The Message: We move in hysterical ways

There's been no lack of scandals rocking this country in recent years – but does that justify the huge outpourings of hysteria in the media recently? And just what is the difference between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael?

One hesitates to put one’s head out of doors these days for fear of fury or hysteria. Much of the former is understandable, directed as it is against the banks, the builders, the Brothers, and of course the politicians who are seen to have been way too close to all three. The hysteria is harder to take. For example, the reaction to the postponement of the second English paper in the Leaving Certificate was irrational in the extreme. Okay, it was much amplified by the media. But they were only frothing pre-prepared foam.

This is, it seems, a deeply and worryingly neurotic society and even though we’ve a lot of trouble in store, we could do with some general calming down. We could also do with more thinking and emotion-free analysis. In turn, this might prompt some philosophical consideration of the kind of society we want to build around ourselves.

That would be in the political realm. Although the recent elections constituted a kind of light relief after the horrors we’ve gone through, it’s interesting that they provoked so little discussion about the big questions.

The emphasis was on giving the Government a good hiding. The issues raised were to do with the many messes we’re in and how better management might have avoided the worst of them.

Well, the hiding was handed out, no mistaking that. But as regards the why and how of the election outcome, there are many views.

Were the Government parties, as Fianna Fáil argue, hammered because they made the hard decisions? Or was it, as Fine Gael seem to hold, because they were incompetent in the face of a global economic crisis?

Fianna Fáil are spinning the result away from issues of crony capitalism and the inadequacy of their vision to deal with the economic tsunami we’ve been swamped by. Now they seem to be implying that it was we who were out of control and they just went along with our delusions, so it’s our fault not theirs and what’s happening now is that they are taking necessary corrective action and the voters, like spoilt children, are reacting badly.

It’s just a spin. The truth is, they were savaged by the voters because of the widespread perception (fair or otherwise) that they were inextricably bound up with the parcel of rogues who brought our economy from great heights to unimaginable lows. In other words, it’s because they screwed the pooch, not because they’re making hard decisions.

But that’s not exactly what Fine Gael is saying. As they have it, the Government screwed the pooch because of bad management, that is, because they were incompetent. It follows that their core argument is that Fine Gael are more competent and would do a better job

Whether true or not, this analysis indicates that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael share the core analysis and philosophy, as various observers have pointed out. Therefore, the contest is not about whose vision is the most compelling, but to find which party is the better at delivering on the same vision.

Neither party is keen to admit this. But to the prototypical gal from Mars, how would you describe the difference? Not in terms of fundamental visions for Irish society, that’s for sure. Those differences that they had, which were once very considerable, relate to the birth stages of the State. But now, it’s as much about contests between the descendants of two streams of the same class.

Only on the left was there even a cursory attempt to attack the consensus, to question the notion that free-market capitalism is the way forward and that we should be trying to get back to where we were as quickly as possible.

But there are alternatives. Maybe it’s more accurate to say that there’s a spectrum of options, and it would be very healthy for Irish society if they were more calmly and intelligently debated and offered to voters.

In particular, there is a very strong case to be made for the kind of social democratic model found in northern European states. This, as it happens, is the model most favoured by Irish voters when they are asked to rate the importance of services and so on. But it is the one less favoured by the same voters when it comes to elections.

We need to talk about why this is. And preferably this should happen thoughtfully and philosophically and without the stupid jibing that too often passes for political debate in this country.

It is true that, if one looks at the last three local government elections, Fianna Fáil has slipped a long way. But it is too early to talk of a fundamental realignment in Irish politics. That will only happen when we all start looking past issues of management and towards vision and leadership. In other words, until we stop raging about the messes and start talking about the kind of society we want to build around ourselves and what we’re prepared to do to get there.

Now there’s a thought…

 

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