| 6.7°C Dublin

Ireland needs a leader who'll play hardball

The modern, highly disciplined political party, whose members are rarely consulted but required to vote like automata on every substantive issue, is an Irish invention.

We owe it, as we owe much else, to the fertile political genius of Charles Stewart Parnell. The Irish Party under Parnell was, in Joseph Lee's words, "hammered and honed into a superb political instrument". In Britain and elsewhere, something like it soon replaced the loose confederations, largely composed of lackadaisical gentlemen, which had passed for political parties before its advent.

But there are signs that the Irish people have had enough of the party system. The polls predict a big surge in support for independents and if these are more than single-issue candidates, if they are genuinely independent-minded original thinkers who have some experience of the world and its affairs, then that is to be welcomed.

There has been practically no original thinking by any of the parties about the biggest problem that confronts us and the absence of original thinking may soon enough destroy us -- as a nation, certainly, as a people, possibly. Like First World War generals, our politicians batter their heads and are prepared to gamble an entire population on the narrowest and most unimaginative set of alternatives.

The first days of the campaign have clearly established the boundaries of their thinking and minor adjustments in interest rates as their principal concern.

The general impression is that they are either ignorant of the seriousness of our situation or, as Colm McCarthy suggested on RTE, are deliberately playing it down so that each one may appear as a party of hope and confidence.

Since the 1940s, I have seen many periods of depression come and go in Ireland. Indeed, it sometimes seemed to me over the years that Ireland was in a permanent state of depression, modified by much shorter periods of hope and expansion, economic and intellectual. There was real want, there was real misery and many tens of thousands who went, as I went myself, and never came back again.

But there was a difference between even the worst of those troughs and what we are undergoing now. The country itself had not been reduced to debt slavery, the population as a whole had not become indentured labour.

An upturn might come, if not through our own good fortune, then because of an international rising tide that would lift all boats.

However, that is not the case now when an indefinitely prolonged period of 'austerity' stretches before us. Our future has been decided for at least a decade, if not two. And it is apparently too impossibly bleak and narrow and constricted to contemplate.

In the depression under the Fine Gael/Labour coalition of the Eighties, there was much talk of Ireland becoming a third-world country. At the end of the period which can be clearly seen to lie before us, many third-world countries will have passed us out. We cannot survive as a modern western state through such a future and any political party which is not aware of this or does not say so should not be supported.

It isn't a matter of a half-point of interest here and a half-point there, it is a matter of survival as a distinctive national entity which enriches the international tapestry, rather than impoverishes it.

The parties should also be judged on their agreement or otherwise with what Gene Kerrigan said with his usual force and vigour in this paper last week -- this is not just an Irish crisis, it is a European crisis. And Europe must collectively do what is needed to solve it, however drastic and unorthodox and beyond the present imaginings of the grey men who speak for Europe on our television screens it may be.

The Irish people did not party their way along the primrose path into this present dreadful fix. True, a significant proportion lived as high as they could off whatever hog was being killed. We pay our Taoiseach more than David Cameron is paid by his country, we pay our higher civil servants more than Angela Merkel is paid. Payment for professional services of all kinds is grossly inflated.

The Labour Party evidently regards a salary of €100k as a modest one. But the principal factor in the boom years was to all intents and purposes a conspiracy between bankers. If Anglo Irish lent with terrifying recklessness to the local pyramid builders, others were lending with equally scarifying recklessness to it. And they all had the same motive -- the mutual hope of ever more dreamlike gain.

The ill-fated guarantee and all the evil consequences that flowed from it were given largely out of care and concern for the entire European system. Banks so heavily indebted to Europe as ours were could not be allowed to crash. We should make sure our favoured candidate has a grasp of this and will think and act accordingly.

Your candidate's party, if he or she belongs to one, should be prepared to be firm and even nasty with Europe in certain circumstances. When I attended meetings of the European Union, the Irish smiled their way to whatever concessions they got. Their contributions were looked forward to as being somewhat poetic, often charming and a little eccentric.

But the politician with whom we began, Charles Stewart Parnell, a tough, dour Irish Protestant aristocrat who cared very little for anyone's opinion of him, had an entirely different tactic. When he felt that the Irish question was not getting sufficient attention in the British parliament, no other problems would be, as far as possible, considered.

He would fill the time of the House filibustering with readings from Blue Books and White Papers. His lieutenants would keep it in session for long periods with maunderings of little relevance.

We are ideally placed to use analogous tactics in Europe. We have hitherto gone out of our way to make sure the European establishment likes us. We held two referenda in defiance of democracy when the people had already given clear answers to the question.

No constitutional changes or amendments should be passed in future until Europe convenes a full summit to discuss the debt question for as long as it takes to come up with solutions that would make it humanly possibly for us -- and those other nations in the same boat -- to live with it and to repay what is just and equitable to repay over a proper length of time. Until then, we must be judiciously unco-operative in all other matters.

The forthcoming summit in Brussels is not designed to achieve this end. Rather, it is rather an exercise in Europe's favourite pastime of locking the stable door after the horse has gone.

But Mr Kenny or whoever else we send should make it clear that the smiling now has to stop. And it is our job as an electorate to make sure this will be the attitude of the once so-obliging Irish.

Sunday Independent