Sunday 17 February 2019

John-Paul McCarthy: Grand FF/FG merger would harm politics

Our Civil War heritage can be ugly and divisive, but it may be case of better the devil we know, writes John-Paul McCarthy

MARY O'ROURKE: Call for big-tent politics was unconvincing
MARY O'ROURKE: Call for big-tent politics was unconvincing

John-Paul McCarthy

ONE way to look at the kind of historical writing we have produced here since independence is to see it as a search for the cursed apple.

When did that dysfunctional element in our national life first enter the bloodstream? And who saddled us with all that poverty, priestcraft and self-pity?

Some looked east to Britain and saw a bleak shade that fell on the sunshine of our hopes since the time of the Crusades.

Breandan O Buachalla gave this paranoid thesis a sophisticated literary twist in the Nineties in his book on Jacobite poetry that ended with him pleading with readers to remember that Britain was the original "stat seicteach" (sectarian state).

Others turned that school of thought back on itself and looked to Germany for help in pinning the blame on Rome, rather than London.

Max Weber wrote about "the psychology of faith" in his book on the link between religion and economics, and found that Catholics by and large made for good shopkeepers but poor investors.

Tom Garvin reworked this theme brilliantly in Preventing the Future; Why was Ireland so poor for so long? – making the case that Irish Catholicism was in some important respects not just anti-economic, but pre-economic. The damage this caused was incalculable.

Other people then looked for a more hard-headed diagnosis, and bypassing old-school Anglophobics and the posh Weberians, they focused on the party system.

We never really had a chance, they said, because of the way the old Sinn Fein monopoly was perpetuated by Fianna Fail and Fine Gael.

Like Jacob and Esau, the warring progeny of Rebekah, the quarrel between these two factions was said to have distorted the rhythms of our polity for almost a century.

The high point of this critique was provided by President Mary Robinson in her inaugural address in Dublin Castle in 1990 when she turned her formidable rhetorical guns against "the faded flags of the Civil War", and left them in ribbons by the end.

The former Fianna Fail minister Mary O'Rourke added another paragraph to this critique last week when she told the William Carleton Summer School that the warring siblings of 1922 should consider coalition.

Those who are sensitive to life's ironies will no doubt take note of the venue that facilitated Mary O'Rourke's lecture on rapprochement.

Few Irishmen of his time knew the silent cleavages that rend our national life better than William Carleton. An expert on the faction-fight, the smuggler's lot and the sectarian geography of the west, Carleton considered the way formal similarities hid fairly profound fissures.

And this is the first problem that needs to be registered in the debate about Fianna Fail and Fine Gael.

On certain issues, they sound very alike. Jack Lynch could sound an awful lot like Garret FitzGerald when discussing the Anglo-Irish Agreement, for example.

But it's not really convincing to dismiss both parties as mere echoes of each other.

As Tom Garvin cautioned, "the division between these two parties actually reflects a profound distinction in Irish society, a distinction between those who, for class, cultural or other reasons, assume a natural affinity between Ireland and Britain and those who do not, or would rather such an affinity did not exist".

That British wedge is still with us even if it has changed shape since 1998. And 2016 will bring it back into focus.

The other major problem with the "let's-put-an-end-to-Civil-War-politics" chorus is that it risks saddling us with an ANC-style monopoly.

Anyone who knows the work of the South African critic RW Johnson will see the perils of big-tent politics.

A Fianna Fail-Fine Gael cabinet would be a lot like an ANC one, given the size of the majorities it could bank on for term after term.

The problems that this can cause are spelt out in jaw-dropping detail in Johnson's South Africa's Brave New World: The Beloved Country since the end of Apartheid (London, 2009).

Single-party dominance there has added an ugly and intolerant Tammany Hall dimension to their parliament, the entity that elects the president, and the country's multiple and extravagant corruption scandals read today like the stuff of the Harding Administration.

The ANC's dominance of parliament and executive has put huge pressure on the only part of the system that has shown the ability to punch back, namely the Constitutional Court in Johannesburg, which unofficially assumes the mantle of the opposition in areas like the AIDS epidemic, housing provision and the structure of the police.

That said, all 11 judges of this court are nominated by the ANC president and justice minister, so their freedom to manoeuvre is circumscribed.

None of this looks very appetising, but it would be coming our way in short order if Fianna Fail and Fine Gael coalesced.

Suddenly, our Civil War wounds don't look quite so ugly anymore.

Sunday Independent

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