By Peter Geoghegan
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
W.B. Yeats – The Second Coming
Growing up in Ireland in the mid-1990s, Sherriff Street, a rundown thoroughfare nestled in the heart of Dublin’s north inner city, had a reputation as one of Ireland’s toughest neighbourhoods. U2 wrote songs about the area’s putative fighting qualities; parents spoke of it sotto voce; while Dublin City Council abandoned Sherriff Street to the drug pushers and increasingly violent street gangs who insured its name remained prominent in the collective (un)conscious.
Much of Sherriff Street no longer exists. The grim flat complexes (all low rise – Dublin had strict height restrictions on city centre developments, at least until multinational banking groups ‘encouraged’ city burghers to re-think its policy on this, and much else) were leveled as part of the massive Docklands development, began around fifteen years ago.
Driving through Dublin’s Docklands on the eve of what the Irish commentariat (and others) have billed as ‘the most important election since Independence’, is a salutary experience. Sherriff Street is now a long, empty road bisecting a patchwork of half-finished flat complexes and waste ground; Lefebvrian representations of space, physical manifestations of the crony capitalism that has left Ireland decimated and in effective control of its suited and booted IMF/ECB overlords.
At the end of Sherriff Street, near the North Wall and the entrance to Dublin’s neglected Port – the docks that gave the area its name were quickly forgotten amid the rush to build luxury flats, offices and corporate headquarters – sits the biggest white elephant of them all: the Anglo-Irish headquarters. This garish half-completed shell, steel and concrete popping out at odd angles, was to be the glittering new home of the favourite financial watering hole for the Celtic Tiger’s legion of whiskey priests, the myriad property developers.
Anglo-Irish, the most toxic of Ireland’s banks, which lend money to its own directors to buy shares in the bankrupt company, is in the convoluted process of being wound down, its astronomical debts guaranteed in September 2008 by a Fianna Fail government hell bent on protecting its backers, and bankers, come what may. Now, with the cost of bailing out Anglo – a bank with not a single ATM machine in the country – at €34bn and rising, its would-be headquarters lies unfinished, a mausoleum to unfettered hubris.
Across from the skulking hulk of Anglo, a lozenge-shaped election placard is tacked to a telephone poll. ‘Time for Change – Vote Fine Gael’, it reads. Fine Gael and ‘change’, seldom have two concepts seemed so antithetical – but Ireland politics has entered a dialectical phase, albeit not one many Marxists would recognize. Having enduring 85 years of near-total Fianna Fail dominance, making the so-called ‘Soldiers of Destiny’ the second most successful ‘western’ political party (after Sweden’s Social Democrats, since you ask), Ireland is set to vote en mass for the other side of the civil war dichotomy: Fine Gael.
Fianna Fail’s lineage is with De Valera and those opposed to the Treaty with Britain that ended the War of Independence; Fine Gael emerged from the pro-Treaty ranks and the birth of the Irish Free State. Even since the two right of centre parties have occupied power uninterrupted, albeit with Fianna Fail comprehensively winning the electoral battle over the decades.
On Friday, after 13 years of suspending disbelief and supporting Fianna Fail’s bankrupt thesis about the transformative power of debt-fuelled capitalism, Ireland is set to elect a new government from the dry, technocratic ranks of Fine Gael. Unfortunately the dialectical synthesis – and the new direction it might promise – has yet to bubble up into the Irish consciousness. Fine Gael are running on a platform of debt-reduction, political reform and not being Fianna Fail: despite making positive noises around jobs, emigration and renegotiating the vertiginous banking debt (Ireland has liabilities of some €400bn, many times its GDP), Enda Kenny’s party hardly represent a change. Fine Gael supported the bank guarantee, December’s vicious austerity budget, and, throughout the boom, rarely made a sound about its excesses and its iniquities (during the boom only the USrecorded higher levels of inequality). Kenny himself inherited his Mayo seat from his father, Henry, has been a TD since 1975. The voice of the yoff he ain’t.
Beyond the political and financial classes, Irish people’s response to the crisis has surprised many on the Left, especially in the UK. Looking to riots in Greece last year, and more tangentially, the revolts spreading like wildfire across the Middle East, why, they ask, has Ireland not been more restive? Why, with joblessness running at over 13% and 1,000 people emigrating every week, did it take two years, and the intervention of the IMF, for mass street protests to take place? Where is the anger, why has Yeats’s ‘passionate intensity’ been monopolized by Fine Gael, a party of the rural and middle classes?
Shock is one answer. Those who haven’t lost their jobs live in fear of redundancy and – with some 200,000 tethering on the brink of mortgage default – homelessness. The Celtic Tiger may have been slain but the ideology that underpinned it and the housing bubble lives on, if more in hope than expectation. Having had so much so recently the middle classes can’t – or won’t – believe that the good times might not be around the corner again soon, if only we the country can ‘reform’ and cut back the ‘bloated’ public sector. Meanwhile decades of corporatism has pacified many workers, even in the face of widespread unemployment.
Six months ago, general election 2011 looked set to be dominated by the Labour Party and their charismatic leader Eamon Gilmore (if you wanted to put a Tartan spin on Irish politics, the garrulous Gilmore would be Big ‘Eck, the dour, former school teacher Kenny, the ponderous Iain Gray). But Gilmore’s attempts to be all things to all men, to appeal to the centre-right middle class and frustrated left wingers has been nothing short of a complete failure. Having briefly led opinion polls in the dog days of last summer, Labour go into the election hovering around 20%, with a role as the minor player in a coalition with Fine Gael the height of their ambitions.
This could yet be a seminal moment for Ireland. After almost a century of tired civil war politics, finally an election won’t produce Fianna Fail and Fine Gael as the two largest parties (the former, thankfully is set for electoral annihilation). While Sinn Fein and the recently minted United Left Alliance, a coalition of various socialist and leftist parties and independents, are unlikely to push Ireland leftwards for arguably the first time since Saor Eire, both will see an increased share of the vote (even if Gerry Adams’s party only win 10-12 seat, not the 20-30 they privately hoped for when the campaign began three weeks ago). Ireland is on the brink of finally embracing a left-right dynamic; just at a time when the rest of Europe is butting up against the limits of post-ideological politics.
Ireland’s romantic pull has long been strong in Scotland, even if third-generation Irish-Scots form a sizable chunk of the unionist exoskeleton of the current Scottish Labour party. For Scottish nationalists of an older, more romantic bent, the myth of the rebel, of Pearse, Ceannt and, of course, the son of Edinburgh’s Cowgate, Connolly, Ireland has stood as the exemplar of the small nation that took on, and defeated, the might of the British Empire, that forged an independent path for itself in Europe, and the world. For more hardheaded nationalists, Ireland’s recent economic successes were evidence that independence could bring prosperity, growth and a cultural flowering.
Leaving aside the deleterious effects of the boom on cultural life in Ireland – money, and lots of it, has rarely been the spur for great art, and so it proved in the era of Bertie Ahern, the Galway races and gombeen capitalism – the Irish experience shouldn’t be ignored by advocates of Scottish independence. The catastrophic crash has been used as a stick to beat the SNP and Salmond’s ill-fated ‘arc of prosperity’ but the reality is that Ireland was following an economic path that the UK’s Tories were – and in many respects still are – in thrall to. Low corporation tax, low personal tax, precious little regulation, porous labour laws: little wonder George Osborne wrote so gushingly of Ireland’s economic miracle as recently as 2006.
For the SNP, Ireland is a testament to the fallacy of an economic strategy based on financial services and construction of non-productive assets: hardly news to those on the left-green fringe of the independence movement but worth reiterating.
Ireland was never the land ‘bright with cosy homesteads’ that De Valera, and others, imagined it to be – but a certain backward-looking, traditionalism has long afflicted life in ‘independent Ireland’. The Catholic Church, and lately the free market, appealed to the worst excesses of Irish conservativism, a political force closely aligned with both Fine Gael and Fianna Fail. The lugubrious parochialism that Brinsley MacNamara so accurately diagnosed in his acerbic classic Village of the Squinting Windows – the polar opposite of Raymond Williams’ militant particularlism – is still alive and well, one of the few facets of Irish life to emerge unharmed from the Celtic Tiger’s implosion.
Walking Dublin’s O’Connell Street, past the towering spire and the GPO building, its façade still pockmarked with bullet holes from the 1916 Rising, I stop briefly. On one side of the street is an old shop selling Catholic paraphernalia. ‘A Vote for LABORTION is a vote for baby killing’ reads a three-foot high sign across the store’s masthead. Across the road are a group of youngsters too young to vote, probably no more than 10 or 12 in all, hand out leaflets for the local Socialist candidate. ‘Out with the bankers. We need a new Republic,’ a lad of barely 16 shouts. Regardless of their politics, not too many in Ireland would dispute the young man’s sentiment.