Slow-burning anger in Irish politics

by niamh on February 16, 2011

Some observers have wondered why Ireland’s dramatic economic crash has not produced more visible anger. Where are the street riots, they ask. The Greeks, they say, do this sort of thing better, the Icelanders managed to rise up as one – what is wrong with us? The Irish banks are a vast financial black hole and taxpayers are looking at crushing liabilities stretching into the future. Unemployment is over 13%. For those in work, pay packets have shrunk yet again as new taxes and charges kick in. Many households carry huge debt. Emigration is making a return. The terms of the EU-IMF loan constrain the terms of economic debate: we are not a sovereign economic state. Yet everyday life looks like business as usual.

The election campaign is slightly surreal for this reason. Last night saw a US-style TV discussion involving the five main party leaders, all men and all wearing identikit business suits. The studio audience, picked by a PR company to represent undecided voters, was pained yet polite.

But these are surface impressions. Out there, as the parties well know, all the evidence indicates that the voters are merely biding their time, ‘waiting in the long grass’. This could be a realigning election, a shape-shifter for the Irish political system.

Henry’s excellent primer on the issues and the actors set the scene nicely and a Guardian update captures the mood of slow anger underlying the terms of political debate. The next government will have a tough time economically. If anything, this may increase people’s expectations of a change in the conduct of public life and the functioning of the political system: ‘political reform’ is on the agenda.

Reflecting this, the polls show a steady pattern which coloured the dynamics of the party leaders’ TV discussion. The long-dominant populist Fianna Fáil party is in deep trouble. Long used to pulling in up to 40% of the popular vote from across all social classes, it is currently at 15% in a recent poll, down to its core vote. It is resigned to opposition.

Replacing the uncommunicative Brian Cowen as party leader with what they hope is a more telegenic Mícheál  Martin is a strategy of damage limitation. The party is losing support in all directions, including to Sinn Féin. Gerry Adams seems to know very little about politics and policy in the Republic, and when pushed on banks and emigration, resorts to banalities about citizenship and rights. Sinn Féin’s baggage will limit their electoral penetration for the time being. But in the party leaders’ TV debate, Mícheál Martin, trying against the odds to gain some moral high ground, reserved some of his sharpest remarks for Gerry Adams and his promises of higher standards in public life. Meanwhile the Green Party, outgoing junior coalition partners, look set to lose all their seats, tainted beyond rescue by their time in office with Fianna Fáil.

It is the centrist Fine Gael, traditionally the second party, that is getting the bounce, and it is currently riding as high in the polls as Fianna Fáil used to. Enda Kenny is working hard at looking papabile. His flying visit to Germany and a photocall with Angela Merkel just before the TV debate pushed the message that if they take him seriously over there, so should we over here.

This leaves a problem for the Labour Party. The main axis of political competition is between Fianna Fáil and all the rest. The most likely electoral outcome is a coalition between Fine Gael and Labour. Fine Gael is now hinting that it might be able to form a single-party government. So what is Gilmore to do? If he goes on the offensive against Fine Gael, he gives Fianna Fáil an opening to discredit the opposition as divided and unable to work together. This could edge some disgruntled Fianna Fáil supporters back into the fold, however reluctantly. However, if he gives Fine Gael a free pass, he risks alienating his own core Labour support. Fine Gael and Labour agree that fiscal pain is inevitable and that aspects of the EU-IMF package need to be revisited. But they differ on timing, on the balance between cuts and taxes, and on the distribution of pain. It was a tough call for Gilmore in the TV debate and it won’t get any easier.

As it happens, Ireland has seen quite a few street protests in recent times, from mass trade union marches, to Saturday afternoon rallies outside the Dáil, to student anti-fees protests (with their banner ‘Down with this sort of thing’ which Michael Lewis found so whimsical, causing much annoyance on this blog (1)).

But people have been anticipating this election for some time now, and this is where their anger is now being channelled. The effects will be seen in the polling booths on 25 February.

(1) Everyone knows that the ritual answer to this phrase is ‘Careful now’, from the classic TV comedy ‘Father Ted’. Even before the horrors of clerical sex abuse of children finally pulled down the crumbling authority of the Irish Catholic hierarchy, this programme made its own inimitable contribution to social change by making them not hateful but ridiculous.

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Tuesday Irish citizenship blogging « Hazardous Morals
02.16.11 at 2:42 am

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1

yoyo 02.16.11 at 5:54 am

So this sounds a lot like a replay of the libdems then, eh?

2

ajay 02.16.11 at 9:38 am

Even before the horrors of clerical sex abuse of children finally pulled down the crumbling authority of the Irish Catholic hierarchy, this programme made its own inimitable contribution to social change by making them not hateful but ridiculous.

Sidenote: ISTR an interview with Linehan in which he said that he could never make something like “Father Ted” today, because the abuse scandal had changed his view of the church from gentle disdain to blazing hatred. For a start, a setting with three priests exiled to a remote parish by the hierarchy would immediately make viewers think “oh yes, I know what they’re doing there…”

3

Paddy Matthews 02.16.11 at 11:15 am

It is the centrist Fine Gael, traditionally the second party, that is getting the bounce, and it is currently riding as high in the polls as Fianna Fáil used to.

“Centrist”? Really?

Fine Gael are proposing:

cuts in public service numbers which are proportionally much deeper than those in the UK,

a balance of spending cuts and tax increases over the next few years which is more strongly skewed towards cuts than the plans of the current government,

an absolute refusal to consider the introduction of property taxes or increases in the higher rate of income tax,

widespread privatisations,

and a revamped health system designed in consultation with private health insurance firms.

Up and coming politicians in Fine Gael include Leo Varadkar, who in 2003 thought “the only moral option” for European leaders was to join the American invasion of Iraq, and Lucinda Creighton, whose political role model is Margaret Thatcher and who is currently spitting venom at the trade unions.

They are at the very least centre-right and if anything are moving away from the centre. But for their attitudes to Europe, there is very little difference between them and the UK Conservative Party (who I don’t think would be credibly described as centrist).

A majority FG government is likely to be the most economically right-wing government here since the departure of Cumann na nGaedheal in 1932. The difference with the current government is that one will be laying waste to public spending through force of circumstance (they’ve run out of road) whereas their successors will be doing it for its own sake.

4

Norwegian guy 02.16.11 at 1:22 pm

It sure doesn’t look like it was a smart move by the Green Party to join Fianna Fáil in government at the tail end of the boom. Spectacularly bad timing.

5

Barry 02.16.11 at 4:38 pm

Paddy, Niamh accidentally looked at US TV (or UK TV, or German TV, or probably Irish TV), and got a massive dose of conventional lies wisdom. You know, where ‘centrist’ means ‘acting like a right-wing party, but pretending that they care’.
It can happen to anybody if they’re not careful. I’m sure that it’s temporary.

I second your comment, and yoyo’s – we’ve seen this sh*t before. In the UK, the LibDems figured that selling themselves to the Tories 100% was a winning electoral strategy (and I bet that it will be, if ‘winning electoral strategy’ is correctly seen as ‘large bribes to the party leadership’). In the US, we’re seeing the same thing.

In the US, the Democratic Party took over after the GOP crashed and burned, and continued far too much of the GOP policies, to the point where the GOP happily used this to stage an incredibly swift comeback, and the same [insert a paragrph of profanity here] GOP people who trashed the country are already coming back, even before we’re recovered halfway from the crash. And the Wall St scum who trashed out country and got bailed out (and didn’t get

6

Barry 02.16.11 at 4:41 pm

[sorry, I thought I erased that]

…lynched like they deserved) are now publicly whining that Obama doesn’t luv them,
are being taken seriously by the corporate media, and are sending their money to the GOP.

What I feared a couple of years ago in the USA is that the Democratic leadership would inherit the mess, clean it up just a little, take the blame, not reform much, and serve as the foils for a GOP resurgence. My fears were well-grounded.

7

CSPhD 02.16.11 at 5:29 pm

The title had me fooled. I thought the post would be about anger. It turns out it is about the machinations or political triangulations of one of the pillars of Irish politics, ie one of the main participants to the mess the country is in. Reading their program as presented above makes the question regarding anger even more relevant…

8

Niall McAuley 02.16.11 at 5:33 pm

Fine Gael are the most right wing party in Irish politics, now that the PDs are gone, but that doesn’t make them very right wing by international standards. In Europe, they are part of the European People’s Party (1). Most of the other members are some variety of Christan Democratic Party.

(1) I would prefer they joined the European Mammals Party, to make common cause with all our furry brethren against the European Squamous Thinnggggs party, but then we Irish are famously averse to reptiles.

9

roac 02.16.11 at 6:09 pm

Re: Father Ted. I had never heard of the show before it was mentioned in an earlier thread on this blog. I did some online research, and was amazed by what I read.

My question is this: My knowledge of Irish history is quite limited, but surely the Church’s grip on the country was sufficient that nothing remotely like this could have aired in — random choice here — 1955. I can’t imagine any US network airing it today, given the fear engendered by Bill Donahue and his ilk. So what was it about Ireland in the ’90s that made this show possible? How can we get some over here?

10

dsquared 02.16.11 at 6:20 pm

#9: basically, the bubble. Fintan O’Toole’s book about the crisis is quite good in recognising this – it wasn’t all corruption and silly mansion houses, there really genuinely was a massive liberalisation and social revolution that accompanied the economic boom.

11

Henry 02.16.11 at 6:33 pm

I don’t think it _was_ the bubble – the whole thing started to crack in 1992 or so, when we were still mired in economic misery, with massive emigration rates etc (about half of my graduating class in college left the country). There’s a good case that “Eamon Casey”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eamon_Casey (not coincidentally immortalized on Father Ted as Bishop Brennan) was the father not only of a bouncing young one, but of Irish modernity too. Ireland’s repressive Catholicism was in large part dependent on a preference falsification equilibrium – things changed very quickly. Not to say that economic growth didn’t play a major role – but things had started to change before it began to get going.

12

Satan Mayo 02.16.11 at 7:13 pm

It just occurred to me that none of the recent large-scale journalism in the genre of Economico-Hiberniobollocks has used the term “cute hoor” for any of the perpetrators. This seems odd.

13

dsquared 02.16.11 at 7:17 pm

the whole thing started to crack in 1992 or so

Break-up of the ERM! A whole lot of things changed forever that year. Including me – I got a haircut.

14

roac 02.16.11 at 7:39 pm

10 & 11: Whatever it was, I still want some. You must have heard that the Catholic League recently said “Bad museum!” to the Smithsonian, and the Smithsonian flattened itself on the floor and whimpered.

Of course, there is some weird history there, given that the Catholic Church had artistic control over Hollywood for decades, at a time when it was demonized among large segments of the population. My favorite data point is the Olivier/Garson Pride and Prejudice, which made Mr Collins (played by the estimable Melville Cooper) Lady Catherine’s librarian. Jane Austen, a village rector’s daughter, could depict a clergyman as a pompous toad-eater, but Joe Breen wouldn’t let MGM do it, even if the clergyman was an Anglican.

15

Fence 02.16.11 at 7:48 pm

Well here’s one Sligo person who will be voting for Fianna Fail, and who thinks they’ve done a great job

16

Kevin Donoghue 02.16.11 at 8:07 pm

Break-up of the ERM! A whole lot of things changed forever that year [1992].

That was part of the process whereby Ireland’s authority figures came into disrepute. Until then the officials of the Department of Finance were believed to have some idea of what they were doing even if the Minister (Bertie Ahern) had none.

Another significant development that year was the ‘X’ case: the Supreme Court held that a 14-year-old girl had the right to an abortion if her life (as distinct from her health) was at stake. You might think that a very conservative finding, but Holy Mother Church had conniptions.

17

Paddy Matthews 02.16.11 at 8:13 pm

It just occurred to me that none of the recent large-scale journalism in the genre of Economico-Hiberniobollocks has used the term “cute hoor” for any of the perpetrators. This seems odd.

If any of them had been cute hoors, we mightn’t have been in the mess that we’re in now.

“Gawbeens” is closer to it.

18

EWI 02.16.11 at 9:06 pm

@ roac

Maybe because it actually wasn’t made in Ireland, but rather by the BBC (which would maybe have hesitated to make a show along the same lines about the CoE, rather than Irish priests?). Morgan was an exile from these shores, after his Scrap Saturday satire show was done in by political pressure on RTÉ.

@ Niamh

Long used to pulling in up to 40%

Correction here: FF is long used to pulling in more than 40%, not “up to”.

19

Tomboktu 02.16.11 at 9:11 pm

roac in #9:
So what was it about Ireland in the ‘90s that made this show possible?

Mainly the fact that it was made in the UK.

20

roac 02.16.11 at 9:25 pm

18 & 19: Yeah, I saw that. But wasn’t it broadcast on Irish TV? Or can everybody in Ireland pick up British broadcasts? Either way, I can’t believe the Church wouldn’t have found a way to stop it before, even if it meant building transmitters to jam the frequencies.

(As I acknowledged before, there’s no limit to how wrong my ideas might be. My point of reference is the uncle in At Swim-Two-Birds: “No disrespect, now!”)

21

Mise 02.16.11 at 9:42 pm

think its worth reinforcing that ‘centrist’ is a fair stretch for fine gael …

22

Puss Wallgreen 02.16.11 at 10:22 pm

“Maybe because it actually wasn’t made in Ireland, but rather by the BBC (which would maybe have hesitated to make a show along the same lines about the CoE, rather than Irish priests?). “
Channel 4 made it actually. The BBC was doing this kind of stuff about the C of E in the 1960s, in “All Gas and Gaiters” with Derek Nimmo. Anglican clergymen are not exactly considered beyond ridicule in English comic writing.
“I can’t believe the Church wouldn’t have found a way to stop it “
I don’t know of any practicing Catholics who were offended by Father Ted, or tried to ban it. There was an attempt to ban it by Anglo-Irish Trotskyists in the so-called Irish in Britain Representation Group, on the grounds that it represented “anti-Irish racism”.

23

Paddy Matthews 02.16.11 at 10:47 pm

@EWI:

Maybe because it actually wasn’t made in Ireland, but rather by the BBC (which would maybe have hesitated to make a show along the same lines about the CoE, rather than Irish priests?).

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/All_Gas_and_Gaiters?

And it was Channel 4 rather than the Beeb.

24

EWI 02.16.11 at 10:53 pm

@ Paddy Matthews

And it was Channel 4 rather than the Beeb.

Yes, you’re right.

25

roac 02.16.11 at 11:30 pm

Also it says the exteriors were filmed in County Clare.

26

Peregrinus 02.17.11 at 4:32 am

Roac in #20:

“(As I acknowledged before, there’s no limit to how wrong my ideas might be. My point of reference is the uncle in At Swim-Two-Birds: “No disrespect, now!”)”

Not a good reference. ASTB was published in 1939 and, even then, the uncle is clearly a figure of fun to the (young adult) protagonist, and his views and attitudes are old-fashioned.

The decline in the church’s standing and authority long predates the economic boom. I left college in the mid-80s. The majority of my graduating class emigrated (for economic reasons), and the overwhelming majority (a) had no interest in the church and what it had to say about anything, and (b) were not susceptible to being influenced by the church. The church was not without institutional influence – the Eileen Flynn case, for example, was in 1982 – but unless it could do something to change the attitudes of me and my classmates or those who came after us it was inevitable that it would lose its commanding position in Irish society – which, of course, has happened. And I think it would have happened even without the boom.

In the past, if we are to believe Edna O’Brien people emigrated to escape the influence of the church, but even by the early 1980s this was no longer the case. My classmates emigrated for economic reasons; I don’t recall anybody leaving to escape the influence of the church, or even to escape a general social conservatism.

27

nick s 02.17.11 at 6:43 am

For a start, a setting with three priests exiled to a remote parish by the hierarchy would immediately make viewers think “oh yes, I know what they’re doing there…”

But there was always a hint that Craggy Island was a kind of post-scandal exile for Ted, albeit of the financial kind: ‘that money was just resting in my account’ is a very Irish defence.

Ireland’s repressive Catholicism was in large part dependent on a preference falsification equilibrium – things changed very quickly.

If you’re looking for historical moments, 1993 brought the final restrictions on the sale of condoms. Not that it would have helped Bishop Casey.

There was an attempt to ban it by Anglo-Irish Trotskyists in the so-called Irish in Britain Representation Group, on the grounds that it represented “anti-Irish racism”.

The recent documentary on the programme showed a young Glinner on Right to Reply having to defend himself against accusations of racism from one of those people; she had a broad Mancunian accent.

Getting back to the ‘slow burning anger’: is there an easy way for FF to be defenestrated through a combination of collapsed support and tactical voting (e.g. Kim Campbell’s Tories in 1993) or is the multi-member preferential system less amenable to wipeouts? And are there any signs that the mood is going to shift from a ‘vote against’ election to a ‘vote for’ one?

28

otto 02.17.11 at 8:50 am

On Ireland’s financial problem, the bank debt is much less of an issue than public discussion makes out – see here:
http://www.ronanlyons.com/2011/02/15/this-is-the-peoples-economy-two-questions-to-ask-candidates/
And much of the anger is about the modest change in income tax liability, euphemised under the title “universal social charge”, for people who in comparative terms pay very little tax on income indeed.
Again, Ronan Lyons:

Taxation: At the same time, the way we were all taxed went bananas. A good tax system is one where your marginal rate of tax (i.e. the tax you pay on the next euro you earn) is similar to your average tax rate (what percentage of all your income is paid in tax). Unfortunately, the Irish system is all wrong. Thanks to overly generous tax-free credits, we have not only some of the highest marginal rates in the OECD, we also take very little tax off the majority of workers. For example, the middle earner in 2006 paid about 4% income tax. The OECD calculates an all-in tax on wages each year. In Ireland, it went from 10% to negative between 2001 and 2007. Everywhere else, it stayed about 20%. We all like to think of ourselves as over-taxed. We’re not.
http://www.ronanlyons.com/2010/11/30/irelands-economic-crisis-what-sort-of-hole-are-we-in-and-how-do-we-get-out/

29

John Quiggin 02.17.11 at 8:55 am

The CofE doesn’t have and has never aspired to, anything like the moral authority of the Catholic Church in its heyday, so fictional representations were never problematic

The typical vicar in any English comedy is a mildly benevolent, ineffectual figure, usually seen consuming tea and scones and as I recall All Gas and Gaiters was much like this.

Going back to C19, Trollope’s clerical novels showed the clergy as thoroughly worldly – even the exceptions like Mr Harding exhibited no evidence of religious fervor.

30

nick s 02.17.11 at 9:12 am

Going back to C19, Trollope’s clerical novels showed the clergy as thoroughly worldly

Since, as any reader of 19th-c fiction kno, the CofE served as much as a property management enterprise (and a depository of second sons) as a religious denomination. Note, though, the ‘England’: I can’t think of any knockabout Scottish or Welsh clergy in popular culture.

31

Zamfir 02.17.11 at 9:31 am

Since, as any reader of 19th-c fiction kno, the CofE served as much as a property management enterprise (and a depository of second sons) as a religious denomination.
But so does the Catholic Church. And more in general, owners of large amounts of property tend to think that entitles them to set the conservative moral standards for everyone else. No religion needed for that.

32

Ray 02.17.11 at 12:31 pm

Yeah, I saw that. But wasn’t it broadcast on Irish TV? Or can everybody in Ireland pick up British broadcasts? Either way, I can’t believe the Church wouldn’t have found a way to stop it before, even if it meant building transmitters to jam the frequencies.

um, wibble?

RTE turned down Father Ted before Channel 4 bought it, but they started showing it about a year (?) later. Most people on the east coast of Ireland could pick up British channels on the airwaves, but most people in Ireland (today, and I think in the 90′s too) would get their TV through satellite or cable, and get British tv as part of the package.
The Church building transmitters… is just a crazy idea. They just don’t work like that. Even in the 50′s, if they were going to do anything they would call in the government and get them to do it instead. Today they can’t give ministers the belt of the crozier. They rely on their entrenched position in education and still loyal members in the civil service (including RTE). If Father Ted was turned down for religious reasons, its not because someone phoned up the bishop and asked what to do. (Of course there are groups like Opus Dei who see it as their business to get into positions of power where they can make decisions in favour of the Church, but that’s a little different)

33

roac 02.17.11 at 3:08 pm

The Church building transmitters… is just a crazy idea. They just don’t work like that. Even in the 50’s, if they were going to do anything they would call in the government and get them to do it instead.

Getting the government to do it is of course what I meant. Thanks to all who responded to the request for education. My central and depressing question remains: Why the hell do our politicians and media overlords in the US grovel before fucking Bill Donahue and goddamn Brent Bozell when their equivalents in Ireland are ignored? But that’s our problem not yours.

(JQ at 29: Not literally true — there’s the rather large figure of Josiah Crawley in The Last Chronicle of Barset, who is plenty fervent. He however tends to prove your overall point as he scares the hell out of everyone else, including Trollope. But no more about Trollope, threadjacking your own threadjack would be the height of internet bad manners.)

34

Alex 02.20.11 at 1:54 pm

But there was always a hint that Craggy Island was a kind of post-scandal exile for Ted, albeit of the financial kind: ‘that money was just resting in my account’ is a very Irish defence.

They were all sent there as a punishment posting. The money, famously, was just resting in Ted’s account. Dougal was responsible for some sort of terrible cock-up with a wedding. Father Jack was in trouble about a whole class of schoolgirls. Oh yes, they went there.

35

ejh 02.20.11 at 1:58 pm

There’s a good case that Eamon Casey (not coincidentally immortalized on Father Ted as Bishop Brennan) was the father not only of a bouncing young one, but of Irish modernity too.

I knew an Irish chap living in Brixton who gave most of the credit to Sinéad O’Connor.

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