Ireland: the challenge of failure

The Irish government’s request to the European Union and the International Monetary Fund for a financial bailout to rescue its broken economy reflects a far deeper decay in the country’s political culture and institutions. This is the very moment to begin to transform them, says Fintan O’Toole.
Fintan O’Toole
23 November 2010

The long-threatened arrival of the IMF bogeymen was a major loss for Ireland as a proud, independent nation. But this should not blind us to the opportunity to reinvent and restore our sovereignty.

On the News at One on 18 November, the RTÉ reporter Brian Dowling mentioned that one of his colleagues had called the department of finance that morning to ask where the talks between Irish officials and representatives of the European Union and the International Monetary Fund were taking place and who exactly was attending. He was told: “You really have to ring the IMF.” The international bankers, it seems, were already in charge - even of the job of telling the Irish people who is in charge.

The arrival of the IMF was a case of long threatening come at last. Those three letters have been the secular equivalent of the fires of hell: the ultimate warning against resistance to the government’s strategy of making the rescue of the banks the overwhelming national priority.

The bogeymen are now in the building, but their coming has been foreshown so often that it seems both inevitable and anti-climactic. Watching the furtive shots of the disappointingly avuncular-looking Ajai Chopra, whose IMF team had come to scrutinise our books and negotiate our fate, it was hard not to think of TS Eliot’s line from The Hollow Men: “This is the way the world ends: Not with a bang but a whimper.”

Or, in our case, with a drone. Instead of drums and trumpets, our little apocalypse was played out against the background noise of the taoiseach and the minister for finance murmuring evasive and mechanical denials. When the world’s media tuned to a Dáil speech by Brian Cowen on 16 November that was expected to address the crisis, they heard only robotic assurances that there was no “impending sense of crisis” and impenetrable Cowenspeak about the “front-loading of consolidation”.

If anything, indeed, the only thing the government managed to communicate in the course of the week was its own terrifying irrelevance. With Brian Cowen assuring us that Ireland is “fully funded” and Brian Lenihan claiming as late as 17 November that the Irish banks had “no funding difficulties”, the effect was merely to present Irish self- government to the world as a comic distraction from the real business at hand.

The two Brians painted themselves as the most deluded optimists since Comical Ali stood before the cameras in Baghdad and insisted with a straight face that the Iraqi army was crushing the Americans, even as the latter’s tanks appeared on the horizon.

The new motto of the state seemed to be drawn from the Roman satirist Juvenal’s summation of autocratic folly: Hoc volo, sic jubeo, sit pro ratione voluntas. Or: This is what I want, I insist on it. Let my will stand as a reason.

A new ingredient

In their quiet, dark moments, however, Cowen and Lenihan must have been haunted by the ghost of their political progenitor, Éamon de Valera. Dev’s moment of greatest national popularity came in May 1945, at the end of the war in Europe, when he delivered his magisterial reply to Winston Churchill’s bitter attack on Irish neutrality.

Remaining neutral may not have been the most noble of causes, but it was the ultimate declaration of Irish sovereignty. At a time when three great powers - Germany, Britain and the United States - contemplated an invasion of Ireland, de Valera managed to maintain the idea that the state would make its own decisions. The quiet gravity of his broadcast embodied for Irish people of different allegiances what sovereignty is ultimately about: dignity.

That was the last word anyone would attach to the flailing of the taoiseach and his minister for finance. For all their bluster, though, they must be devastated by the knowledge that they lost in a period of unprecedented peace and prosperity what their hero maintained in a time of war and penury.

Yet within their verbiage is a small but piquant phrase, used repeatedly this week by Brian Cowen and Brian Lenihan: “the sovereign”. The change in the meaning of these two words encapsulates the sense of a historic threshold being crossed. “The Sovereign” used to refer to the British monarch, and as such it touched the rawest of nerves in nationalist Ireland. As the two Brians used it this week, though, the phrase is market-speak for “sovereign debt”.

The shift in use is unintentionally evocative. The sense of having returned to the status of a subject people, obedient now to the whims of money-men rather than of a monarch, is palpable. It may be a gross oversimplification of our plight, but it is not without a basis in plain truth.

This sense of national humiliation accounts for the addition of another feeling to the stew of unhappy emotions that is simmering away in the Irish psyche. Fear, rage, despair, distrust and helplessness have all been in the pot for the past two years. The new ingredient added this week is shame.

A black return

Sovereignty is a bit like a clock whose constant ticking you notice only when it stops. It becomes conspicuous in its absence. Most of the time, in an interdependent world where no nation can exist on its own, it seems a rather fuzzy concept. But it becomes crystal clear when you don’t have it.

There is nothing abstract in the sudden reality of officials from the EU and the IMF poring over the books in Merrion Street and the prospect of all big decisions on government spending and taxation having to be approved by those same bodies for years to come. A simple rule of thumb for a sovereign state is that it - and it alone - makes its own decisions about taxation and spending. For the foreseeable future, Irish governments will not pass this test.

Ireland is being placed under adult supervision. And that cuts right through to the most tender nerve of a former colony. What colonial overlords tell their subject peoples is: “You’re not fit to govern yourselves.”

That taunt is deeply embedded in our historical consciousness. Much of modern Irish history has been shaped by the attempt to disprove it. The Proclamation of Easter 1916 declares “the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland, and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible”. The struggle to assert this idea of popular sovereignty goes back at least to the United Irishmen of the late 18th century. Their revolutionary idea of the “sovereignty of the people” is the cornerstone of modern Irish nationalism.

The belittling idea that the Irish are incapable of self-government could have been laughed off after the establishment of the state. It wasn’t funny, though, because there was always a tiny suspicion that it just might contain a sliver of truth. Economic failure and, in particular, mass emigration meant that the slur could never be entirely dismissed from our collective consciousness.

For all its follies, and in spite of the monstrous size of the bill that has now arrived, one of the great bonuses of the Celtic Tiger era was the evaporation of this little reservoir of colonial self-loathing. The rest of the world didn’t just reflect back to us our own rising self-esteem: it magnified it. The message was not just that the Irish were fit for self-government but that they were models to be emulated. The pall of fatalism, the sense that sooner or later we would screw up, was banished, seemingly forever. And then we screwed up (see Ship of Fools: How Stupidity and Corruption Sank the Celtic Tiger [Faber, 2010]).

Screwed up so mightily, indeed, that we reached a point this week that would have been unimaginable even at times when the state was much poorer and more miserable: the concession of a significant portion of our sovereignty.

A London eye

Irrationally but unavoidably, the rawest nerve is the one that is connected to the heaviest chip on our shoulder: the Brits.

Just four years ago, the then shadow chancellor in the UK, George Osborne, was writing humbly in the (London) Times about the Irish as the model for Britain: “They have much to teach us, if only we are willing to learn.” Osborne’s reasoning was daft, but for many Irish people there was still an extraordinary resonance to the idea of a Tory old Etonian with aspirations to lead Britain adopting such a humble approach to a former province of the empire. It was further proof that Ireland had definitively left behind its long history of failure and inferiority. There were no more forelocks to be tugged.

This week Osborne was addressing the subject of Ireland again, now as chancellor of the exchequer. At the meeting of EU finance ministers in Brussels he spoke in the emollient, gently patronising tones of a disappointed but supportive parent: “Britain stands ready to support Ireland to bring stability.” We probably should be grateful for such support, and Osborne was obviously trying to be helpful. But it is hard not to cringe at tabloid headlines like “Britain ready to bail out Ireland with £7 billion” or the answers to the Sun’s question for its readers, “Should the UK bail out Ireland?”: “Why should we bail them out . . . arn’t they an independant?” (sic) You don’t have to be a raving nationalist to flinch at the likelihood that we will indeed have to be “bailed out” in part by the genius who wrote that.

After the fall

While a letter writer to the Irish Times on 19 November pointed out that “we have gleefully accepted overseas financial aid for a long time”, there is a fundamental difference between this week’s events and previous aid from EU structural funds. Previous Irish governments negotiated funds from Brussels to help this country reach acceptable European standards of development.

This one is being forced to take on enormous loans in order to prevent Ireland from destroying the EU. The image of Ireland among our European partners is not that of a lovable little neighbour who deserves a helping hand. It is that of a leper who must be quarantined. The shaming words “infection” and “contagion” are on the lips of European politicians and analysts.

In the long view of history the grim distinctiveness of this week’s events is clear. Since 1919, when the first vaguely (though incompletely) representative Irish parliament met in Dublin, Irish sovereignty has been expanding. The stages of that progression are easily marked: the establishment of the state, the expansion of its powers within the British Commonwealth, the cutting of the last institutional links with Britain in the 1937 constitution, the return to Irish sovereignty of the Treaty ports.

Joining the European Economic Community involved a sharing of sovereignty, but it also made the concept much more tangible: a seat at the European table is the big difference between Scotland, which is not independent, and Ireland, which is. The act of national self- determination in accepting the Belfast agreement in 1998 asserted Irish sovereignty - not least against those who claimed the right to embody it in conspiratorial violence. At every significant point over the past ninety years Irish sovereignty was expanding. This week, for the first time, it contracted. There is no point in minimising the meaning of this reverse.

No point either, though, in merely wallowing in our own powerlessness.
Something has ended, and it is the entire tradition, decent and disastrous, that Fianna Fáil represents. The ignominy of its last days should not blind us to the opportunity to begin again. In previous generations the idea of an independent Irish democracy had to be asserted against an empire that was desperate to retain control. Our new adult supervisors would be only too happy to see us grow up and take back responsibility for our destiny (see Enough is Enough: How to Build a New Republic [Faber, 2010]).

The loss of some of our sovereignty should concentrate our minds on the large degree of sovereignty we still have. Our political culture and institutions are still ours to reshape, and the urgent need to transform them is blindingly clear. Our values and goals as a society are still ours to decide. The huge vacuum where a public morality ought to be can be filled only by ourselves. The citizenship that has been made so much smaller this week can be expanded by reclaiming it. The sovereignty of the Irish people can be restored if we do something we have failed so disastrously to do: use it.

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