A Chance for the Irish Right

John Horgan

  • The Irish Labour Party in Transition 1957-82 by Michael Gallagher
    Manchester, 326 pp, £19.50, January 1983, ISBN 0 7190 0866 2

The exploration of contemporary Irish politics is an exercise to be undertaken as gingerly as an afternoon stroll in the neighbourhood of Port Stanley, which is perhaps why relatively few political scientists have attempted it with any degree of confidence. Many of the things that happen, and many of the attitudes expressed, simply do not fit comfortably – or in some cases at all – into traditional categories of political analysis: no wonder the authors of one 1976 study quoted by Michael Gallagher in this valuable book described Ireland as a ‘persistent deviant case’: i.e. they could not understand it. A few concrete examples from recent events may help to confuse the issue even further.

Item: a government whose leader is pledged to a ‘constitutional crusade’ to make the Republic’s. Constitution more acceptable to Northern Unionists is simultaneously promoting a constitutional amendment on abortion which has been rejected by all Northern Unionist and all Irish Protestant leaders as sectarian.

Item: the same government repeats its conviction that Irish unity can come about only with the consent of the Northern Unionist majority, while at the same time its Foreign Minister asks threateningly: ‘How long more will one million people be allowed to impede not only the reconciliation of five million people on this island but the development of normal relations between the 58 millions who live on both these islands?’

Item: a country which has one of the highest inflation rates, one of the highest unemployment rates and one of the heaviest current budget deficits in Europe has already committed over £8 million to building an airport for long-haul jets at a Marian shrine on an isolated hilltop in Co. Mayo.

Item: a country with one of the biggest public sectors (relatively speaking) and the most strongly unionised work-force in Europe shows declining electoral support for the Labour Party; and four voters out of five support one or other of two Centrist parties whose ideological differences are negligible if not actually non-existent.

Item: the largest political party, led by one of the most unpopular leaders in its entire history, riven by scandals and internal dissensions (including two failed leadership coups), still amasses 45 per cent of the vote at a general election and is only narrowly thrust into opposition.

Just because Ireland does not happen to fit any of the standard European models does not mean that it cannot be analysed. In a sense, the very geographical location of the country within Europe may blind many analysts to several other aspects of its economic and political history. In some respects at least, Irish politics are more akin to African politics than to those of Europe. Morocco is the closest country to us, with a parliament whose political composition mirrors our own, and with two very large monarchist parties (one composed, paradoxically, of ‘independents’), both swearing allegiance to King Hassan, and a tiny socialist party on the fringe of political life. Elsewhere in Africa you will find, without searching too hard, countries in which national liberation continues – long after it has been achieved – to provide the chief focus for political activity, usually compounded by clientilism, tribalism and nepotism. There are other important economic and social common features, all subsumed under the general heading of underdevelopment: a weak currency, remoteness from markets, an apparently irrepressible birth-rate, poor infrastructure, gross disparities in living standards – one could go on. The point is not to draw facile comparisons, but to try and show how economic underdevelopment and nationalist ideology still dominate Irish political culture in ways which European socialists find hard to understand, or optimistically misinterpret as evidence that Ireland is ripe for revolution.

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