The EU-surping of democracy in Ireland

Brendan O’Neill reports from Dublin on what has really rocked Irish politics: the elbowing aside of the public by Brussels bureaucrats.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics World

The extraordinary events in Ireland over the past few days have led some commentators to believe that something genuinely historic is afoot. With Taoiseach Brian Cowen resigning as leader of Fianna Fáil, and members of both his own party and his coalition partners the Greens twittering about how much they hate him, journalists have lined up to ‘breathe in the historic atmosphere’ at Leinster House. Headlines claiming that these are the most amazing scenes in the country’s 90-year history give an impression of history being written before our eyes.

But this is not historymaking as we have known it. No high principle is being fought over. The political pitch is so high only because the stakes are so low. The unrestrained and bitterly personal nature of Cowen’s demise, and of the fraying of the FF-Green coalition government, speaks to the fact that what is being tussled over here is not divergent visions of the future, but the question of which individuals are best placed to see through the already-decided EU bailout plan for bankrupt Ireland. We are witnessing a grubby, court-style battle amongst princes and prima donnas to see who can demonstrate to the current kingmaker of Irish politics – Brussels – that they are the right ones to enact its wishes.

The sinking of Irish politics into a mire of backstabbing and revenge plots is a consequence of the fact that Ireland’s political priorities are now determined externally. The bitchy nature of the current fallout between and within the mainstream parties disguises the fact that all of them agree on the need to pass the Finance Bill before the forthcoming general election. This bill will allow for the implementation of the extraordinarily punitive economic bailout devised by a tiny team of men-in-suits from the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Driven more by a determination to appease Brussels than by an open-minded commitment to representing their people’s desires, Irish politicians have entered a new phase of politics, one that is more full of intrigue than democratic debate, and consequently more unhinged, unstable and unpredictable than anything that went before.

‘Let them eat cheese’:
graffiti on the banks of the River
Liffey mocking the government’s
plan to give every family
a free block of cheddar cheese.

Even by the Irish political class’s standards, there is a strikingly nasty tone to the current squabbling. A writer for the Irish Independent described it well. It is a ‘tragedy of almost Shakespearean proportions’, he said, involving: ‘a failed political assassination, a botched major Cabinet reshuffle, massive communication breakdown at senior governmental level, open revolt by junior ministers, the crumbling of the greatest political machine in this country’s history [Fianna Fáil], and ultimately a wounded, isolated leader whose legacy is forever ruined’.

The most revealing thing is the extent to which Irish ministers have lost all sense of decorum and diplomacy, instead acting out their differences publicly in what is widely referred to as a low political soap opera. After weeks of TDs (members of the Irish parliament) calling on Taoiseach Cowen to resign, Cowen decided last Tuesday to hold a vote of confidence amongst his party. His main aim was to see off the threat posed by his own minister for foreign affairs, Micheal Martin, who had won over many in the Irish media – which is an official partner and antagonist in these low political events – in his posturing against Cowen. Cowen won the vote of confidence – and then his troubles really started.

Instead of quietly cherishing the vote as a sign that his party trusted him to steer events up to the election, Cowen decided to carry out a ‘revenge reshuffle’. He planned to shake up his Cabinet in order to replace his challengers and doubters with more pliant ministers. Such a move, driven more by emotionalism than a rational working out of one’s political best interests, would have been unwise even for a well-liked leader. Not surprisingly, leading Cabinet ministers – including Micheal Martin and Mary Harney – resigned, and then the Greens said they would not support Cowen’s elevation of new ministers to fill the empty positions. The government was shrinking and Cowen was powerless to rebuild it. ‘The fucking Greens are at it again’, he is reported to have told his still-loyal FF ministers.

As part of this public ripping apart of Fianna Fáil – which has governed Ireland for a majority of its 90-year existence – there were various mini-coups, too. On Thursday, as it became clear that Cowen’s revenge reshuffle had backfired badly, junior FF ministers gathered in the Leinster House lobby and, ‘within earshot of journalists’, said of Cowen’s antics: ‘The whole thing is a fucking disaster.’ At one point, again in full view of journalists, they looked to Micheal Martin, the resigning minister for foreign affairs and Cowen’s arch enemy, for leadership. They asked him if he would assume the mantle of director of electoral affairs. It was a political mutiny. On Saturday morning, disowned by the Greens and publicly upbraided by his own party, Cowen resigned as leader of FF. On Sunday, the Greens walked out of government, effectively causing it to collapse.

In one important sense, these events can be understood as the latest and most graphic episode yet in the unravelling of Ireland’s traditional political set-up. For more than a decade now, Ireland’s two main parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, both of which emerged from the Civil War of 1921, have been suffering from serious existential crises. In a post-nationalist era, and at a time of so-called peace process in the north, the dividing lines of Ireland’s Civil War politics have increasingly less purchase and meaning. Since the 1990s, Ireland has moved towards defining itself as a PC nation of ‘many identities’, whose relationship with the new Europe is far more important than its old stand-off with Britain. And in such circumstances, parties whose entire raison d’être was where they stood on the question of Partition in 1921 – the founders of Fine Gael supported it, the forces that would become Fianna Fáil rejected it – have struggled to remodel or rejuvenate their missions.

But it is also crucial to recognise the event that finally slayed the ‘greatest political machine in this country’s history’, as the Irish Independent described Fianna Fáil. And that is the virtual takeover of Ireland’s political and economic agendas by unelected, unnamed officials from European financial institutions. The intervention of a colonial-style ECB-IMF gang, who have drawn up and sought to impose a bailout plan that will protect the interests of various financial institutions at the immediate expense of Irish people’s living standards, has seriously warped the dynamic of Irish politics. It has removed the political initiative from the democratic sphere, and placed it squarely in the Brussels-based bureaucratic sphere.

In the democratic realm, politicians are accountable to a rational demos and thus are continually under pressure to articulate their agendas convincingly and to behave in a reasonable fashion; they’re expected to reflect the desires and the standards of the electorate. But in the cut-off, bureaucratic realm, in those palaces of intrigue, there is no such moral pressure to be politically airtight and accountable. The principle and decency of the democratic arena is replaced by the cut-throat conniving of the removed realm. (Of course, ‘decency’ is not the first word that comes to mind when surveying past Irish political affairs – but even those old ways were superior to today’s EU-surping of democracy.) The current depravity of Irish politics is a consequence of the fact that ministers are now completely cut off from the public, with their key policies shaped by the needs of Brussels rather than the desires of the Irish people; thus they have no need of public relations, or public debate, or any meaningful public interaction at all.

Democracy in Ireland has been devoured by the recent European intervention, and by Irish politicians’ acceptance of it as a way of avoiding their own responsibility for sorting out the economic mess that they played a key role in fostering in the 1980s and 90s. The public is unlikely to have any say on the Finance Bill that will empower the ECB-IMF bailout. Because the number one priority of all the mainstream parties is to pass the bill before the election. Even in his darkest hour, clinging to the position of Taoiseach, Cowen has said that ‘passing the Finance Bill is a priority’ – and his knife-wielding opponents agree. If the bill is passed first, it would reduce the election to a choice between which party the people trust most to enforce the bailout – a bailout which will lead to huge tax increases for working people, diminished welfare support, a reduction of the minimum wage by one Euro an hour, the co-option of currently non-taxpaying low-paid workers into the tax system, and much more besides. The Irish would basically be asked ‘Who do you want to be punished by: FF, FG, Labour or the Greens?’ That would make it an election in which voting would be an act, not of real choice and empowerment, but of political and economic self-immolation.

Democracy in Ireland is being sacrificed at the altar of European financial expediency, where the needs of various German and other banks and institutions now take precedence over what Irish people might want. But the institution of democracy is infinitely more important than any financial institution. It doesn’t matter how many banks go to the wall so long as the principle of democratic choice is upheld. The Irish people should be free not only to reject Cowen’s party at the forthcoming election, but also the Finance Bill, the bailout, the EU and anything else that does not fit with their plans or measure up to their expectations.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

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