- 07 Feb 20
In which the author reflects on Irish history and the desire for change just days ahead of the 2020 General Election
"The moment of truth is right at hand: one more nightmare you can't stand."
It was Robbie Robertson of The Band who wrote that, in a song called ’Stage Fright’, the title track of the seminal Canadian outfit’s third album. But the nightmare, he must eventually have realised, is likely to happen whether you like it or not.
That’s certainly the way it feels right now, just a few days before the General Election in Ireland. That no much good can come of this. That, one way or another, we are likely to be stuck with a depressing outcome, of whatever hue or stripe. That’s the way it seems to me anyhow.
A tangled history has led us to precisely where we are. The brutalities of the civil war set the terms of Irish politics. Then there was Rome rule. The oppression of women. A closed society that was hemmed in by sectarianism, isolationism and suspicion of foreign influence. Eventually, a gradual, encouraging shift started. The arrival of television. The creation of the IDA. Free secondary education. Joining the European Economic Community, now the EU.
Not so fast. Civil right marches in the North. Opposition from diehard sectarian loyalism. The establishment re-trenching. Bloody violence descending like a pall over everything. Death stalking the landscape. Progress derailed. Fear and loathing. Internment across the border. Our industrial policy in tatters. The auction politics of ’77.
We teetered on the edge of economic ruin. As ever, the people took the rap for something over which they had no control.
A slow, painful road back. Diplomacy. Paramilitary godfathers weaned-off their murderous campaigns. The biggest band in the world. Jack’s army. Foreign direct investment. Our first female President. Tech companies arriving and thriving. The Good Friday agreement. Time to put the guns away. Power-sharing. The Chuckle Brothers. A semblance of normality returning.
Growth. Confidence. The appearance of wealth. And the new phenomenon of an inflated sense of entitlement. We all know where that ended up. Banks pushing credit. House prices soaring. The illusion that we had arrived. Then the brutal reality, like a drunk falling down the stairs. Crash, bang, wallop. Bones broken. A fractured spine. A country in ruins.
Banjaxed banks. Bailiffs and bailouts. Hopes and dreams shattered. A people entering even more dire, uncharted territory. Closures. Evictions, Unemployment. Emigration. Ireland a basket case. It was Fianna Fáil what did it. And then the worst mistake of all: the socialisation of private debt. How did we get into this mess? How can we possibly get out of it? The Greens in the wrong place at the wrong time, catching the flak. Then Labour.
Over the border, power-sharing on the ropes. In the South, memory of the grotesque atrocities committed by the Provos fading. Fine Gael in power. What’s social housing? Leave it to the market. A growing economy. Rising house prices. Rents soaring. They should have seen it coming. Homelessness. People on trolleys. Anger in the streets. How many times might different decisions been made? A thousand. A hundred thousand. But maybe it is just the vicious arc of history.
And now. Less than a week before the election, a resurgent Sinn Féin are showing far above their own wildest expectations. Neck and neck with Fianna Fáil. Ahead of Fine Gael. But only 42 candidates in the field. And besides, the route to power is not clear. Those slightly longer of tooth have not forgotten the bombs and the bullets. The carnage. The dead bodies behind which lurked the shadowy figures of the IRA army council. Josie Dwyer kicked to death on the streets of Dublin. Balaclavas. Bullying. Kneecapping. Sectarianism. Intimidation.
And so, however you cut it, add those deep-rooted misgivings to the raw numbers, and we are unlikely to see anything other than a Fianna Fáil government, with maybe the Greens, Labour and the Social Democrats in tow, propped up by Fine Gael if necessary – but only for as long as the sticking plaster holds.
There is said to be a desire for ‘change’. But what does it mean? Chalk and cheese. For the farmers who picketed outside meat processors and brought the M50 to a stand-still recently, it means hankering after a return to the good old days of CAP, when the grants flowed in greater abundance. It means subsidies for beef farming. It means a resistance to real change.
In contrast, for those concerned about the climate crisis, change means a cull of the beef herd. No more new roads. Cars being banned from city centres. Land being repurposed for forestry. Water charges. A limit on the number of flights we can take every year. It means ushering in an era when many of the personal freedoms we have taken for granted for aeons are curtailed – the ultimate goal, perhaps, being to eliminate them entirely.
A desire for change covers both extremes, and a whole lot of other ones besides. But, as political positions go, what eco warriors stand for, and what farmers want, are fundamentally irreconcilable. So what does that say about the new chapter on which we are about to embark?
THE EUROPEAN IDEAL
An old line springs to mind: be careful what you wish for.
Following World War II, a pact had been agreed. Never would European countries allow the outrages of the previous thirty-plus blood-thirsty and murderous years to be repeated. War involved a descent into barbarism of the most grotesque kind. But that, reasonable people agreed, was avoidable. Economic co-operation was the first and most important step away from the abyss into which the continent had been plunged not once but twice.
Friendship, solidarity, understanding and mutual respect would come too. The European Union as we now know it was the result: 27 members States all agreeing to the same rules in relation to an extraordinary range of social, political, scientific, agricultural, creative and security issues.
It would be naive to imagine that the growth and expansion of the union was driven always by a sense of shared purpose and idealism. But it is true nonetheless that a seam of idealism ran, and still runs, through the entire architecture of pan-European co-operation.
Just down the road, in the Balkans, after the collapse of Tito’s Yugoslavia, a bloody war erupted, in which tens of thousands of people died. War crimes were commonplace, and committed by almost all of the warring factions. Sectarianism was rife. A bit like Northern Ireland only many times worse.
There are forces now who are happy to put all of that co-operation at risk. Who have sowed the seeds of division.
Who really knows – or can know – where the dishonesty, hypocrisy, cynicism and unscrupulousness of Boris Johnson’s government, in their negotiations with the EU, and everywhere else too, will land us? The perils mount.
There must be some way out of here, said the joker to the thief. There is too much confusion: I can’t get no release. Businessmen they drink my wine, ploughmen dig my earth. None of them along the line know what all of this is worth.
That was Bob Dylan in ‘All Along The Watchtower’, originally released on the John Wesley Harding album and turned into a hit single by Jimi Hendrix. Of course, he was right too. So right, that he could have been writing about the enormous, self-defeating stupidity of Brexit.
ON THE CUSP
So this is where we are: on the cusp of something, but we don’t know what it is. Do we, Mr. Jones? You should vote. We all should. That’s what democracy allows: the slim possibility that we might just have a say. I will be looking to the left and targeting my vote to land with the most progressive voices available in what used to be called Dublin South East, but is now styled Dublin Bay South. I hope to see Labour, the Green Party, Solidarity-People Before Profit and the Social Democrats achieving sufficient strength in depth to have a real say in the next Dáil, whether in government or not.
Every constituency is different. We need to pick our way through the ballot paper carefully. If enough people do that, and choose well for progressive politics, and policies, especially in relation to housing and homelessness, then the nightmare may not turn out to be as bad my mounting paranoia suggests. This is the start of the future. Let’s make the most of it while we can…
Because otherwise, when we get to the end, we might just wanna start all over again.
That, however, will not be an option.