Ireland’s Pepsi Challenge Election

Pepsi or Coca-Cola

Coke or Pepsi? Both will rot your teeth, the real choice of course is to choose another game, a point subtlety missed by the Irish electorate this week. Yes the Fianna Fáil incumbency has been well and truly kicked to the curb, but replaced by a solidly right of centre led coalition. The Pepsi challenge moment for the Irish electorate was presented thus; rightwing, homophobic neo-liberalists (Fine Gael) versus the post-Marxist political wing of an alleged terrorist cum-smuggling operation (Sinn Féin). Go on, you choose.  Yes there is an Irish Labour party and they did make gains. Yes there are plenty of independents from all sides. But Ireland has gone with the high fructose corn syrup option when she should have walked right out of the store. In changing one civil war party for another the country is left with a dominant political coalition that now very much resembles the one embodied by Cameron and Clegg on the Downing Street lawn almost a year ago. We may not like to admit it but there is a right wing to Irish politics and it is now in power.

So what next? Sticking out a tongue and taking the Fine Gael / IMF dispensed medicine is the easy option. Not a particularly rosy one, but it is the safe bet. Above all else the Irish are a nation of safe people. But some time over the next 18 months, it’s going to dawn on the population, particularly those on the margins already, that this government can not and is not going to be all things to all voters.  Option two, tougher, involving as it does a little more graft, guile and imagination, three qualities very absent from this election. On the ground Irish society is going to have to stop bemoaning a corrupt government (they’re gone) and start holding the current government to account. This Fine Gael government cannot be allowed make worse Fianna Fáil’s mistakes through either a) ideology or b) stupidity. With a government likely to form by the end of next week and a busy EU schedule over the next month, Ireland better be ready to move fast.

Protest movements don’t come naturally to the Irish, but two recent examples from the UK are worth noting and would seem to be shrink wrapped and ready for an Irish voice-over. UK Uncut’s ingenious creativity and the incredible speed and inclusivity of the Save our Forests campaign. UK Uncut’s triumph is its creative engagement of people who don’t normally do protest. And in Vodafone and the banks, they have picked targets beyond sympathy. SoF exemplified the power of the network, and how massively important it is to put together a coalition of common interest, even if membership is open to those with usually opposed views. And the story was bulletproof, there is nothing more noble than fighting for English heritage.

What are the Irish equivalents? What are the narratives that will spark conversations on Facebook, Twitter and Boards.ie and maybe ignite some action offline. As the bubble moment of ending 80 years of Fianna Fáil dominance implodes and Irish voters are reminded that they’re in negative equity and it’s still raining outside, it’s time for those who have not been listened to in the last month, and will be utterly sidelined by their new government to start a new dialogue. I’d love to hear some ideas how this can be done.

The Good Apple in a Rotten Barrel: Michael D. Higgins

Michael D. true European that he is, pops up in Brittany
Michael D. true European that he is, pops up in Brittany (cc) The Irish Labour Party

Today the 3oth Dáil Éireann was disolved, TDs will be elected to the 31st Dáil on February 25th. This Dáil has lasted since May of 2007. It is unlikely in this time that it has ever borne witness to as fine a speech as that delivered by Michael D. Higgens during the second reading of the Finance Bill last week. In fact, if anyone can point me to a better speech in the past 50 years I will be very grateful. Higgins is not seeking re-election as TD, he will however run for president later in the year, if the Labour Party do the right thing and make him their candidate. He has departed daily politics with one of the very few political speeches that I agree with entirely, he has rekindled my own faith in Irish politics, and has surely contributed 20 minutes of mandatory viewing for future students of politics in Ireland and beyond.

Higgins takes in the wide view. He traces Ireland’s current failings as a sovereign state to institutional and administrative failings of historic magnitude, from the founding of Saorstát Éireann in 1922 to the present international monetary fuck-up. And in this I think there are some important lessons at home and abroad.

Both proponents and opponents of David Cameron’s Big Society project would do well to study the history of a country in which legislation and society are ultimately divorced by an administration that either is not there or does not work. For this to me seems a central weakness of Cameron’s project, a proposition that would devolve power of legsislative carry-through from the polity to civil society. That this has occurred in Ireland is the  result of a century of localism and small-time political ambition. Cameron’s project is surely much more intellectually rigorous in its own way, but possibly all the more dangerous for that. Higgins’ view on this is as considered as it is straight-forward:

People imagined that when we had got the equality legislation we had arrived at a particular point, but the political science would have indicated that that political power was useless without administrative power. It was only when the equality legislation was followed through with the Equality Authority and Combat Poverty Agency that it was possible to administer the benefit that had been won politically. That is the meaning of administrative power and is why we lost Combat Poverty Agency and the Equality Agency to the right and had all the cuts. That is what citizens in a republic want; they want more political power and want administrative power. They want to communicate their vulnerability and want to be able to respond to each other’s independency. The very last thing they want is more of that terrible saying that has brought us to this point now. That is why I am proud to be president of the Labour Party. If we have failed from time to time, what was never in doubt is that we were speaking about a real republic that has yet to be built in this State.

Higgins echoes thoughts expressed here a few months ago on Ireland having never been sovereign. But Higgins is not content to moan about our lot, he takes the point to a level few Irish politicians have the ability to climb to, beyond parochialism into a vision that places Ireland in a European, even global context.

People wonder why poverty has to reproduce itself in the same family from one generation to another or from one area to another and wonder why there is a difference between the quality of schools in one place and the quality of those in another. God did not make it like that. Nature did not make it like that. The people in the so-called Irish republic made it like that and they maintained it like that…

…I hope the new Government realises that the model which is broken should not be repaired and that there is a discourse now which is wider and which is not only in Ireland but in Europe, where citizens are wondering what institutions might best express that which we wish to share with each other, where the concept of interdependency is accepted and where it would be regarded as obscene to state that radical individualism is what is important and what must drive us. All that radical individualism with its privileged view of professions and its side of the mouth politics with regard to benefit and privilege is what must be rejected….

…This has a practical expression in Europe. If we create here a radical inclusive republic we will place it in a social Europe which accepts the interdependency of peoples rather than the aspirations of the elite property owning classes and individual countries. We would then be able to be a region in the global sense that offered guarantees about labour, security and peace. It would be a powerful moral voice in the world with regard to having alternatives to war and allowing people their own paths to development which would be very attractive.

Intelligent political discourse in the Dáil, if it can happen once it can happen again. Life affirming stuff.