Two centrist parties keep us from pit of barbarity
AS the waters of recession recede, we see the comforting steeples of Fine Gael and Fianna Fail emerging once again in Meath East. The integrity of their quarrel is one of the few Irish institutions that insulates us against fanaticism and fascism (adapted from Winston Churchill).
Naturally, those who never lived in the shadow of gunmen have no time for two centrist parties. That's because they have no feeling for the fragility of civil society. That fragility is one of two lessons I learned from a lifetime pondering politics. The other is that while the wicked and wealthy bury their crimes, sooner or later the bodies will surface.
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In politics, the time-span between political crime and political punishment tends to be brief. Look at the Labour Party. Here we could do with less guff from Gilmore and less revisionism from Rabbitte.
Rabbitte rolled into Meath East playing the same tired tune – that Labour nobly took on the thankless task of going into Government to take the hard decisions needed to deal with a recession caused solely by Fianna Fail.
This is nonsense for two reasons.
First, even before the last general election, Gilmore's Labour Party had done a deal with Fine Gael. By going into government, it dodged its historic duty: to lead the opposition, finish off Fianna Fail, shaft Sinn Fein, become a mass party of social democracy and the alternative government.
But Labour's greed for power, pay and pensions was stronger than the principled rewards of deferred gratification. That first sell-out was soon followed by many more. To my mind, one of the worst was its support for the Kevin Cardiff settlement.
Second, neither Labour nor Fine Gael have clean sheets in relation to the recession. An opposition has an obligation to shout stop. But Fine Gael and Labour stayed silent, helped blow up the property bubble and backed the bloating of public sector pay and pensions.
For the first few years of the recession, an angry public pretended to go along with the fiction that it was all Fianna Fail's fault, that Fine Gael and Labour would have done it all differently, that the Irish recession was a purely Irish problem. But that big lie is losing its power.
Does Rabbitte really expect people to believe that Fine Gael and Labour would have pricked the property bubble, cut public sector pay and increased income tax? Or that the Irish recession is not related to the crisis in Greece, Spain and Cyprus?
The result in Meath East shows that Irish voters have reached three pragmatic conclusions. That Fianna Fail made a mess of it but Fine Gael and Labour would have made the same mess. That much of what happened was outside Irish control. That Fianna Fail should be forgiven for committing political crimes that would also have been committed by Fine Gael and Labour.
Accordingly, nothing now stands between Labour and liquidation but its special relationship with RTE, where well-padded presenters still pound on Fianna Fail and address Alex White as "Alex". But RTE too is running out of road.
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Professor Eunan O hAlpin's two programmes In the Name of the Republic for TV3 (the series was turned down by RTE) were chilling reminders that many foul deeds were committed by the IRA during the Four Glorious Years. Perhaps the most stirring section was Don Wycherly's powerful portrayal of the great IRB man PS O'Hegarty and his disgust at the degeneration of the high ideals of 1916.
This Easter weekend, 97 years ago, my paternal grandfather, Pat Harris, marched to Macroom with the Irish Volunteers in the hope of collecting the guns to be landed by Roger Casement in Kerry. Behind him were years of service to the Irish renaissance – as a member of Craobh na Linne Duibhe of the Gaelic League with Tomas McCurtain, as a founder of the Cork Celtic Literary Society, as a member of the IRB ordered home from the USA to help set up the Irish Volunteers in Cork.
PS O'Hegarty was talking about men like Pat Harris when he said: "The men of 1916 were idealists. . . men who had consecrated their lives to Ireland from a sense of duty and patriotism. Their leaders would never have agreed to the beastly things that were done afterwards."
But men of my grandfather's calibre were soon pushed aside by a more brutal breed. As O'Hegarty put it: "The men of 1918-22 were different. They included for the first time the gunman, the irresponsible and the morally degenerate. They looked down on the 1916 men as amateurs and bunglers."
The rise of these so-called hard men resulted in a cowardly reign of terror in Cork city. It included Martin Corry's chamber of horrors in the vault of an old graveyard. William Edward Parsons, a 15-year-old member of the Boys Brigade, was tortured there until he incriminated other innocent lads as "spies". He was then hanged like a dog.
As a member of the First Cork Brigade, albeit not one of their active gunmen, my grandfather shared in the guilt. But he was sickened by some of the IRA actions. Even in old age, he would get angry when telling me what happened four young British soldiers on July 9, 1921, the eve of the Truce.
Believing the IRA would honour the spirit of a Truce that was only hours away, the British commander in Victoria Barracks gave four young soldiers – two from the South Stafford Regiment and two from the Royal Engineers – a pass to go down town. They were Alfred Cannim (20), Albert Powell (20) Harold Daker (28) and Henry Morris (21).
They must have had little money because they did not go to a pub, but wandered around the city like sightseers. At 10.30pm on a fine summer's night, they stopped at a sweetshop on the Bandon Road and bought a bag of bullseyes. They were still sucking on the sweets when they were seized by a party of IRA men and frogmarched towards the lough.
My grandfather, who lived in Barrack Street nearby and got good eyewitness accounts, told me that people on the street called on the IRA party to let the four lads go. But the IRA in Cork was in the grip of a blood lust.
The four frightened soldiers were brought to Ellis's Quarry and shot in the head. You can google a grim photo of their four bodies sprawled on the grass. Some mothers' sons.
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Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan laid out what happens without the rule of law: "continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man solitary, poor, brutish and short."
PS O'Hegarty was equally eloquent about Ireland under the IRA. "We created a situation. . . for reversion to a primitive society where everything would depend upon force."
Northern Ireland nearly descended into that dark place. The leaders of our two main parties, Liam Cosgrave and Jack Lynch, saved us from that sinkhole. As long as evil men plot to kill police and create civil strife, let us give thanks for two centrist parties.