Editorial from Irish Political Review, August 2007
Something Rotten In The State?
Bertie Ahern brought the Green Party into the Government unnecessarily. He could have got by with the Independents.
The Green Party went into the Government unnecessarily. It might have kept its principles pure and unsullied by implementation, and been a meditative oasis in the midst of practical life. Fashionable opinion says that, by deciding to implement its principles as a party of government, it sold out its principles—the implication of that view being that Green principles are unrealisable and are suitable only to be a contemplative ideal.
That is the logical implication of criticism of the Greens for joining the Government. The practical reason for the criticism, however, is something entirely different. It is that the Greens have given aid and comfort to Fianna Fail, when it should be the over-riding purpose of all good people to destroy Fianna Fail.
The devil a saint would be, and this bunch of angels has agreed to help him with the imposture. That's the gist of it.
Matthew Arnold—a practical mid-Victorian Imperialist intellectual—described Shelley (a Green pioneer) as a beautiful angel ineffectually beating his wings in a void. That is how angels should be. They should not interfere with practical life. And that is how Shelley remained in England after he was adopted as an icon by the system which he hated.
The Greens have been very successful in Ireland in the way that Shelley was successful in England. After a certain point everyone approved of them, which meant nobody took them in earnest. Their rhetoric became the small change of other parties.
The remarkable thing is that the electorate returned enough of them to make it worthwhile for the major party of the state to proposition them, and that they took themselves seriously enough to respond to the proposition and undertake Government office.
It is not remarkable that Fianna Fail was the party that brought them into the corridors of power—and that they agreed to go into the corridors of power with it. Fianna Fail is the party that is capable of acting purposefully in order to do things. Although it is now only a pale shadow of itself, it still retains something of the spirit which seeks office for something more than office. It remains the enabling party of the state.
A generation ago Labour was in office along with Fine Gael, with C.C. O'Brien and Dr. FitzGerald holding senior Government positions. In the Autumn of 1973 they negotiated a power-sharing Agreement for the North. In the Spring of 1974, when an Amendment of the Constitution would have preserved the Power-Sharing Government in the North, O'Brien opposed holding a referendum on the sovereignty clauses because that was something only Fianna Fail could do. (Fianna Fail did it 25 years later.)
O'Brien's position was, in effect, that Fianna Fail was the only party capable of governing the state when anything more was required than holding office by routine for a few years. It was a realistic enough appraisal, but O'Brien—who had flipped over into an unreasoning hatred of Fianna Fail when he became a politician, after serving it diligently for many years as a civil servant—did not follow through into a consideration of why that was the case, what its political implications were, and what might be done to remedy it. He was therefore left in the incoherent position which viewed Fianna Fail as an incomprehensible force of evil which had somehow—by means of corruption—got a grip on a viable system of democracy and distorted it to its own advantage.
The ideal of the modern system of representative government that is called democracy is that there are two parties capable of governing the state; that elections are held at regular intervals at which each party warns that the election of the other party would be catastrophic for the state; and that the party which gains less seats than the other gives way routinely as if there was really little or nothing at issue between them. That is the 'norm' postulated by the two states which have dominated world affairs in recent times, though it is far from being the normal situation amongst the states of the world.
Those two states have now congealed together, in their action on the world, to such an extent that they deserve a single name: USUK. They act freely on the world, legitimising all that they do by the combination of raw power and the ideology of democratisation. But, in their democratising activity, they accept as legitimate only developments which serve to maintain their world hegemony. They conceive of the world as a unit. That is the effective meaning of Globalism. And that globalised world is democratic, as a unit, to the extent that it submits to USUK dominance, or guidance, even though subordinate parts of it—taken by themselves—may seem far removed from democracy.
Saudi Arabia, for example, which is a state formed by a theocratic tribal aristocracy, is an integral part of the system of the free, democratic world. Venezuela—like many other South American states before it—is a threat to the democratic order of the world, even though it has an elected Government, because its local democracy is subversive of USUK hegemony.
That has now been the actual system of world order for about 17 years. It has been the aspirational system ever since the British declaration of war in 1914.
Britain declared war in the name of an integral world order with law and democracy at its core. It poised its propaganda between what existed and what ought to exist, with a rhetorical skill which blurred the distinction between the two. It purported to be going to war as a policeman to punish Germany for a breach of world law which either existed or ought to exist and it didn't really matter which.
It might be said that this propaganda was just camouflage for yet another Imperialist land grab—but while it is certainly the case that the Empire was greatly expanded in the course of the War, that fact does not exhaust the matter. If Britain deceived nobody else with its propaganda, it deceived itself very effectively. It became incapable of distinguishing between what is and what ought to be, between fact and ideal. It lost its sense of reality in moralistic humbug. And, when it acted catastrophically—as it has done much more frequently since 1914 than before 1914—it was incapable of seeing the factual consequences of its action. All it could see was the obscure purity of its ententions. Evidence? Read any Parliamentary debate on the invasion of Iraq.
Home Rule Ireland subscribed to the Imperial deception or delusion of 1914. Then it had second thoughts, and decided to avail of the principles, which the War was said to be realising as a world order, in order to leave the Empire. It voted itself independent—only to find that voting cut no ice with the democratic Parliament that was governing the Empire. So it established its own Government despite the Empire, and defended it in arms against the Empire so successfully that the Empire indicated willingness to make a deal.
If Britain had negotiated with the Dail in January 1919, or had made a deal on terms acceptable to the Irish Army in 1921-2, the democracy of the Irish state would not be the lopsided thing that it is.
'The North' was not the problem. The problem was the insistence of the Imperial democracy that Ireland should remain part of the Empire. The North was a means to an end for Britain.
Almost 40 years ago this journal (or its precursor) urged that the Ulster Protestant community should be regarded as a distinct national community and negotiated with. That approach was rejected by every segment of the Dublin establishment. The 'two nations' view is still rejected by the 26 Co. parties, even though all of them now accord a veto on unification to the Ulster Protestants forming a majority in Northern Ireland. Ireland is a nation, but a political minority within the nation is accorded separate rights de facto against the majority. In the ideology of democracy, the nation is the deciding unit, yet in the case of the alleged all-Ireland Irish nation it is held that the decision of the majority is invalid.
The idea that a dissenting political minority within the nation might be coerced by the majority is held to be abhorrent, while at the same time the American Civil War continues to be glorified as a founding event of the democratic era—a war in which the majority coerced the dissenting minority at the cost of a million lives. And Martin Mansergh, who has monopolised intellectual life in Fianna Fail, condemns dissenting Republicans in the North for continuing to assert that a majority in Ireland has the right of decision—while he continues to reject the two nations view. And, while according a right of independent decision to the 6 Counties, he broadcasts a tirade against Carson for having brought about that right of independent decision.
Profound political and historical incoherence results from refusal to treat the Ulster Protestant community as a distinct national community combined with giving them a veto on the political unification of the nation.
There were many different ways in which the national complication in the North East might have been dealt with by Bitain if that complication was for Britain anything more than a deice for use against the national movement in Ireland. The obvious thing is that a very much smaller area, with a very much smaller Catholic minority, might have been held within the UK without being set up as something resembling a state, outside the political life of Britain.
What kept Anti-Partitionism alive as the necessary content of Northern politics was the excessive area of Northern Ireland and the cutting off of the large Catholic minority from the democratic political life of the state. Southern irredentism had little to do with it. If a much smaller Catholic minority, in a much smaller Partitioned region, had been included within the democratic political life of the British state, and had not been subjected to the harassment of the 'Northern Ireland state', it would hardly have mattered what the Constitution of the 26 County Irish state said. And the prospect for unification would not have been less.
What counted was not 'the claim', but the communal antagonism on which the 'Northern Ireland state' was based and which it perpetuated and aggravated.
In the South, Britain's parting shot was the 'Civil War'. By conceding a degree of subordinate self-government to 26 Counties it managed to split Sinn Fein. Then it insisted that the part that it intimidated into accepting the authority of the Crown should be further intimidated into making war on the other part, and supplied it with arms—the alternative being a British reconquest.
The Dail voted for the 'Treaty' under duress, as did the electorate for a few occasions. The British political system fell into confusion in the mid-1920s as a result of over-exertion and self-deception in the Great War for world hegemony. The threat of re-conquest receded, and the electorate began to revert to Republicanism. But the Free State Government remained intransigently Treatyite, and refused to conciliate the electorate by taking Collins's steps towards independence. Less than ten years after winning the Treaty War it lost office to the Anti-Treaty Party, and it never again won back the majority from Fianna Fail. Its first response to the loss of office was to launch a Fascist movement.
The operation of democratic government—in which parties take turns at governing, and changes of government do not involve upheavals in the state—requires that there should exist a body politic of which the political parties form a part and to which they are subordinate. Where a democratic body politic exists, a governing party which loses an election cannot really be said to relinquish power voluntarily. If it tries to remain in office, it finds that it can't
Parties with fundamentally different aims with regard to the state do not constitute a body politic. The democratic system does not allow for a remaking of the state after every election, revolution and counter-revolution succeeding each other by turns. At the same time election campaigns must counterfeit the language of revolution and counter-revolution, otherwise they are dead.
It is a strange system, not easily contrived, and it is not surprising that it does not exist in most states.
The Treaty Party made no attempt between 1923 and 1932 to create a Free State body politic by means of a conciliatory inveigling of Anti-Treatyites into the accomplished fact of the Free State system. It did not avail of the freedom of action accorded by the fall of the War Coalition in Britain to lure Anti-Treatyites into Free State politics. Its object seemed to be to justify the Civil War by excluding Anti-Treatyites from Free State politics through a procedure of humiliation at the point of entry. This approach was maintained, even though the Anti-Treaty vote increased at every election. In 1927 the Anti-Treaty vote equalled the Treaty vote, and deadlock or a genuine Civil War was averted by the minor paties. And there was a possibility of a recurrence of the 1919 situation of British government in Ireland, with a majority of the elected representatives being outside Parliament.
The Treatyite combination—it scarcely deserves to be called a political party—held office on intransignet Treatyite principles for ten years, and then lost it forever.
During the following fifteen years the Anti-Treaty party created an effective national body politic which their opponents found it necessary to accept as the only possible framework of political action.
The outcome of this course of events was a lopsided party system. And that lopsided system has reproduced itself over time. It doesn't matter that this happened a long time ago. Time itself has no effects. Election material from 50 or 60 years ago might have been simply recycled for the recent election.
The system is functional though lopsided, and systems tend to reproduce over time if they are not disturbed by events.
Fianna Fail made two attempts to amend the system which came about under its hegemony in the 1930s. When introducing the new Constitution in 1937 it carried over a feature of the Treaty Constitution: Proportional Representation in multi-member constituencies. It held two referendums on a proposal to abolish PR, in 1959 and 1968. A straight vote system would probably have brought about a re-ordering of the party structure of the state. But the proposal was rejected—and those who are now to the fore in complaining that there is something undemocratic in the long Fianna Fail tenure of office were also to the fore in rejecting change: Labour and the Irish Times.
In 1959 the PR referendum was conducted jointly with a Presidential election in which De Valera was a candidate. The Irish Times thought it would have been better if Dev had been given the Presidency without a contest:
"Fine Gael did wrong, even for political reasons, to offer a candidate in opposition to him… The question of PR is different altogether. On this ground there can be no surrender… The case against its abolition is formidable, the case for its abolition is specious, but unconvincing. This newspaper cannot hope to sway the opinion of the majority of voters. It does hope, on the other hand, to influence that of the intelligent minority whose votes may make the difference between the success and defeat of today's referendum. This minority, unhappily, consists of the very people who are least inclined to take the trouble to vote. It is to these people that we appeal not merely to vote, but to vote “No”…" (17.7.1959).
Todd Andrews writes that the post-independence Irish Times was "a stodgy and poor imitation of the London Times and was read almost exclusively by Church of Ireland clerics, Trinity dons and the remaining occupants of the “big houses” and their minions", but under Smyllie's editorship—
"its readership was extended to businessmen and bank clerks, members of rugby football clubs, academics of the national university and, even more significantly, civil servants and members of the government… The civil servants were in origin mainly of the lower middle classes, and having attained the first aim of job security they wanted social acceptance and respectability as well. The Irish Times was for them and, indeed, for all the rising lower middle classes the symbol of “ould dacency” and respectability, and they read it" (Man Of No Property, p137).
That is how it still was in 1949, as is evident from this editorial. It wrote for a rather exclusive social segment—the Ascendancy remnants and imitative native elements. A few years later it began to aspire to wider influence. In its first reaching out to the populace it published advice to emigrants, warning them against race-mixing, and especially warning girls to beware of the charm of black men in London. And a few years after that false start (understandable, given the essentially WASP character of the Ascendancy), it began to play the ideology of class struggle against the establishment of the Irish state, not for the purpose of making a socialist revolution, but in order to enlist the revolutionaries—who would never have made a revolution—in the business of weakening the state.
In 1968, addressing not so much a wider readership but a different one, it again urged a No vote. But it was then still in the process of feeling out ways of extending its range of influence—as distinct from exercising its influence dogmatically, by use of techniques which Connolly described as Press Poisoning, as it now does—and it published a range of articles from different viewpoints about PR. One of the articles was by Ernest Blythe, an Ulster Protestant who had been a founding member of the Treaty State. He had been active in the Treaty War, but 45 years later he was concerned about the welfare of the state, rather than partisanship within it, and therefore he supported the abolition of PR, explaining that—
"because of special historical circumstances which have heretofore kept party politics in a rather abnormal state here, we have not yet had the experience of the kind of parliamentary situation which PR is calculated to produce. Though we see many new groups spring transiently into being because of its stimulus, and though we have for a couple of brief periods had in power ill-assorted patchwork Governents of the type in which doctrinaire proportionalists glory, they were not matched by the motley type of opposition which would have assured their replacement in each case by a similar crazy combination. Thus we have seen comparatively little of the anti-democratic effcts of proportionalism" (Why There Is A Need For Change, IT 1.10.1968).
Blythe explained that PR was in the Free State Constitution because "the system had been thrust upon us by the British Government". And Dev explained that he had carried it over into the 1937 Constituton, leaving it over for subsequent amendment, because the important thing was to to break the Constitutional connection with the British ultimatums of 1921-2, and he did not want to risk increasing opposition to the change.
The "special historical circumstances" referred to by Blythe are those we have described. Popular resentment at the British Treaty ultimatum of December 1921, and the 'Civil War' ultimatum of June 1922, and at the refusal of Free State Governments in 1923-1932 to avail of opportunities to reshape the Free State to Republican sentiment, was harnessed by the De Valera group to the formation of a party which defied the natural tendency of PR for a couple of generations, and is still resisting it to a considerable extent.
What the Irish Times now represents as a deviation from democracy is in fact what democracy becomes under PR, when Governments are not elected but are formed by horse-trading after elections.
Whatever influence the Irish Times had in 1949 and 1968 was used in favour of the system which it now criticises as undemocratic—because Fianna Fail, having failed to change it, operates it better than anyone else.
TO BE CONTINUED
Something Rotten In The State.
The Pain Of Democracy For The Irish
A Visit To Iran: Part One, The British Influence.
Fuel Rationing In Iran.
Shorts from the Long Fellow.
Whack Fol The Diddle.
'Atonement: Ethnic Cleansing In The Midlands'.
IRB Corrections & Questions From Joe McCullough.
Old Irish & The Market.
Back In The Box.
Collusion & A 'Truth Commission' In N.I.
RTE Gives Madame A Dig-Out.
The Irish Times Must Be Held To Account.
Biteback: Reports On Iraq And Palestine.
On Nationalist Ideology.
The Two Tiers Of The Irish Nationalist Mind.
Hornes On Display.
Does It Stack Up.
Unionism & Zionism—Same Struggle?
The Indo's Guilt Complex.
The Duodecimo Demosthenes.
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