Comment

Saturday 20 September 2014

Few people of Quinn's calibre wish to take any part in politics, but we must find them

Published 04/07/2014 | 02:30

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Ruairi Quinn. Photo Steve Humphreys

Minutes after Ruairi Quinn announced his resignation the other day, listeners to Newstalk heard Dr Ed Walsh pronounce a most remarkable, and clearly heartfelt, appraisal of the retiring Education Minister.

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During his long and distinguished career, we often heard Dr Walsh asserting his opinions. He gave them straight from the shoulder. He left us in no doubt about what he thought of the way our politicians and bureaucrats run our poor little country.

This time he went on the airwaves, not to criticise but to praise a politician and in the highest terms. He said, quite simply, that Ruairi Quinn had once been our best finance minister ever. I agree.

And although Mr Quinn never reached the highest office, Dr Walsh's words place him in the ranks of the top Irish political figures since independence.

There have been other Labour people who deserved similar accolades. The names of Dick Spring and Barry Desmond come to mind. But Mr Quinn is unique in that he was the only Labour finance minister.

Why have so few representatives of his party earned a comparable place in history? Part of the answer is simple.

Ireland is a conservative country, in which it is hard for even the most moderate left-wing party to thrive. Labour has seldom been in office, and then usually for very short periods. And it has held few desirable positions. Some of its most deserving people have never even reached the cabinet.

It has also suffered from the perception that it is too close to the trade unions and represents the interests of only a small proportion of the population.

That has changed in recent decades. In the 2011 general election, Labour almost certainly enjoyed as much middle-class as working-class support. In the troubled times that have followed, it must have thought it would get some credit for its enthusiasm for the Liberal Agenda.

Appeal to the middle class, however, has not shown in the uninspiring campaign for the party leadership which will culminate today, or so we all assume, with the election of Joan Burton.

Labour figures, and Labour allies, have talked about returning to "core values". What does that mean? A kindly definition would be their vigorous (and, in all justice, more successful than most people imagine) attempts to ease the inevitable pain of the austerity programme for the most vulnerable people.

Inadequate, one might say. In fact, it is worse than inadequate.

It suggests that they have in mind what they would see as the core values of 1913, the year of the party's foundation. But the world has changed, many times and in the most revolutionary ways, over the last century.

Labour bears very little of the blame for the wretched standard of political discourse in Ireland. Other political parties are far more guilty, and to a lesser extent we all share the guilt.

But in the world we now live in, what we like to call parish pump politics is no longer sustainable.

We may not have much to contribute to the global debate on capitalism, sparked off by Thomas Piketty's best-selling book. But we cannot and must not ignore the vast social and economic changes brought about by a technology which would have been unimaginable a century ago, or the pressure on the wealth, status and influence of the middle classes everywhere.

And in this world, we cannot expect political systems devised in the 19th century, or a form of socialism which has all but disappeared from the planet, to survive.

In Ireland, one obvious course of action would be to build a strong social democratic (roughly speaking) party which can compete on level terms with the two existing centre-right parties and which aims, not at achieving a minor role in government from time to time, but becoming a major governing party.

Labour would have to form the core of such a party.

It would have to accept that making it reality could be the work of 10 or even 20 years. It would also have to accept that even if the economy improves dramatically and rapidly, it has to start from a dismally low base and an even lower public image.

Competence

The prospects, though modest enough, are of course a long way from the circumstances that will confront the new leader, starting today. Few indeed are the options open to Joan Burton, or any Labour leader. But they do exist.

No doubt she will do whatever is needful to prevent the Fine Gael-Labour coalition from coming to an untimely end. She will bring a fresh approach to the job of Tanaiste. At the same time, the Government reshuffle will give the coalition as a whole, one hopes, a greater appearance of liveliness and competence.

She has very little time at her disposal before the next general election. Still, she must find the time to look to the future as well.

She can redefine "core values". And she can start the search for the Ruairi Quinns, and the Ed Walshes, of the future.

Sadly, few people of their calibre wish to take any part in Irish politics. But Heaven knows, we need them.

James Downey

Irish Independent

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