By Iain MacLaren
So similar yet so different, The Republic of Ireland, separated from Scotland by the buffer zone of the North, only reaches the attention of the British media when some scandal re-affirms the notion of the wayward child that ran away from home and is struggling to make its way in the world, either by locking itself into the backroom of self-flagellation driven by arch-conservative religious dogma or, in more recent times, by paying the price of over-gorging on sweets, dolls-houses and shiny new cars. Now the credit-card limit is blown and the interest is crippling. Tsk, tsk, when will they learn their lesson?
Funnily enough, despite all that’s happened over the past 5 years or so, no-one, no party, no single person in the street has ever remotely even suggested that the problem lies in independence, that it might be time to return to the fold, duly chastened and repentant. If anything, the current difficulties have reignited the issue of autonomy and self-government: debates over the extent to which politicians have capitulated towards the IMF and the ECB, calls from outwith the main parties for default on a banking debt that should never have been made sovereign.
And now the election, long-awaited but in the end called in a snap, wrong-footing many of those commentators who had planned a fresh start with a coalition of the disaffected (Fintan O’Toole’s Democracy Now) and instead leaving us to fall back on pre-existing parties or energetic independents. And the main fall-back, the traditional opposition to Fianna Fail is of course Enda Kenny’s Fine Gael – a party who seems to have little shame of its historical association with fascism and proudly asserts that flogging off ‘non-strategic’ assets (electricity, gas, water, hospitals) and sacking public sector workers (apparently we’re all lazy) is the way ahead not just to clamber out of the current financial black-hole but also as an underlying ethos. Rampant capitalism has brought the country to its knees so the only cure is more rampant capitalism. Not that anyone really has engaged in policy debate to any extent in this election given that the major parties all agree on the IMF/ECB approach and all vow to slash public spending. No, the main motivation of many voters seems to be to destroy Fianna Fail and the, if anything more despised, Greens whose principles melted in hubris the day they signed the pact.
The surge of Sinn Fein, the Socialist Party and the ‘ragtag’ (nice Labour arrogance, that quote) of left-leaning independents shows that not all are behind Enda’s ‘five-point plan’ (two of which are in mutual contradiction). Labour having been depressingly uninspiring despite early polls showing respect for their leader Eamonn Glimore as the favoured candidate for Taoiseach – all fading as the campaign began and the momentum moved in behind Fine Gael as the best chance of displacing Fianna Fail. This despite the fact that Kenny didn’t even turn up for one of the televised leader debates (although given the man’s wooden personality many argued that was the safest move).
For a Scot in exile, it’s sometimes difficult to fully grasp the common antipathy towards unions, the public service and anything that smacks of socialism, particularly in non-urban areas. There is more an individualist streak than a collectivism (with ex- landed estates of history carved into individual farms and not the land trusts of recent reform in the highlands for example), or of the focus on aspirations to personal wealth and family resilience. Ostentatious houses, world travel, SUVs – all badges of honour in the boom years, showing off to European and American cousins how successfully the country embraced the mantra of entrepreneurship, a delusion that gripped the government so completely they ignored the blatant warning signs and failed to invest in the right infrastructure and accepted that schoolkids crammed into portakabins, a two tier health system and house prices well beyond the means of most of the population were worth it for the pride of having our own home-grown speculators wandering the world stage, hatching deluded schemes such as the Chicago Spire or buying up entire districts of Eastern European cities. And now, what have we left? The portakabins, the hospital queues, the ghost estates and an upcoming dose of neo-liberal medicine.
But quite how ideologically aware many of the members and voters of Fine Gael really are is open to question. Politics here is often more about tribal affiliation than contested philosophies. The lack of a middle layer of empowered local or regional government means all too often local issues steer national policy with a bank bailout or two secured on the basis of fixing a pothole in County Kerry or approving a massive Casino in Tipperary. And the Westminster aping of the Dail is hardly a model relevant to the needs of the 21st century, its macho culture of lobbing abuse across the floor, voting into the night and the total power of the governing party over committees and an utterly pointless second chamber of unelected party hacks. An alienating environment for those who want to build a better nation. Time for a bit of constitutional reform – would that there were a detached convention capable of shaping such.
But yet, there is more, and this characterisation is in danger of being as empty as the Brito-centric one. There’s an inherent confidence that independence has brought that’s hard to explain; a clear disconnect between the politics of self-determination and economics. No matter how battered, how bankrupt or how taxed the country is, there’s no equivalent of the Scottish unionist perspective that somehow we can’t afford independence, that democratic autonomy is an economic question and not a fundamental political right. So for all the Labour/Lib/Con taunting about failed states we’re no doubt going to hear in the run up to May’s election Ireland is resilient and still in its early days as a nation, finding its footing, step by step, with the occasional slip along the way but it’ll get there. Scotland?