Home Rule hoo-ha provides handy distraction from home truths
Eamon O'Cuiv makes an unlikely Rose of Tralee contestant. When he holds forth about Ireland's role in the international arena, however, Fianna Fail's agriculture spokesman sounds like a dead ringer for a hardass Texan broad attempting to impress Daithi O'Se with her twin jewels: dewy-eyed idealism about global affairs and deft mastery of Oirish blarney.
"Ireland's role should be as a beacon of peace and reconciliation in the world," O'Cuiv trilled last week, in a textbook demonstration of pious Paddywackery. It is unclear whether he can also play the harp or warble a Disney ditty to a standard worthy of O'Se's approval.
But the real irony of O'Cuiv's ditzy remarks was the context in which he made them. Eamon de Valera's grandson is just one of several political grandees who have been launching and sustaining heavy fire in an increasingly belligerent skirmish about the whys and wherefores of the Home Rule Bill, an act of British parliament passed a century ago which offered the prospect of self-government for Ireland within the United Kingdom.
Despite the academic nature of this dispute - a difference of historical opinion about an arcane legislative nicety from before the birth of the Irish state - it has aroused remarkable levels of noise and fury. Evidence of peace or reconciliation has been conspicuous by its absence.
The hostilities were triggered by John Bruton, the former Taoiseach and Fine Gael leader. Bruton is an unabashed cheerleader for the Home Rule Bill, and wants the 100th anniversary of its passing - on September 18th, 1914 - to be formally commemorated by government. Though the law never came into force, as its implementation was derailed by World War I, Bruton argues that the existence of such legislation on the statute books would, in time, have led to Irish independence. Therefore, he believes that both the Easter Rising and the War of Independence were "unnecessary".
For the self-appointed guardians of Irish republican history, Bruton's contention amounts to heresy. The inarguable rightness and righteousness of the gallant heroes of 1916 is a tale treated by many with something akin to the reverence with which creationists treat the Book of Genesis. For would-be patriotic purists to acknowledge that Bruton might have a point, they would have to re-examine some of their most cherished certainties - and that was never likely to happen. Denouncing the messenger on social media is much easier.
The torrent of scorn which has been directed at Bruton is grotesque. Whatever one thinks of his views, he is perfectly entitled to voice them. In many ways, he is doing what leaders should do at times like this: encourage debate.
Thanks to an accident of the calendar, an odd twist of dates, we are moving ever-deeper into a period in which notable centenaries abound with dizzying frequency. Most of the events on the commemorative itinerary were of a magnitude that clearly merits remembrance. In truth, however, there is an elaborate futility to much of the commemoration. Now that those who actually fought and suffered in these tumultuous happenings are all dead, "remembering" is no longer possible. All we can really do is ask questions. Everything else is showbiz.
Against this backdrop, the reaction of many in Fianna Fail to Bruton's musings has been shamefully overheated. Instinctively, spokespeople for the so-called 'republican party' have attempted to use the former Taoiseach's intervention as a cudgel with which to beat the government.
In fairness, O'Cuiv has been among the more measured Fianna Fail contributors to the hullabaloo - 'measured' being a relative term. O'Cuiv described Bruton's argument as "delusional". He also wrote a newspaper article in which he questioned Bruton's motives for talking up the Home Rule Bill at this particular juncture.
"Politicians often use historical events for current purposes," insisted O'Cuiv; a memo from Mr Pot to Mr Kettle. The Fianna Fail stalwart also sought to reframe his disagreement with Bruton as an argument between Europhiles and Eurosceptics, a stand-off in which the issue of Ireland's military neutrality looms large. It was in this context that a terrible beauty pageant was born as O'Cuiv began rhapsodising about the nation's "role" as a beacon of world peace, love and harmony.
Ultimately, of course, the real cause of all this historical posturing is Sinn Fein. There is mounting fear within Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and Labour that the Shinners are on the brink of a major electoral breakthrough. But, while the hoo-ha over Home Rule might facilitate a useful challenge to republican claptrap, it also provides an all too convenient distraction from another uncomfortable home truth: the real reason for Sinn Fein's rising popularity stems from widespread and entirely justified disenchantment with all the other parties.
If nothing else, however, the bickering of the past week shows that many of our politicians are due an apology. For decades, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael were accused of engaging in a backward, provincial and hopelessly outdated squabble known as Civil War Politics. We now know better: their backward, provincial and hopelessly outdated squabble is actually Home Rule Politics.
What-if history is no doubt a diverting parlour game for political obsessives with little else to worry them, but it holds neither relevance nor appeal for the majority of citizens who have enough on their plate with the more pressing question of what now?