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Why the woeful ingenuity in our DNA keeps us off the streets

IWONDER if I was the only person who detected a slight hint of regret in Dan O'Brien's recent dilation in the Irish Times on the roots of Irish political lassitude?

O'Brien has been in many ways the clarion voice in these troubled times, offering sober and sensible analysis of the various economic options that present themselves to this compound republic as it recasts its vital partnerships. He seemed to wobble slightly last week though in suggesting that Hibernia's aversion to Greek-style austerity politics was peculiar or even wondrous. Where one man sees lassitude, another may detect traces of a much scorned maturity.

O'Brien's analysis reminded me of something written by another O'Brien on the same general theme many moons ago. In one of the more chilling passages in States of Ireland, Conor Cruise O'Brien recalled a conversation with his wife in the hours after the burning of the British Embassy in Dublin after the Bloody Sunday shootings in Derry in 1972.

Conor saw Yeats' rough beast at work and asked his wife -- an Irish-speaking daughter of a Fianna Fail titan -- whether the country was drifting towards another 1916 political degringolade. Were the Irish people, he asked her plaintively, about to go berserk?

Maire Mhac an tSaoi dealt briskly with her husband's terrors, and told him a thing or two about the Irish people's sense of proportion.

"She warned me," Conor wrote, "not to exaggerate the post-Derry response. It wasn't a '1916' swing. The grief and shock were genuine . . . but by now the IRA had overreached themselves. People were afraid of lawless violence coming down here. They knew the burning of the Embassy would have to be paid for, in terms of jobs and trade and tourists, and they were not in any such mood as would induce them to accept sacrifices."

There is probably some similar psychology at work at the moment in Ireland.

Anger has warped the national debate for long enough and a majority of the electorate seem unwilling to put their faith in left-wing parties who think that economic recovery can be guaranteed by haranguing the ECB that continues to float our banks.

O'Brien's colleague Fintan O'Toole wrote a column last week where he seemed to admit that he is baffled by the Irish electorate's refusal to risk an anti-Brussels government. He seemed as much at a loss to understand their motives as Joseph was when asked to decipher the dreams of Pharaoh.

He might be tempted to emphasise national passivity like O'Brien, who made some insightful arguments about the cretinising effect of High

Tridentine Catholicism, though his piece lacked the analytical brio of Tom Garvin's book, Preventing the Future: Why Was Ireland So Poor For So Long?

But both O'Toole and O'Brien miss an important historical issue here, namely the fact that Ireland has one of the longest democratic political traditions in the western world and that, as such, it will take more than a few Gerry Adams posters to force us on to the streets.

They see passivity where many scholars see what our peasant Chaucer, William Carleton, called "woeful ingenuity". Carleton was referring here to the cunning and flexibility of the peasant mind, character traits that sustained this class through the Penal Laws and that actually allowed them some form of modest prosperity after the Famine.

Woeful ingenuity did not look kindly on spontaneous protests or "direct action". We might even say that this aversion to self-indulgence is in the DNA of Irish democracy.

We must remember Daniel O'Connell held the attention of almost three quarters of a million semi-literate agricultural serfs during a monster meeting at Tara in 1843 without a single shot being fired.

Parnell was personally traumatised by the murder of the Chief Secretary in the Phoenix Park in 1882. And even old Fenians like PS O'Hegarty were revolted by Collins' assassination campaign against fellow Catholic police officers between 1919-21.

O'Hegarty emphasised the sense of isolation that Collins' men felt, and the way they turned this into an aura of moral superiority when faced with the fairly obvious fact that "the public conscience as a whole was never easy about" the type of sectarian tactics itemised by Dr Gerard Murphy in his book The Year of Disappearances.

O'Brien suggested external stupefaction when confronted with contemporary Irish passivity. Several older observers, though, saw Irish froideur in terms of democratic poise and maturity.

Georges Sorel, a French expert on the theory behind general strikes, wrote wistfully in Reflections on Violence (1908) about extraordinary discipline inherent in Parnell's calibrated extortion campaign during the Land War. And the American essayist Henry Adams wrote in open-mouthed admiration of Clan-na-Gael's manipulation of the US Senate -- "the original mistake of the Constitution" -- in the 1870s through sundry tactics, not all of which involved dynamite and pikes.

And this feel for what Oliver MacDonagh once called the "diastole and systole" of the democratic process was on display a full 50 years before we acquired our own senate to debauch.

Maybe it's appropriate this election weekend to raise a glass to old Carleton's woeful ingenuity, and ask the political fates to encourage our new Taoiseach to nurse its venerable age, and with lenient arts extend it a parent's breath.

JP McCarthy recently completed a doctorate in Irish history at Oxford

Sunday Independent