by Frank Schnittger
Sat Feb 19th, 2011 at 09:34:57 AM EST
One doesn't normally look to the economics editor of the Irish Times for great political insight as to what is - or more importantly is not - happening in Ireland at the moment, but Dan O'Brien's piece querying the absence of civil dissent against the disastrous policies of the Irish Government makes for interesting reading.
Basically his thesis is that there are a number of historical factors which have resulted in an extraordinary passivity and moderation in Irish political discourse: we are, after all, about to replace a broadly conservative Fianna Fail led Government with a broadly conservative Fine Gael led Government, notwithstanding some minor nuances and differences between the two.
So what are the factors O'Brien adduces to this extraordinary state of affairs? Why is there so little by way of an infrastructure of dissent in Irish society?
- The relative lack of exposure to war in the past century
- The absence of large scale fascist or communist ideas or movements
- The tendency of large scale emigration to act as a "safety valve" by draining away many of the brightest and the best and forcing the most radical to seek a home elsewhere
- The unification of otherwise diverse strands in Irish society around a prolonged common struggle for independent statehood
- The emergence of a strong democratic and republican tradition which valued all people as citizens, not subjects, and which avoided severely repressive measures except at the margins - in sharp contrast to the situation which pertained in Northern Ireland.
- A degree of agrarian reform which created a conservative small farmer class.
- The overwhelming power of an authoritarian conservative Catholic Church which controlled education and discouraged free thinking or dissent.
- The scapegoating of the malign colonial British influence as the cause of all our ills - something which has only abated in recent decades partially as a result of the peace process in Northern Ireland.
I would add a number of other factors to the mix:
- Size: Ireland is a small and relatively homogeneous country and society where "everyone knows everyone else" with only a couple of degrees of separation and where many are in fact related to each other - partly because family sizes used to be so large that 14 children per family was not uncommon.
- An extreme cultural emphasis on sociability and conviviality: everyone talks to everyone else even if they disagree on many things and have objective conflicts of interest.
- A structural emphasis on inclusion perhaps best illustrated by the "National Partnership" between Government, Unions, Employers and the Voluntary and Community sector in a four pillar model of wage bargaining which has expanded to include many aspects of taxation, industrial relations conflict resolution mechanisms, and equality, social and employment legislation. This survived the Thatcher/Reagan revolution but is now struggling under the onslaught of neo-liberalism...
- A perhaps slightly shamefaced acknowledgement by many people that we contributed to our own misfortune by buying into the property bubble Ponzi scheme and the neo-liberal get rich quick mentality it fostered.
- A genuine commitment to the European Ideal and a belief that Ireland has no option but to seek to resolve its problems in partnership with its European neighbours - however much we may feel that no country has clean hands in the current crisis.
- Control of the media largely concentrated in the Tony O'Reilly controlled Independent group and British based titles together with the state Broadcaster RTE.
- An extraordinarily high level of home ownership (albeit many mortgaged to the hilt) promoting a more conservative political culture.
As with any thesis, there are limits to the degree to which it may ultimately hold true. The power of the Catholic Church is much diminished, and the internet is limiting the degree to which any set of media interests can dominate political discourse. (The Independent has been openly touting for a Fine Gael majority Government
). Sinn Fein and a variety of independently minded Independents are expected to do well in the general election - and Fianna Fail, which had latterly become the incarnation of crony capitalism - will be all but destroyed.
I expect a rapid disillusion to set in with a Fine Gael led Government and the result may not be a swing back to Fianna Fail, but to more radical parties like Sinn Fein. Whether Labour has any significant role to play in this depends on whether it coalesces with Fine Gael or not. A self-satisfied bourgeoisie congratulating itself on the lack of civil dissent in Ireland may well find that it has been too smug too soon.
In any case, the traditional "infrastructures of dissent" are being replaced by social media with Facebook and a variety of blogs increasing the knowledge and organising power of those who might previously have been on the margins. I would be interested in broader European perspectives on this phenomenon - particularly as "the West"
slides into inexorable decline...