Wednesday 12 December 2018

National pride rather than bleak vision has to drive Irish renewal

A nation can 'take back control', but then it must make the right choices for the way ahead, writes Ed Brophy

US President Donald Trump. Photo: Getty Images
US President Donald Trump. Photo: Getty Images

Ed Brophy

Of all the slogans of our turbulent age, none has been more potent than "take back control". That enticing message was enough to persuade a majority of British voters to quit the EU. It also took centre stage in Donald Trump's victorious US presidential campaign. After all, what else is building a wall but taking back control?

But translating the slogan into the reality of governing has proven altogether trickier. In Britain and the US, people now realise there is a price to pay for control - one that may ultimately outweigh any benefits. In Britain, both the Conservative government and Labour opposition are openly divided over the extent of control they wish to exert. The British government's own forecasts last week suggested that by leaving the single market in order to control immigration, the poorest regions of the UK - those most in favour of taking back control - would suffer the most economically.

Meanwhile, in the US, the physical limits at the Mexican frontier and China's growing economic power have made border and trade control far less workable in practice than in theory.

Control worked as a political message because it gave voters the illusion that there was an easy solution to the social and economic dislocation they have experienced in recent decades as globalisation took hold. It is no real surprise that the most tangible political reaction to this era of globalisation took place in the two countries that did the least to control or mitigate it.

Shortly after Peter Sutherland's recent untimely death, Fintan O'Toole wrote an ill-judged piece about his legacy, where he laid the blame for the populist counter-revolution that gave us Brexit and Trump squarely at the feet of Sutherland as 'father of globalisation'. In doing so, he missed the most salient point, which is that domestic political choices far outweigh global forces in determining the impact of globalisation. Those small northern European states that have actually taken control by investing wisely in housing and public services and improving living standards, as opposed to just talking about it, have managed globalisation in a way that has not provoked a populist reaction.

In contrast to the UK and the US, where a loss of control to external forces set populist uprisings in motion, populism Irish-style was triggered by a loss of sovereignty brought on by disastrous domestic policy choices. Rather than precipitating a 'democratic revolution', it asserted itself instead within the existing political system, in the replacement of Fianna Fail by Fine Gael in 2011 and Labour with Sinn Fein in 2016. Faced with an existential crisis, the durability of the system prevailed and enabled us to make the right choices. Burkean reform prevailed over Jacobean revolution.

It has taken a decade to get to a position where we can honestly say we are back in control of our national destiny again. Of course, membership of the eurozone constrains us, but getting things right on what matters to ordinary people - housing, public services and living standards - is entirely down to us. The choices we make next will reverberate for decades to come.

The last time a government presided over an economy as strong as today's, it made the wrong choices and we lost our sovereignty. Then, just as now, snake oil was in plentiful supply. Gerry Adams told the Troika to "get lost", singing from the same hymn sheet as the Brexiteers. In the wake of Brexit, he now embraces the same EU institutions he rejected for most of his political career with the zeal of a convert. And yet Vincent Browne frets that we have somehow treated Adams unfairly.

In determining our future path, we are still spooked by the lost decade bookended by Adams's repeated political incoherence. We are by nature 'loss averse', in that we fear losing something far more than we welcome the prospect of gaining something else. It is perfectly understandable that 'never again' is the rule of thumb for those who had to clean up the mess after we last lost control.

However, in politics, past is not necessarily prologue. When the Ceann Comhairle last week told Marc MacSharry to control himself during his fracas with the Healy-Raes, he may have unwittingly stumbled upon the leitmotif for our new political condition. We now have a range of options available to improve our society unimaginable to recent governments, but fear that we may not have the maturity to make the right choices. Instead, we must "control ourselves".

This tension is crystallised in the seemingly unconnected debates on the imminent capital plan and the forthcoming referendum on the Eighth Amendment. The media has come to a consensus that the success of the capital plan will be judged solely on the extent to which it makes 'hard choices' that annoy people in rural Ireland. By contrast, the emerging media narrative on the Eighth is that the political maturity demonstrated by the Oireachtas Committee and endorsed by both Micheal Martin and Leo Varadkar in proposing a new regime of abortion without restriction for up to 12 weeks is inimical to the prospects of repeal. The Government is told to make hard choices on national development but to eschew them when it comes to our most pressing social issue.

Fortune will ultimately favour the brave. Having spent the past decade in retrenchment, people want to take back control over their own lives and that of their communities. They are looking for a more expansive notion of our country's future than an overriding determination to avoid the mistakes of the past. However, this should not be mistaken as a desire for irresponsible largesse.

Instead, they seek a vision of personal and societal aspiration that enhances what is distinctively good about Irish life. The majority has no desire for a return to the 'greed is good' era of the Celtic Tiger or the hypocrisy of our 'Irish solution' on abortion. They wish, as the late American political philosopher Richard Rorty put it, to 'achieve our country'.

Achieving this Irish renewal must be the central political enterprise of the coming decade. At its heart should be a national pride that rejects the remorselessly bleak and miserabilist view so common among many of our gesture politicians and recently encapsulated in left critic Rory Hearne's caricature of "this failed Republic of corruption, inequality and continual crises".

Mainstream politics must confront and expose this tendency as both wrong and self-harming. It is wrong because in many respects we have become a more politically attractive and progressive country in recent decades. It is self-harming because this bleak vision ultimately undermines faith in the ability of politics to improve things.

Rorty believed that national pride is to countries what self-respect is to individuals, a necessary condition for self-improvement.

The politicians and parties that can best channel this pride and reflect the public thirst for renewal will dominate our politics in the crucial decade ahead.

Sunday Independent

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