Tuesday 17 September 2019

Sarah Carey: 'Corbyn could take a valuable lesson from Ireland's history'

Big heart - or big ego?: UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn visits a children's lunch club in Swansea, Wales yesterday. Photo: Jacob King/PA Wire
Big heart - or big ego?: UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn visits a children's lunch club in Swansea, Wales yesterday. Photo: Jacob King/PA Wire

Sarah Carey

This week I've been thinking about big political parties and big political egos. Big parties are great. Big egos are a disaster.

Big parties - preferably two - have been the basis of stable democracies for decades. They have two purposes; to form a government, and provide an alternative government. The latter isn't a glamorous job, but a democracy is defunct without it.

Alas, since they swapped power back and forth so comfortably, big parties across, Western democracies were equally culpable and therefore equally punished during and after the financial crisis. Western economies have recovered. Political parties have not.

In Ireland, we see how fragmentation or "new politics" has turned into awful politics as governance slows to a crawl. In the US, the Republican and Democratic parties have been devoured by their right and left wings respectively.

The result is Trump. The same thing has happened to Labour and the Conservatives in the UK. Hollowed out from the left and right, the result is Brexit. Dismantle big parties at your peril.

And so the problem is not the Tories. The problem is there is no alternative. I'm not saying Jeremy Corbyn is a terrible man and in the absence of Brexit, couldn't have made a decent prime minister. But the fact remains he is a Brexiteer, and therefore provides no alternative to the current psychosis.

In my more fantastical moments, and under the influence of television dramas, I wondered if sinister intelligence agencies might release "kompromat" - damning information that would compromise Corbyn so badly he'd have to go. But it appears that real life is not like the plot of 'The Bodyguard'. It's more 'Hamlet' than 'Richard III'. There'll be no political conspiracy leading to regime change.

Just this old fashioned socialist wringing his hands, failing to lead his country out of the quagmire and above all, failing to recognise his own limitations.

We are deep in Dunning-Kruger, the psychological phenomenon whereby the stupidest people are those who don't know the extent of their mediocrity.

So naturally, my thoughts turned to Richard Mulcahy, the man who didn't become Taoiseach. Unlike Corbyn, he was wise enough and humble enough to accept he was the wrong man at the wrong time.

And by accepting he was part of the problem, he demonstrated that actually he was the right man after all.

Mulcahy was a successful 1916 rebel; masterminding one of the few victories of the rebellion in Ashbourne, Co Meath. He was a Collins man; IRA chief of staff during the War of Independence and took the Treaty side in the Civil War.

As defence minister, he authorised the execution of IRA members captured with arms - 77 were executed. I'm not a great scholar of that period but am persuaded by those who argue the executions were necessary. But it created terrible bitterness after the war.

Mulcahy went on to become leader of Fine Gael, which struggled throughout the 1930s and 40s against the dominance of Fianna Fáil. By 1948 Fianna Fáil had been in power for 16 years and its ideologically driven economics had produced nothing but poverty.

In the election of that year, de Valera found himself six seats short of a majority. In the absence of two big parties, the alternative government comprised Fine Gael, four smaller parties including Labour and Clann na Poblachta and seven Independents - a hodge podge that makes today's "new politics" look borderline coherent. But the imperative to get Fianna Fáil out of government forced this rag-tag opposition to form a government.

There was just one problem. Seán MacBride, leader of Clann na Poblachta, son of Major John McBride and Maud Gonne, who fought on the anti-Treaty side, had never forgiven Mulcahy for the executions 25 years earlier.

Now, if Mulcahy had been a Corbyn, he'd have insisted he was the democratically elected leader of the main opposition party and perfectly entitled to become Taoiseach. He'd have railed that one man - MacBride - had no right to veto his candidacy. Which would have been technically correct. But being correct and right aren't often the same thing.

Getting Fianna Fáil out was the priority. His ego and entitlements were not.

I asked author and former senator Maurice Manning about what kind of man was Mulcahy. "He was an austere man with a clear sense of duty," Manning told me. "Once he realised he was an impediment, he didn't hesitate."

So Mulcahy stood aside and persuaded John A Costello to take his place as Taoiseach. It was an innovative government, which declared the Republic, repaired relations with the British and made James Dillon minister for agriculture, where he implemented vital new policies.

I wonder will anyone take Corbyn aside and tell him about Mulcahy? I'm sure it may be a bitter disappointment to him but in a fractured House of Commons that cannot agree on much, it's clear the mere prospect of Corbyn becoming prime minister is one of the factors nudging Britain towards the cliff.

Shakespeare understood history is driven not by events, but by character. Boris Johnson may be the laughing stock, but it could be Corbyn's big ego or brave heart that could decide our fate. Or will the British persist in ignoring Irish history and the wisdom of Irish politicians?

Irish Independent

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