicism and a feeling that this election for a relatively powerless office is but a distraction from the more serious issues facing Ireland and the Eurozone, I remain of the view that this election, and the wide range of candidates on offer, has been a useful exercise in democracy: It has exposed and helped clarify many of the outstanding tensions still facing us on this island. Sorting out the economic and political crisis within the Eurozone is for another day.