Editorial from Church & State, Summer 2007 (Number 89)

The Irish Body Politic

"What people want now is not talk about change. They have had change till it comes out their ears. What they want is consolidation, refinement, and the correction of the errors and excesses arising from too singular a view of progress"—that's John Waters' commentary on the General Election (Irish Times 28.5.07).

He further comments:

"The media desire for a Rainbow victory had three driving elements: 1) the desire for a change of plotline for the sake of a change of plotline; 2) long-standing spite against Fianna Fail; and 3) media failure to understand the country they presume to cover.

"The core problem is that, instead of simply telling us what is going on, media seek first of all to mould reality to their own prescriptions. Media generally pursue influence in a manner that increases their business, but when it comes to Fianna Fail, feelings of spite, snobbery and atavistic hatred serve to muddy the windscreen so much that journalists can't see what is before their noses.

"And now, after five years of relentless, implacable media hostility, Fianna Fail returns as vigorous as before. If ever there was evidence of media impotence, this is it. Obviously if the media wish to damage Fianna Fail, their best bet is to get behind the incoming government [meaning the Fine Gael/Labour coalition]."

Then, in a rather incoherent passage, Waters says that the media did not get behind the Opposition, and Enda Kenny was "regarded almost contemptuously" by it. And that Fianna Fail made use of the Tribunals, set up to destroy it, as a lightning rod to divert attention from real problems.

The media and its "darlings", the PDs and Labour, failed to make an impression on the electorate. "Only the 'civil war parties' have shown any propensity to tap into what is really happening".

For "the media", read the Irish Times. It is the medium which did not emerge from the national society, and is not a participant in its affairs, but exists over against it, with the purpose of making it something which it is not. When it supported the Treaty, and the Treatyite war on Republicanism, back in 1922, it was strictly on the principle of the lesser evil. If the Home Rule Party had remained functional, it would have supported it against the Free State. If the Unionist Party had been functional, it would have supported it against Home Rule—as it did in fact in 1912-14, even though the Unionist Party had no support in the greater part of Ireland, relying on British power to over-rule Irish politics. And, in 1919-21, it supported military rule in preference to elected Government.

John Waters, in a frank communication to a French PhD student referred to this with surprising clarity for someone who is a paid contributor to the paper. He could hardly be so frank in the columns of the paper itself:

"It is important to understand that The Irish Times is not so much a newspaper as a campaigning institution committed to making Ireland come to resemble the aspirations of its more privileged citizens. There is, accordingly, no tradition of giving voice to different opinions in The Irish Times. What there is, is a desire to present the “truth”, to have this “truth” accepted, and to discredit all viewpoints, which do not accord with this. In order to achieve this, paradoxically, it is necessary to create the illusion of democratic debate. This is where I come in. The purpose of my column in The Irish Times is to demonstrate to the readers the consequences of error, while at the same time illustrating the “tolerance” of those who know and love the “truth”. In this way, the “truth” is affirmed all the more. My views in The Irish Times, have a function analogous to a vaccine, which aims to immunise the patient to the effects of certain conditions by implanting the essences of these conditions in their systems. Thus, the readers of The Irish Times are immunised against any dangerous forms of thinking which, if allowed to take serious hold of their consciousness, would render them incapable of acting in their own best interests." (Email of 2.6.01, cited by Jean Mercereau in L'Irish Times 1859-1999).

With this understanding in his mind, why does Waters now speak of Irish Times "failure to understand the country they presume to cover"? Its function is not to understand the country but to change it. Its coverage of the election was not reportage but propaganda. Its function was not to inform but to direct.

Its purpose was, and is, to damage Fianna Fail. But its motive in this is not attachment to Fine Gael. It is at best a highly contingent supporter of Fine Gael because it is not Fianna Fail.

For better or worse—and it is often very bad—Fianna Fail is the pillar of the state, or the hinge on which it swings. It is because Fianna Fail made the state independent to a degree that was never intended by the Treaty that it is hated by this influential residue of the Protestant Ascendancy. But hatred of Fianna Fail does not imply love of Fine Gael.

What Fine Gael (and its Cumann na nGaedheal precursor) did was fail to establish a viable Treaty regime after crushing the anti-Treatyites militarily, with British arms and British moral support. Having done the dirty work of the Treaty, under British pressure, it failed to establish a Treatyite body politic as the framework of non-military development.

The faction of Sinn Fein which supported the Treaty was established in power by Britain in 1922. The fact that it gained a small majority for the Treaty in the Republican Dail is not to the point, nor is the fact that it gained a majority in the confused Treaty Election in June 1922. The Dail was never recognised by Britain as an authoritative sovereign body. If in January 1922 it had voted to reject the Treaty and retain the Republic, that vote would not have counted, nor would it have counted if the electorate had delivered a clear verdict against the Treaty in June. Irish independence was ruled out of the question by Britain in 1922 no less than in 1919.

The Dail gave a majority for the Treaty under duress, as did the electorate, and Britain supplied both the authority and the arms for crushing the Irish Army that had sustained a war against it for three years after the Republican victory in the 1918 Election.

The Free State was not doomed by the fact that it was established on British authority, and by British arms used by a mercenary army. It is a comforting illusion that states based on coercion are, by virtue of that fact, not viable in the long run. The rulers of Britain have always acted on the assumption that peoples can be habituated to arrangements into which they were coerced in the first instance.

The Free State failed for the obvious reason that those who governed it rested on their military laurels and disdained statecraft. They did not establish a Free State body politic within which the political energies of the bulk of the electorate could be deployed. They failed to do this because they did not try to do it. It might be that they would have failed anyway, even if they had tried. That is beyond knowledge. What is knowable is that they did not try. Their governing purpose was to humiliate in politics those whom they had defeated in war.

The result of this was that, during the ten years after the Treaty, there were two hostile body politics in the Free State.

There were (and are) also two hostile body politics in Northern Ireland. But there is nothing that Northern Ireland can do about that situation because it is not a state—although revisionist academics invariably describe it as one—but only a small fragment of the UK state, which supplied its basic amenities while excluding it from UK politics. But the Free State was a state—though a subordinate one—and might have engaged in conciliatory statecraft if it chose. It did not choose.

Cumann na nGaedheal did not behave as a political party governing a state. It behaved as the state and, right up to the moment when it lost power, it treated the Opposition as rebels and mutineers. And the Opposition grew stronger every year under this treatment.

The Treaty Oath was used to exclude the Opposition from the Dail. In 1927 this threatened to bring about a repeat of the situation confronting the British Government in 1919, with the majority of the elected representatives being abstentionists. To avert such a turn of events, the Free State introduced legislation making the taking of the Oath a precondition of contesting elections. This brought about a heated public atmosphere in which civil war seemed to be on the cards—a real civil war, unlike that of 1922-23 in which the Treatyites were acting on a British ultimatum. Fianna Fail managed the problem effectively, entering the Dail without being humiliated, and gaining in public prestige by doing so.

Fianna Fail won the 1932 election. It won again in 1933, and continued winning until the mid-1940s, and established the effective body politic of the state in which the Treatyite Party was eventually obliged to participate. And, when the Treatyite party returned to office in 1948, as part of a Coalition, it showed that it had re-connected with its pre-Treaty roots by breaking the last connection of the Irish state with the British Empire.

The national body politic, as the generally-accepted framework of political action, within which parties win and lose elections without any apprehensions of the state being turned upside down, was established by the long series of Fianna Fail victories after 1932, and by the failure of Fine Gael in the mid-1930s to transform the Parliamentary system into a Fascist system.

"Civil war politics" does not persist on the basis of memory of the Treaty War. It persists because the long conflict, set off by the Treaty but continuing for a generation afterwards, gave distinct textures to the two parties which eventually settled down in the 1940s as component parts of the national body politic.

The Labour Party sought a third way in that conflict, marginalised itself, and continues to be marked by its origins, just as the two major parties are.

The party structure of the state is unbalanced as a long term consequence of Treatyite conduct, particularly from 1927 to 1932, but also because of the awkward Fascist phase in the mid-thirties. And then the PR inhibits a rationalisation of the party-political structure of the state under which the Opposition would be a Government-in-waiting.

John Bowman's contribution to the propaganda of the Election was in the form of a clip on Dublin Opinion in his Radio Eireann archive programme (May 13th). It was about the satirical magazine, Dublin Opinion, that was widely read throughout the country for a couple of generations. The programme was made by Frank Kelly, the son of the founder, in the 1980s. He began by reflecting on satire as a social value: "I think it's true to say that, if you value democracy, it must follow that you value satire". It was "a necessary purgative within the political mind and life of a nation". It was an ameliorative influence on the conflicts within the state, was not politically directed, and its greatest success was achieved when the subject of the satire joined in the laugh.

But in what seems to have been the greatest moment of Dublin Opinion, the subject (or victim) did not join the laugh:

"The effect and the power of the cartoon can never be underestimated. It's infinitely more powerful than a thousand words of prose, or perhaps two thousand words of prose. When Fianna Fail, for example, wanted to abolish PR and introduce the straight vote, which was a very shrewd political move, and not one which I would totally not admire from a political point of view if I were a political tactician. But, when they wanted to remove Proportional Representation and introduce the straight vote, it would have resulted in an almost indefinite tenure of power by Fianna Fail, who were the strongest party at the time. They were the monolithic, disciplined party with the strongest Party whip. And my father drew a cartoon in Dublin Opinion. And the scene was a classroom. There was a teacher, and he had a line of boys beside him in ever-diminishing heights down to almost floor level, like the old Fry's cocoa ad, "Growing up on Frys"—the family of all different heights. And he had these schoolboys beside him in the class, this teacher. And each boy held an apple in his hand. And the caption read: "Under PR each boy gets an apple. Under the straight vote the big boy gets the lot." Now to my certain knowledge Sean Lemass was shown that cartoon at the time, and he virtually danced with rage. I don't know whether he actually danced in rage, but certainly figuratively he did when he was shown that cartoon. Because it almost singlehandedly destroyed Fianna Fail's campaign to get rid of Proportional Representation."

And so, on the eve of the Election another dimension of Fianna Fail 'trickery' was exposed on RTE.

And the exposure was a load of rubbish.

Maybe Kelly didn't know it was rubbish. But Bowman must have known. At least he must have known that Fianna Fail was no less successful in gaining office after failing to abolish PR than it had been before attempting it.

PR is an inheritance from the Treaty. Its purpose was to weaken the Governments of the new state.

In its own affairs Britain maintains an electoral system which produces clear governing majorities at the cost of some departure from proportional representation on the basis of votes cast. The establishment of a government capable of governing is taken to be the primary purpose of an election. When it is obliged to relinquish the authority to govern to countries which used to be its colonies it gives them the PR system for the purpose of ensuring that they will have weak Governments.

Fianna Fail's feat of achieving single party government for most of the period since 1932 was accomplished in defiance of the tendency of PR. And, if it had succeeded in abolishing PR, it is very unlikely that the result would have been even more Fianna Fail government. The most likely effect of a first-past-the-post system would have been the development of an effective two-party system in which the Opposition could win an election and govern.

In attempting to abolish PR Fianna Fail acted disadvantageously to itself, in the interest of the state, by establishing a system that would tend to free the Fine Gael/Labour log-jam. That log-jam is one of the conditions that has enabled Fianna Fail to dominate political life for so long. On a cynical calculation of holding office in order to be corrupt—which is what the Irish Times tells us Fianna Fail was and is about—it would never have tried to change a system which disables the Opposition.

Cynicism is all very well. Democracy tends to generate it from the contrast between the extravagantly idealist rhetoric of the election campaign and the very limited capacity of any Government to act.

What is now called satire is the cynicism which fills that gap. But it needs to be distinguished from sheer stupidity. John Bowman's contribution to the election campaign was merely stupid.

Contents of Number 89

The Irish Body Politic.

John Hewitt, Part Two: A Stranger In The Glens.
Stephen Richards

Bertie Odds-On In A Gamble With History.
Brian P. Murphy osb (Report)

Lost Paradise In Paraguay.
Pat Muldowney

The Traitor's Case.
Jack Lane

Why Not Interview Edna?
Tom Doherty (Letter)

Eureka Moments Continued.
Jack Lane

Santa Espina.
Manus O'Riordan (Report)

New Primate.
Pat Maloney

Our Eye On Otago.
Seán McGouran

A Journey Round Tom Dunne.
Brendan Clifford

Spanish Civil War: 'A Diversity Of Volunteers'.
Manus O'Riordan

Vox Pat
Pat Maloney

Nauseous Cant.
Jack Lane Writes To Vincent Browne

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