There was an opinion piece in Saturday’s Irish Times by regular columnist Noel Whelan about the forthcoming European parliamentary elections, weighing up the candidates for the Dublin constituency. It was as boring as fuck, and to be honest I feel a bit embarrassed admitting that I read it, and that I’m going to be writing about it here. But it is the matter of its boringness that I want to address, so bear with me.
“Thank God for Europe!” That’s what one Irish Times letter writer had to say in light of the news that Louise O’Keeffe’s courage and tenacity had led to a resounding victory over the Irish State at the European Court of Human Rights. If I’m reading it right, the letter writer’s exclamation is a prime example of a political perspective, a liberal political perspective, that sees Europe as something that exists outside Ireland, not within it, and treats the institutions of the European Union as the eternal representative of the European continent and its peoples.
‘Europe’ is the civilising force for the backward Irish mob. This Europe -the Europe of the Lisbon Treaty- even offers, as writer Colm Tóibín puts it, protection from a despised political establishment.
And yet, Tóibín’s despised political establishment is deeply committed to ‘Europe’. “We took one for the team” is how Michael Noonan described the Irish government’s acquiescence in shouldering Ireland’s public with massive private banking debts. Or to put it another way, Irish pensioners lay terrified on hospital trolleys so Europe’s top bankers could lie out in the sun on private beaches. They had, after all, been living beyond their means.
Ireland’s political establishment manages to combine an enthusiasm, on the one hand, for being “good Europeans” (i.e. obedient poodles), for “punching above our weight” (i.e. getting pats on the head), for “pooling sovereignty” (i.e. getting shot of popular sovereignty for good), with, on the other, a pull-on-the-green-jersey nationalist rhetoric – no mean feat. They’re able to do this in part because the institutional design of the European Union allows them to do so, leaving matters of monetary and, increasingly, fiscal policy beyond the reach of everyday political discussion, and beyond the reach of popular contestation. And also because the trade union movement will hold rallies mocking Germans because of the bank debt when the Bundesbank president thinks bondholders ought to get stuffed whereas Jack O’Connor doesn’t.
Supporting whatever is going on in Europe is fine, but there’s no need to take an active interest. Good pupils don’t challenge their tutors. As you might expect from a stance that upholds the interests of big business against the needs of the population, the political establishment enjoys the support of Ireland’s mass media outlets in this regard, which are all right-wing. For all the denunciations that come from on high whenever there’s a referendum on about how ignorant large swathes of the Irish population are about the workings of the European Union, the EU is not intended to be a matter of political concern for the ordinary citizen.
Which brings me, rather circuitously, to the matter of Noel Whelan’s piece. He is concerned with predicting the winner in the Dublin constituency. He weighs up the candidates as if they were little more than horses in a race. Or contenders for a boxing championship. In fact, Whelan concludes his analysis thus: ‘with some big names now in the ring, Dublin is certainly the headline bout on the card for the European elections in May’. What? Is the name ‘Emer Costello’ is on the lips of every ‘politico’ from Stockholm to Thessaloniki?
Probably not. What this shows is the way that whatever European political scene there is gets subsumed in the national contest between competing political parties. And all politics amounts to, from this perspective, is a spectator sport, where the amateurs watch the professionals in action. Ideological differences are largely a distraction from the central question of which big beast will emerge triumphant. There is no cause for emotional involvement or civil passion or deliberation. Decisions taken at a European level are of no concern to voters. To compound things, in the Irish political backwater, European and local elections are held on the same day. Sure it’s only voting, and sure you might as well kill two birds with one stone.