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The Greens can't be moral innocents


DEALING WITH REALPOLITIK: Trevor Sargent on his way to last week's party conference which endorsed entry into government. Photo: Steve Humphreys

DEALING WITH REALPOLITIK: Trevor Sargent on his way to last week's party conference which endorsed entry into government. Photo: Steve Humphreys

DEALING WITH REALPOLITIK: Trevor Sargent on his way to last week's party conference which endorsed entry into government. Photo: Steve Humphreys

LAST week Vincent Browne began his column in the Sunday Business Post with the following premature prediction: "It was blindingly obvious. There could never have been a deal between Fianna Fail and the Greens. However much they protest, Fianna Fail never wanted them."

Four days later, Trevor Sargent was making ridiculous republican jibes at Richard Bruton from the Government benches.

But I am not going to gloat at Vincent Browne. Indeed, I was of the same opinion until last Sunday night when I changed my mind after watching Seamus Brennan mesmerising Dan Boyle on Sean O'Rourke's Sunday Show - much as he must have mesmerised the Green negotiators (in every sense of the phrase) during the long, hot talks.

Again, I am not going to gloat over the Greens' gaucheness. Because I believe Brennan's lessons on realpolitik will not be lost on the Greens in time to come. No, my real interest is in the rest of Browne's column, which is well-written argument against compromising political principles.

Like most media people on the left - and most media people are on the left - Browne seems to believe that people who stand by theirpolitical principles to the bitter end are morally superior to people who compromise some of their principles in order to achieve some of their principles. And that is an assumption with which I want to argue.

As an assumption, it would have astonished Aristotle, who pretty much laid down the foundations of Western political theory in three great works, Politics, Ethics and Rhetoric. And what binds these three books together is Aristotle's belief in the doctrine of the golden mean.

Aristotle argues that moral agents, particularly politicians, must avoid adopting extreme positions, and must always subordinate their personal principles to the common good. People who are moral innocents see no need for such compromises. Accordingly, Aristotle has no high regard for moral innocents in politics.

A child is the perfect example of a moral innocent. It will innocently insists on implementing his own agenda at all costs. But a moral adult, who is not a moral innocent like a child, cannot insist that everybody else give him exactly what he wants.

Accordingly, a politician who wants to act morally in politics - by making necessary compromises - cannot afford to be a moral innocent. This paradox means that for Aristotle, persons in a state of moral innocence are not likely to make good political decisions. And how could they? After all, they have never allowed themselves to learn the lessons which - as Karl Popper later argued - can literally only be learned by making mistakes. As Aristotle argues, political character is formed from constantly choosing between fraught paths.

At best, because they never run the risk of making a mistake, political innocents cannot fully form their character as moral agents. At worst, moral innocents with inflexible political principles are usually either political fools or political fanatics.

On a benign day, political innocents present themselves in selfish forms such as the preening pacifists of World War II, who, as Orwell bitterly observed, could dine out on their comfortable principles only because others were dying to protect them. On abad day, they come in the guise of IRA godfathers like Sean MacStiofain who smugly never gave up the republican principles which cost Bel-fast mother Jean McConville her life.

Aristotle's sceptical approach to political innocence arises from his distrust of abstract principles separate from political action. For Aristotle, principles actually only come alive when they are experienced in action, as choices made by moral adults between conflicting claims. And compromise is the compulsory final clause. As Aristotle sees it, if we want to be good, we must practise making good choices. Hence his high regard for the actual practice of politics. And it is this practical experience which explains why Irish politicians were more in touch with the public than the Irish media in the matter of the Taoiseach's personal finances.

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Anyone watching Brian Hayes accurately analyse the Green Party's appetite for power on Questions & Answers knew they were hearing hard truths. No pundit would have the same feel for the parameters of practical politics. And, if you think about it, how could they?

Most Irish political pundits come from a middle class background, and have no real contact with a wide range of social classes as politicians do. That is why, when they talk about politics, they sound like children talking about sex. They use the right words, they know what goes into what, but they don't really understand the bitsbetween.

The most important bit is their failure to understand that a person who sticks to republicanism or socialism in face of the facts of history is simply a wilful moral child. By contrast, a moral adult is someone who, in a complex situation, comes up with a practical solution whichsits somewhere between his own beliefs and the needs of society.

By that standard, the Greens have acted like moral adults. And like many people, I have a higher regard for the party since it did the dealwith Fianna Fail than I did before. For me, and I suspect for the general public, a good Green party is not a party which sticks to its principles, but a party which sticks to its compromises.

And I do mean stick. With the PD precedent, in mind the Greens should never wag the forefinger unless they mean to pull the trigger. And if they were smart, they would stick that finger in their pocket for the next five years. Because they have much to learn. The biggest lesson is that the secret of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael's success lies in them being forgiving parties. Like Aristotle, the Irish people have little time for moral innocents - or moral prigs.

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