Tuesday 27 September 2011

Ireland: Presidential Election 2011 - a state of the nation address

The controversy that has arisen from the nomination of Martin McGuinness, as the Sinn Féin candidate in the forthcoming presidential election, contains historical parallels that a student of Irish history will instantly recognise - almost like deja-vu in fact.

The opening shots (if that is not too loaded a phrase) were fired by Fine Gael's Alan Shatter, who is also the current Minister for Justice, quickly followed by his party's own candidate for the presidency, Gay Mitchell. Shatter questioned the Sinn Féin's candidate 'suitability' commenting:
That party's failure and his failure in particular to embrace the queen's visit which took place four months ago ... indicates that he isn't an appropriate person to be our president. - see RTÉ News [our italics]

Shatter's affectionate use of the definite article (she's just not any old queen!) in deference to the head of state of a foreign country is of course highly suggestive of his background and political leanings. It's probably a moot point to ask whether such a display is suitable for a government official making a public statement.

'Failure to embrace' the official visit of Queen Elizabeth II of England (first of Scotland) was not the exclusive domain of Martin McGuinness, or even Sinn Féin, in any case. It is fair to say that the overwhelming public reaction was one of indifference, mingled with dismay at the heavy-handed security presence foisted upon the country during her stay. Presumably too, it would have been Alan Shatter himself, in his capacity as Minister for Justice who would have been instrumental in sanctioning and authorising this.

More ominous soundings were issued by his party colleague and presidential candidate, Gay Mitchell however. He told RTÉ News:
I have spent my life defending this State, and I am not about to surrender it to people who will change it from the inside.

What does all this mean? What issues does it raise? In particular, the question arises: How far does he propose to go in his bid to prevent people from 'changing the state from the inside'? Does this not also illustrate the fact that if people are thwarted from changing things by the legitimate route (i.e. from the inside) they will seek (perhaps with justification) to use 'illegitimate' means?

While it is funny to observe the hysterical reactions that archaic mindsets can produce, there is a definite historical origin that is worth considering. Fine Gael are the political descendants of those who supported the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1922, defending it in the civil war which that treaty precipitated. Of all the political forces in Ireland, past and present, they have always taken to heart their self-appointed role as 'defenders of the realm' - more often than not with little or no notion of political irony, let alone a sense of humour to guide them.

It was their political grouping (then going under the name of Cumann na nGaedheal) which ran the Irish state for the first ten years or so after gaining independence. By 1926 however sections of the anti-treaty forces re-grouped under a new political formation that adopted the name Fianna Fáil. Almost immediately they began to mount a serious electoral challenge to the existing government. According the the Fianna Fáil website, the party's constitution and aims laid down at the first Ard Fheis pledged:
  1. To secure the unity and independence of Ireland as a Republic.
  2. To restore the Irish language as the spoken language of the people, and to develop a distinctive national life in accordance with Irish traditions and ideals.
  3. To make the resources and wealth of Ireland subservient to the needs and welfare of all the people of Ireland.
  4. To make Ireland, as far as possible, economically self-contained and self-sufficing.
  5. To establish as many families as practicable on the land.
  6. By suitable distribution of power to promote the ruralisation of industries essential to the lives of the people as opposed to their concentration in cities.
  7. To carry out the Democratic Programme of the First Dáil.

While the new party grew fast, this growth was somewhat hampered by its abstentionist policy in relation to Dáil Éireann. Fianna Fáil's opposition to Dáil Éireann stemmed mainly from Article 17 of the 1922 Constitution which read:
I (name) do solemnly swear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution of the Irish Free State as by law established, and that I will be faithful to H.M. King George V, his heirs and successors by law in virtue of the common citizenship of Ireland with Great Britain and her adherence to and membership of the group of nations forming the British Commonwealth of nations. - see Wikipedia

This oath was a requirement for duly elected TDs to be able to take their seats. In 1927, following the assassination of Kevin O'Higgins, the Cumann na nGaedheal government, under W.T. Cosgrave, introduced a series of repressive measures which were widely unpopular. They also introduced a law requiring all Dáil candidates to promise that they would take the oath in order to contest Dáil elections. It can be seen therefore that Alan Shatter is not the first Irish political leader, who has attempted to make subservience to a foreign monarch a 'suitability criterion' for those seeking public office, even within the framework of a supposedly independent and republian-oriented Irish state.

Faced with the options, Fianna Fáil took a pragmatic decision to take the oath (they said that they were doing no more than 'signing a piece of paper'). In any case, the actions of the Cumann na nGaedhael government may well be regarded as a blessing in disguise for Fianna Fáil. By 1932 they were the largest part in Dáil Éireann and in a position to form a government. On 9 March 1932 the first change of government in the Irish Free State took place. Wikipedia provides all the important information as to what happened before, during and after this important transition.

In the election that propelled Fianna Fáil to power, the outgoing administration used what could be described as generally negative tactics; even attempting to foment a red scare which probably backfired. Also during the campaign The Irish Press newspaper was prosecuted; its editor convicted before a military tribunal "for publishing articles alleging Gardaí had mistreated the opponents (i.e. Anti-Treaty republicans) of the Irish Free State government." (see Wikipedia)

All this gave rise to a feeling that the outgoing government would attempt to thwart the democratic wishes of the Irish people. This was the 1930s after all, a time when coup d'état were enjoying a certain currency as the preferred means for thwarting the popular will. It is widely believed that many of the deputies who arrived at Dáil Éireann on 9 March, 1932 to take their seats, entered the chambers carrying guns concealed about their clothing.
However, the feared coup d'état did not take place. W.T. Cosgrave was determined to adhere to the principles of democracy that he had practised while in government. Likewise, the army, Garda Síochána and the civil service all accepted the change of government, despite the fact that they would now be taking orders from men who had been their enemies less than ten years previously. After a brief and uneventful meeting in the Dáil chamber, Éamon de Valera was appointed President of the Executive Council of the Irish Free State by the Governor-General, James McNeill, who had come to Leinster House to make the appointment rather than require de Valera travel to the Viceregal Lodge, formerly a symbol of British rule. - see Wikipedia

Whether or not this outcome was solely due to wise and far-sighted leadership of W.T. Cosgrave, or whether a secret deal was struck, history does not seem to record. But given the comparatively seamless transition, it seems entirely likely that something of the sort did take place. It would be strange if it didn't.

For Cumann na nGaedhael (soon to become Fine Gael) this would be the beginning of sixteen years in opposition. It is possible however, that from their perspective this too amounted to a blessing in disguise. A bit like Margaret Thatcher's famous remark that her greatest legacy was New Labour, for Fine Gael also, their adversaries enjoyed the popular appeal and grassroots support that they lacked. The irony of this situation became all the more apparent when Fianna Fáil, by taking advantage of the abdication crisis, began a process that appeared to be implementing what Michael Collins had proposed in using the treaty as a stepping stone to freedom.

In the period of almost 80 years that ensued, Fine Gael returned to government on only six occasions (a total of about 20 years) and on no occasion did they manage to achieve re-election having served a period in government. They became accustomed to the role of official opposition and occasional seat-warmers, forming stop-gap administrations whenever Fianna Fáil were suffering from periodic bouts of internal division and/or public unpopularity.

The party's relationship with Fianna Fáil was best articulated by Alan Dukes in a speech in 1987, which came to be known as The Tallaght Strategy. As leader of Fine Gael he publicly undertook not to 'oppose for the sake of opposing', but to support Fianna Fáil administrations when they were taking actions his party deemed to be in the national interest:
When the Government is moving in the right direction, I will not oppose the central thrust of its policy. If it is going in the right direction, I do not believe that it should be deviated from its course, or tripped up on macro-economic issues. - see Wikipedia

Whether formally declared or not, this strategy was adhered to by Fine Gael in opposition right up to the present, including almost 14 years of Fianna Fáil government (1997-2011) that for a time coincided with a period of rapid economic growth, only to be followed very quickly by a disastrous economic downturn.

In 2008 the global financial crisis struck leaving the Irish state reeling. The unthinkable had happened. In the 2011 General Election the blame game resulted in Fianna Fáil being decimated at the polls. Fine Gael were returned to power but on this occasion it was far from being a blessing in disguise. No more than Lee Harvey Oswald, it wasn't like Fianna Fáil had acted alone.

Upon taking up office Fine Gael and their Labour coalition partners pretty much took up exactly where Fianna Fáil had left off; bowing to the dictates of the ECB-IMF bailouts and proceeding with unpopular bailouts of failed banking institutions. Of course all of this is at odds with an uncharacteristically colourful statement, made while in opposition by leading Fine Gael spokesperson and current government minister, Leo Varadkar, when he accused senior bankers of causing more damage to the state than the IRA, calling for their criminal prosecution. (see Irish Independent, 5/12/10 - Brace Yourself for Adams in the Aras)

It could be just anger at their own capitulation that is prompting the latest virulent outbursts from Fine Gael, which on a superficial level appear to be directed at Sinn Féin, but could have wider targets in sight. But further appraisal would suggest that there is more to it than that. Fine Gael today are in the position where the chalice they passed to Fianna Fáil in 1932 has been returned to them. It is now a poisoned one but they seem to feel that they have no option but to drink from it. They also expect the rest of the country to follow suit. Hence the none-too-subtle inference in Gay Mitchell's statement that loyalty and fealty to the state is an absolute requirement and not conditional upon the state upholding and vigorously defending the interests of the people.

Back in May the economist Morgan Kelly, gave his prediction, in a widely debated article, as to the likely outcome of the course that the present government is following:
Just as the Lenihan bailout destroyed Fianna Fáil, so the Noonan bankruptcy will destroy Fine Gael and Labour, leaving them as reviled and mistrusted as their predecessors. And that will leave Ireland in the interesting situation where the economic crisis has chewed up and spat out all of the State’s constitutional parties. The last election was reassuringly dull and predictable but the next, after the trauma and chaos of the bankruptcy, will be anything but. - see The Irish Times, 7/5/2011

Fine Gael might not even have the luxury of forming a stop-gap administration, until such time as Fianna Fáil is back on its feet and ready to resume the helm. One of the things that this presidential election campaign is strongly hinting at, is that Fianna Fáil's decline may be terminable. For what must be the first time ever, that party failed to field a candidate or even to nominate an independent. In fact mere debate on the issue unearthed deep divisions within the parliamentary party, regardless that their numbers these days are small enough to convene a gathering in a telephone booth.

Another notable outcome of the 2011 election was the electoral breakthrough experienced by Sinn Féin, certain left-wing parties and groupings, together with non-party independents. It is clear as day that a major political realignment is on the cards - one based on the notion of competing aspirations rather than the stage-managed punch and judy affairs served up by Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael over the years. While the political forces are currently fragmented, it is likely that they the pace of events will galvanise them into action. It is also quite likely that a central if not core objective of this new political force will be the repudiation of the ECB/IMF dictate. There will be no cloak with which to mask such a deep and fundamental division.

So Fine Gael are in a situation roughly similar to that which they found themselves in 1932: facing the possibility of being politically eclipsed; the probability that they are going to have to hand over the reigns of power; not at all certain that on this occasion they will be able to find a 'suitable' successor.

In desperation they are trying to rally forces by calling for a joyful rendition of God Save the Queen. But just as in the past, if that is really what they want on this occasion they are going to have to find some way to impose their will upon the country at large. In the world of today it is the institutions of finance capital that are King - faceless entities that have the power to make or break nations. There is nothing that even her majesty, the queen of England could do to stand in the way of such forces, even if she were minded too.

So whither Ireland and whither Fine Gael? That party has witnessed transitions before but how will they react to it on this occasion? Will they listen to and accept the democratic verdict of the Irish people or will they attempt to do what W.T. Cosgrave declined to do in 1932?

Copyright © Oscar Ó Dúgáin, 2011

Reference Material:

Belfast Telegraph, 23/9/11 - Gay Byrne attacks McGuinness in TV rant
The Irish Times, 23/9/11 - Only Norris can stop McGuinness becoming president
The Irish Times, 24/9/11 - Fine Gael attack McGuinness
RTÉ News - Áras race heats up as FG criticises McGuinness
Irish Independent, 5/12/10 - Brace Yourself for Adams in the Aras
Fianna Fáil website - Eamon de Valera. See also article on History of Fianna Fáil
Wikipedia - Irish General Election 1932. See also Oath of Allegiance, The Irish Press and Tallaght Strategy


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