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.

The Government’s current proposal for a forum for a new Ireland is a determined move back to the 1940s, when anti-partitionism, coupled with financial support for the Northern Nationalists, was the order of the day. The 1983 version is more subtle: after all, who could possibly object to a forum open to all democratic political parties, North and South? It may appeal to people in Britain who would like to see Northern Ireland off their hands in the shortest possible space of time, and without bloodshed. It has delighted the SDLP, whose very raison d’être has been vanishing, since the Assembly election, as inexorably as the Cheshire Cat. It has been greeted with studied indifference by the vast mass of the population of the Republic: only the punters among them will bother to watch the footwork as Mr Haughey and Dr FitzGerald each attempts to establish his nationalist credentials at the expense of the other. It is a godsend to Northern Unionists of all shades of opinion, in that it has given them tangible evidence (and on the eve of a Westminster election at that) of the perfidy of Dublin and the disloyalty of their own resident minority. For all these reasons, it is doomed.

Northern policy is always a seductive option for a Dublin government. Since it can never be implemented, it can never be proved either right or wrong. In the strict sense of the word, therefore, it is not a policy at all, but a collection of rhetorical flourishes, platitudes, aspirations and nostrums designed to evoke a reaction in a Southern electorate rather than to have any palpable effect on the conduct of affairs elsewhere. Standing back from them, indeed, it is difficult to see why any Northern Unionist should be terrified or why any Northern Nationalist should feel encouraged by them. And yet the passions the topic evokes are quite real. The Irish Labour Party, as Mr Gallagher points out, has been more honest than the other parties in that it has at least aired its internal policy differences on the North in public – a process assisted, as he sagely remarks, by the fact that for a considerable time its Northern spokesman, Conor Cruise O’Brien, occupied one end of the spectrum of opinion rather than the centre. An interesting contrast with Britain is that the more militant, ‘Brits Out’ type of sentiment is associated, in the Irish Labour Party, more with deep-rooted conservatism on social and economic issues than with anything else. The Left of the party finds itself, generally, embarrassed by the simplistic solutions beloved of the Left of the British Labour Party, but unfortunately lacks anything very credible to put in their place. There are occasional flights of millennial fancy about the imminent unity of the Northern working class, but that is about all.

The basic unreality of Northern policy has been underlined, as never before, by the controversy about the proposed amendment to the Constitution on the question of abortion. Just before the first General Election of 1981, a small pressure group sought – and somewhat to their own surprise, it is thought, obtained – a commitment from both the major parties to introduce legislation for a referendum. The subject-matter of this referendum was to be a clause which, if inserted in the Constitution, would not only reinforce the present very stringent legislation on abortion but would make it impossible for the Irish Supreme Court to declare that legislation an infringement of constitutionally-guaranteed personal rights. The sponsors of this latter-day piece of moral rearmament were apparently afraid that an almost wholly Catholic Irish Supreme Court would, following a US precedent, unleash a flood of immorality on the land: an event about as likely as Mrs Thatcher inviting Danny Morrison for a weekend at Chequers. Mr Haughey’s government came up with a form of words which some legal experts now say would make abortion even easier; Dr FitzGerald has discarded Mr Haughey’s formula but has had difficulty in finding an alternative. The referendum, if and when it takes place, will not prevent or alter the decision by several thousand Irishwomen annually to take the boat to England to avail themselves of abortion services there. It will also cost the best part of a million pounds.

In this at least, the Labour Party, having secured agreement to a free vote, is on the side of the angels: with the women’s movement, some party spokesmen have formed the major focus of opposition to this Brobdingnagian adventure. But the force of the conservative consensus is such that almost half of the Labour Parliamentary Party members are likely to vote in favour of at least one of the formulae proposed. No one seriously doubts that the referendum, if put to the people, will be carried, probably by a margin of four to one. It has been condemned by all non-Roman church leaders, North and South. It makes a nonsense of Dr FitzGerald’s constitutional crusade, and indeed of Dublin’s Northern policy as a whole. But it provides a dramatic illustration of one of the reasons why the Left in Ireland is still a marginal political force.

Another reason, which is not sufficiently analysed by Mr Gallagher, but which may be of interest in the light of SDP/Liberal proposals in Britain, is related to the form of proportional representation under which elections are conducted in Ireland. It is generally assumed that the existence of PR has protected the parliamentary representation of minority parties like the Labour Party, and to a certain extent this is true. It could also be argued, however, that the price of survival has been continuing minority status. Large multimember constituencies force all public representatives (including Labour ones) into the centre of the political spectrum. Widespread clientilism and brokerage blur distinctions of an ideological nature between the parties. Parliamentarians compete most fiercely with each other not inside parliament, but outside, in providing (and frequently duplicating) non-ideological services to their constituents. Politics at national level becomes, in turn, a superheated localism. Parliamentary order papers are clogged with questions about the provision of telephone kiosks, delays in the payment of government grants, and the filling of potholes in country roads.

Brokerage systems such as this suit the larger political parties. With a greater number of brokers in their organisation, and with greater access, consequently, to the levers of power or to the ranks of the bureaucracy, they can make the system work more efficiently in their own interests. Yet this is the system which has been consistently defended by Labour. An alternative system (such as the Australian PR system, with single-seat constituencies) would undoubtedly carry the risk that Labour might not be one of the two parties which would survive: but it would arguably offer at least a chance of breaking the mould of Irish politics and bringing about a realignment on the basis of ideology rather than on that of old civil war divisions.

It is on the economy, however, that the conservative consensus dominating Irish politics is most apparent. It is, moreover, a conservatism that dares not speak its name. Mr Gallagher’s book is studded with revealing quotations indicating how the centre and right of Irish politics have neutralised the forms of debate common to most Western democracies by assuming control of the commanding heights of political diction. Thus a Fine Gael businessman and Government minister whose politics are demonstrably to the right of Sir Geoffrey Howe can describe himself as ‘a little left of centre’ and get away with it. An equally wealthy Fianna Fail parliamentarian can describe himself as a socialist without even incurring mild recriminations from his own colleagues. In Irish political discourse, the word ‘left’ has been cleverly appropriated by the Right, who use it as a synonym for adventurousness and initiative, stripping it in the process of all ideological content.

The circumstances of the last election provide stark evidence of the consensus on economic matters. The chief elements of that consensus – reduction in borrowing, fiscal rectitude, cuts in services and increased taxation – were proposed by the outgoing government and accepted, with only a few largely cosmetic changes, by the incoming one. The Labour Party, it is true, held the balance of power after that election, but this balance was tilted towards Fine Gael not just because of the greater popularity of Dr FitzGerald but also because Fianna Fail and Mr Haughey were not prepared to share power in a coalition government. This Hobson’s choice situation is hardly calculated to buttress the Labour Party’s claim to be an independent party. It will take, at the least, a steely nerve and probably even political bloodymindedness if the party is to maintain its identity in a conservative government during a period of recession such as we have at present.

One of the problems of being a minority party in this situation is that the clearer you make your policy in order to differentiate yourself from your conservative opponents, the less likely it becomes that you will have any chance to influence policy by participating in government. The Irish Labour Party has not really faced up to this dilemma, preferring to maintain the polite fiction that it is entering each election on exactly the same basis as the two major parties: that is to say, that it has an equally valid chance of securing an overall majority. Its policies, accordingly, tend to be framed in a political vacuum, in which the problems of policy implementation come a very poor second to concern about ideological purity. The more the policies are framed on the assumption of an overall Labour majority, the wider yawns the credibility gap in the eyes of the electorate. At the same time, the ever-present possibility that the party will actually enter a coalition government reduces its attractiveness to the protest vote which, although never very substantial, is nonetheless essential for a small radical party.

The future of the Labour Party in Ireland, and the development of normal politics (in the European tradition, that is), does not depend only on that party’s ability to formulate and articulate policies, but on a number of factors which are almost completely outside its control. One of these is the ability of each of the two major parties to contain within itself sharply contrasting and even conflicting interests. The old guard of Fine Gael, for example, distrust FitzGerald as leader, and tolerate him only because he presents an attractive image to a young and relatively sophisticated electorate. On economic policy, on tendentious questions such as abortion, divorce and contraception, that internal Fine Gael coalition is always under stress. Whether the stress will lead to rupture, it is too soon to say. Stresses also exist in Fianna Fail, but they are personality-based rather than policy-linked, except on the question of the North, and on the value of Mr Haughey’s hawkish approach to that problem. Either way, it is probably true to say that any spectacular electoral advance by the Labour Party will depend in the first instance on an equally spectacular own goal by one of its conservative rivals. Fianna Fail’s decision to confirm Haughey as its leader during the most recent convulsion to affect the party may yet prove to be such an own goal.

Autonomous changes are nonetheless taking place in Irish society as a whole which will undoubtedly increase the pressures. Only a minority of Irish Catholics, for example, now fully accept their Church’s prohibition on divorce and contraception. Even the ongoing discussion on abortion, which many people had assumed was hardly an issue, has revealed differences of opinion that run deeper than had been expected. Ireland is rapidly changing from a country with a traditional, rural ethos to a young, urban and technologically-oriented society in which the values and attitudes thought to be traditionally ‘Irish’ are increasingly questioned.

Fifteen years ago, in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, many people thought that the same trends were in evidence. Even sober political commentators, in the excitement of the 1969 General Election, thought it likely that Labour would secure an overall majority (in the event it came back with no net increase in the number of seats, and lost deposits all over the country). That excitement, however, was boosted by a steady period of economic growth. Today’s Northen policy, and the abortion refrerendum proposal, provide telling arguments to support the theory that in times of recession it is the Right, and not the Left, which is in a better position to capitalise on the general sense of frustration, deprivation and even despair. But it would be nice to be proved wrong.