Why Ireland needs a new politics

The farcical devolution talks at Stormont should remind us of the need to replace the exhausted institutions, both north and south.

Jason Walsh

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Northern Ireland’s politicians have been hunkered down for over a week in seemingly interminable talks about the non-issue of devolved ‘policing and justice’ and the local micro-issue of who should decide where Orangemen can and cannot march. Two things are becoming clearer with each passing day: firstly, it’s a complete farce, and, secondly, noone outside of the political classes and their echo chamber in the press gives a damn.

As spiked has argued many times, the peace process doesn’t work. The guns are silent, but that is not down to the pretend parliament at Stormont: the IRA and loyalist paramilitaries were on ceasefire three years before the Assembly actually sat in 1999, and to this day there is no sign of popular enthusiasm for a return to war. The ‘dissident’ threat spoken of darkly by police and politicians alike is insignificant in reality, but serves as a useful imaginary enemy to justify officialdom.

What is not being discussed is the complete failure of politics in Ireland, both north and south. When we were promised devolution, no one mentioned that what it meant was the backward evolution of politics, that all of the meaning would be sucked out of the popular ideologies. What is left is a bitter and pointless identity-driven squabble over issues that no one but the most onanistic policy wonk would ever care about. Unionism and republicanism are both beaten dockets, torn and discarded and existing only as an artificial division used to maintain Stormont’s sectarian head-counting.

Ironically, though, it is from the dried-out husks of the old political forces that the arguments for a new future must come. The peace process may have built a powerless parliament on a foundation of sand but, given the absence of any enthusiasm for a return to violence, something must break Northern Ireland’s own narrative of ‘There Is No Alternative’. The task for any true democrat in Ireland today is not to ‘meet-in-the-middle’ and share the spoils of the largesse coming from Westminster and the EU, but to build a new future-oriented politics that will put an end to the sad old sectarian carve-up once and for all.

It is for unionists to argue against the identity politics of ‘Ulsterisation’; my concern is the appalling state of republicanism. The future of republicanism lies not with the thud and blunder of superannuated bombers who claim the heritage of the Second Dáil, nor will it be in inflating the significance of cultural signifiers such as the Irish language (which is doing quite well on its own, thank you very much), Gaelic games or Orange marches. Instead it lies with the recreation of a political sphere belonging to the publicus, the people; the investment of our hopes, dreams and, yes, hard work in creating a society and an economy that actually mean something.

This is a problem for the south of Ireland as much as for the north. Long derided by unionists as as a priest-ridden backwater (and let’s face it, it was), the south has modernised tremendously over the past two decades and, in many respects, is as vibrant as any other European state. Those who wish to demand a secular, modern nation and state in Ireland are in a better position than ever before because at least Ireland has the trappings of modernity: roads, rail, copper and fibre-optic cables, bridges and, most important of all, vibrant cities teeming with people full of enthusiasm and creativity.

And yet this modernisation remains incomplete, not only because it does not encompass the entire Irish nation, but also because the institutions of statehood that saw it through the past 90 years are on their last legs.

The Catholic Church is finally on its knees, humiliated and discredited, collapsing under the weight of its own pomposity. The Seanad, Ireland’s upper house of parliament, elected by and for worthies, is a running joke, while the lower house, the Dáil, is as distrusted as all parliaments seemingly are these days. The main political parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, are identikit ideology- and idea-free zones stuffed with no-marks, the principle difference between the two being that one funds itself through begging and the other through a lottery (really). Both gorge on state handouts, of course. Possibly the only thing the deceitful old revisionist Conor Cruise O’Brien got right in his entire life was that Ireland’s political parties were a disgrace to the revolutionaries who founded the country.

Even outside politics, the bodies that sustained the state are creaking. The National University of Ireland is about to be abolished by official diktat and no one seems to care very much. The civil service is widely loathed by a public convinced (wrongly) that state employees are overpaid. The trade unions are noisily complaining about things, but having spent decades working in ‘social partnership’ with the government and employers (often one and the same) they have no base strong enough to do anything other than whine. The press is tame and dull beyond comprehension and spends as much time criticising itself as it does critiquing the government (which it only ever does on the wrong grounds anyway).

Even Ireland’s museums and galleries appear to be directionless and spend all of their time trying to justify their existence to the Arts Council through education programmes rather than through standing up for the universal merits of art. Nothing needs to be said about the banks other than the fact that all of them are basically bankrupt and sucking at the teat of government handouts; one of them seems to have been nothing more than a decade-long Ponzi scheme.

In short, Ireland needs a new politics. How do we get to it? As the saying goes: ‘I wouldn’t have started from here.’ Or, to put it more positively, there is no roadmap for this.

Jason Walsh is a journalist based in Dublin. He is the editor of forth, a new online current affairs magazine and will be debating the future of Northern Ireland with Owen Polley and Malachi O’Doherty at the Belfast Salon on February 16, 2010

Previously on spiked

Mick Hume explained why the future is not orange or green. Jason Walsh described Northern Ireland as a one-party state and looked at the revival of Irish republicanism. Brendan O’Neill called Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams the ghosts of politics past. Kevin Rooney railed against the way politics is being written out of the history of the conflict. Or read more at spiked issue Ireland.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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