100 years on from 1916, our leaders lack any idealism
Published 29/02/2016 | 02:30
Yes, the two Civil War parties are still intact, and yes, the hard Left and Sinn Féin did not make as big a breakthrough as they expected. But make no mistake - the old political system is broke and the people are crying out for change.
The number of Independents elected, of different colours and views, suggests people are fed up with the existing tribal system. The fact that many feel, paradoxically, that there should be an actual 'party of Independents' shows just how advanced this feeling is. As does the growing talk that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael should simply jump into bed together and be done with it.
So in the centenary of the 1916 Rising, we have had an electoral rebellion and a revolution at the polls. But there is one big difference. The politicians have not matched this appetite for change with anything resembling what the 1916 heroes did during a similar period of frustration and then upheaval.
Indeed, despite all the talk of 1916 for the past few months (with books, films and commemorations) it is as if the spirit of this very event was put on hold for what was too often a monotonous and tedious election campaign, full of name-calling and without any vision or bigger picture.
Most of us expected the very opposite and that the politicians would at least try to invoke the spirit of 1916, with its sense of sacrifice and what the nation actually means, in this, of all elections. Instead, we got a mind-crushing blame game about hospital trolleys, USC cuts and welfare increases.
Was it really for this that the 1916 rebels rose up at Easter? Where were the vision, the poetry, the sense of a bigger picture? After all we've been through, where was 'the Democratic Revolution' and 'Renewing the Republic'?
But instead, the big parties drew from the conclusions of focus groups, rather than core values. They followed the opinion polls, almost religiously, instead of a bigger vision. Fianna Fáil veered leftwards and so did Fine Gael, chasing votes, pandering to every interest group and noisy demand.
Given that it was the 1916 centenary, we might have expected some leadership and vision. But there was no commanding, charismatic figure to energise the electorate and satisfy this hunger for change. The established leaders were jaded and predictable to the point of being stultifying.
But even among them all, where is the next generation, with new ideas and fresh approaches? Where are the new kids invoking even a modicum of the exciting 1916 spirit of youth and renewal?
Instead, it was the same old faces, making the same old points, mostly negative. Micheál Martin singlehandedly led his party back to relevance, but he is damaged goods with no clear vision of what his party (or Ireland) represents.
Granted, it is hard for Fianna Fáil to do the vision thing, given where its clap-happy visions have led us in the past. But it could have combined contrition with a new sobriety, instead of busting the piggy bank again.
Labour was too preoccupied with trying to save itself. And even Sinn Féin was so busy trying to position itself (North and South, Left and Centre etc . . .), that it too forgot about 1916 for a while.
However, it was in Fine Gael where the lack of vision was most disappointing. They were in power: they had the chance to shape the narrative. Some years ago, I met some Fine Gael figures about the launch of the party's Collins Institute, a think-tank which would create generate ideas and political philosophies that the party, and Ireland, could use. Specifically, it would imagine the future through the past and invoke the spirit of the upcoming 1916 centenary.
It posited the invigorating new idea of the 'Just Republic', combining two elements from the party's history, notably the 'Just Society', which was the social liberal drive of Fine Gael figures like Declan Costello in the 1960s, as well as the original ideal of a sovereign Irish Republic, as declared in 1916.
It was exciting stuff, redolent of the visionary ideas set out in UK and US politics, and might have satisfied some of that revolutionary dissatisfaction that we saw last Friday at the polls.
But nothing more came of it. The Collins Institute launched and was never heard of again. Focus groups and back-room advisers came back into play and poetry and vision went out the window.
Fine Gael would 'run on the recovery' and that was it. Meanwhile, the 'new-look' Fianna Fáil simultaneously rejected the Troika's plan and claimed credit for it. It had no plan to re-invent itself, or re-invent the Republic.
And yet much of the electorate has forgiven Fianna Fáil and this may well be why we want to hear of a vision and of something that would re-invent our broken system. We still trust that the larger, catch-all parties can do this.
But these parties are not offering any such bigger picture.
Meanwhile the rest of the electorate fragments in disillusion and factionalism. The Revolution is not being realised.