It has been playing on my mind for a while that the current political stagnation in Ireland is likely to move into a profoundly reactionary phase. For the last while, the public eye seems to have been fixed on the matter of whether the Irish government will be able to strike a ‘deal’ on bank debt, amidst widespread resignation as another draconian Troika-backed budget looms.
Foremost is the matter of the government’s moral fibre and loyalty. At the liberal end of media opinion, Fintan O’Toole referred to the ‘bizarre shame’ apparently experienced by the Irish government in its inability to say that Ireland cannot bear the weight of its debt burden. Colette Browne in today’s Examiner declares ‘it’s about time the Government, instead of meekly acceding to every humiliation emanating from Berlin, started to act as if Ireland’s national interest, and not the Bundestag’s, was its primary concern’.
On the right, prominent commentator on economic and financial matters Eddie Hobbs wrote in the Wall Street Journal that ‘Enda Kenny leads a Vichy government—captive externally to creditors that still insist on loading bank debt onto the sovereign, and internally to a tribe of insiders led by union godfathers’, thus racialising and criminalising organised labour, and associating it with Nazism in a single turn of phrase. Hobbs is by no means the furthest to the right of Ireland’s priestly caste of economic-financial ‘experts’ who make regular appearances as impartial commentators in print and on air in Ireland, and we should be wary of the ease with which union leaders can function as a metonym for the real ‘enemy within’ according to this world view: the unionised worker.
Common to all three perspectives is the notion that there is a government that ought to act in what Browne refers to as the ‘national interest’, but opts not to do so on account of moral shortcomings. Also, it was indicative of a wider malaise in Irish society that former Labour Party spin doctor and current charity CEO Fergus Finlay, in response to Hobbs, should spend most of his article lauding charitable impulses and volunteering before turning his attention to Hobbs’s ‘undermining of his own government’, but have nothing to say about Hobbs’s attack on organised labour.In truth, ‘acting as if’ Ireland’s ‘national interest’ was its primary concern is what all Irish governments have done, including the present one. It just so happens that the ‘national interest’ in this case has always been the interest of Ireland’s ruling class.
This was recently illustrated by an event during the Fiscal Treaty, which I described before:
‘the question of ‘what is best for Ireland’ as it is presented effaces any question of class antagonisms within Ireland, and places in its stead the notion of the ‘national interest’. So, for instance, when David Begg – hardly a fire-breathing radical – announced to the Labour Party conference that European solidarity was a defunct concept since places like Greece and Ireland had now become living laboratories for neoliberal experimentation, the response of Labour Party leader Eamon Gilmore, when questioned about this on an RTÉ current affairs programme, was to say that the referendum was not about the interests of any particular group, but the national interest.’
Similarly, when Labour came under pressure over junior minister Róisin Shortall’s resignation, its minister for Social Protection Joan Burton said that “Eamon as the leader of the Labour Party has to have regard, if you like, to the national interest as well as to the interests of the Labour Party, but in the time of crisis that we’re in, let’s be very clear, the national interest comes first.”
Of course this kind of thing is nothing new or specific to Ireland: Rosa Luxemburg wrote back in 1915 of how ‘’the leaders of the German social democracy held firmly to the conviction that the life interest of a nation and the class interest of the proletariat are one’.But it is here that the danger of the present situation in Ireland lies. The prevailing concern with the ‘national interest’, in a situation where you have a right-wing mainstream media that already frames politics in such terms, and nominally social democratic formations that identify the national interest with following a programme of draconian cutbacks and the stripping away of the welfare state, lay the basis for a deeply reactionary right wing populism. A reactionary right wing that makes appeals to notions of ‘national sovereignty’ and ‘the national interest’ –identified, naturally, with the longest standing desires of Ireland’s capitalist class- and foments widespread anti-political animus and resignation, on account of the failure -through perceived weakness or cowardice- of political leaders to stand up to the vile Hun.
Thus ‘the politicians’ –and with them, any kind of contestatory democratic political activity- become the main object of hatred, and in tow, individual delinquent bankers like Sean Fitzpatrick and ‘godfather union bosses’, to use Eddie Hobbs’s phrase, with the capitalist class and the system that sustains it tucked safely out of sight.
Anti-political attitudes are not the sole preserve of Ireland, however: they are flourishing in other Troikaland countries on the European periphery, in Greece, in Spain, and in Portugal. One thing that sets Ireland apart from the latter three, however, is in the widely held belief that it has been a democracy for ninety odd years. So ruling politicians will talk in State-Time, about how stripping away welfare provision and public services are justified because this is one of the biggest crises “since the foundation of the State”, in a mixture of parochial arrogance and isolationist authoritarianism, given the fact that the State’s history includes the dominance of an ultraconservative church, and the existence of slave labour and a deeply oppressive carceral regime, making it nothing to write home about in democratic terms.
Here we can find a partial -though not at all complete- explanation for the relative lack of popular mobilisation in Ireland by comparison with Spain, Portugal and Greece, all of which will see general strikes on the 14th of November. In the latter three countries, substantial sectors of the population retain –and are consciously keeping alive- the historical memory of popular struggles against dictatorship, in defence of democracy. In Ireland, well, it’s a ‘special case’….
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