Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The lessons we can learn by exploring Ireland's political traditions.

I often come across comments from other people on how can Greece, or any other country in Europe can reform and change its political system, or its political elites. It is something that it seems unthinkable, though it is desired by many.

So let us explore the political institutions and traditions of one European country, in an effort to study how political traditions are formed and how difficult is to break away from them. I am going to use the case of Ireland and its political traditions, not because I wish to expose any failures or shortcomings in it, but explain how hard it is to reform a political system that often took centuries to form.

The Irish state is relatively new. It broke away from the British Empire to form an independent state, yet it based its political traditions on the British political system. Until recently Ireland was a peripheral, conservative, landowning but peasant rural culture, with an underdeveloped industrial class.

Its post colonial nationalist Catholic Irish identity is central, with a powerful authoritarian and dominant Catholic Church. For ideological, pragmatic and cultural reasons, Britain gave areas of decision making in Ireland to societal actors, especially the Catholic Church. Until the booming years of the '90s and '00s, Ireland's culture was based on loyalty to peasant kinship ties, rather on class solidarity. It was very authoritarian, conformist and anti-intellectual.

The main driving force of Irish politics was a pervasive populism in which the local pubs and political leaders were unusually vulnerable to each other's influences. The power overall is until today very centralized, with an underdeveloped working class and a nationalist stress on the unity of conformity.

One of the main political parties in Ireland, the Fianna Fail, grew from this culture and used it for its own political ends. The Irish political party system started with a single nationalist party within the British political system, in the 19th century.

Sinn Fein represented the widespread demand for Irish political independence and during the war for independence it was strong. A civil war was fought over the terms of the Anglo-Irish Treaty with the British Government in 1921. The Treaty proposed the ending of British rule in the 26 counties, but maintaining it in the 6 counties of Ulster.

Due to the disagreement over the Treaty, Sinn Fein split. The more moderate pro-treaty nationalist leaders formed the Cumann na nGaedheal party in 1923 and ran the country until 1933, when it renamed itself to Fine Gael.

Fianna Fail, the anti-treaty nationalist party, was formed out of the group defeated in the civil war, but then accepted constitutional politics. A smaller more militant group, kept the name Sinn Fein and did not recognize the constitutionality of the 26 county Irish state, even to this day.

At the early stages of the Irish state, the Catholic Church ran many of the functions that a state normally would, like health and education. This led to subsidiarity, corporatism and a consensus society with centralized institutions, which lacked transparency and accountability.

The political system in Ireland provides since then many "veto points" where actors or interest groups have political power to veto decisions. So the state became captured of vested interests of groups, with too much veto power to stop reforms in their tracks.

This combination of highly centralized and unaccountable concentration of power, combined with strong vested interests can lead to a political culture of elite "group think." These elites reinforce what is already acceptable, while dissenting voices are marginalized and ridiculed.

The defining question for Irish parties is historically the national one, rather than class.  Irish politics derive from a culture of solidarity, cohesion and homogeneity. This culture was consciously sustained by Fianna Fail, which saw itself representing the interests of the Irish people as whole and did not want to see sections of the nation against others.

That explains the lack of political polarization in Ireland, of extreme political parties, ideologies and anything that would divide the nation in right or left wing supporters. And also it explains why the Irish people rarely protest, march or riot against their political system.

So Ireland has a passive citizenry with relative low voter turnout of 65% and low levels of political party membership. The dominance by multinational capital over the weakened trade union movement, whose base of support was more and more restricted to public sector workers, increased the power of the international capitalist class.

During 1987 and the years that followed the Fianna Fail government introduced social partnership, to bring together the employers' unions, trade unions and farmer's organizations. But soon it was clear that this kind of social partnership was giving businesses virtually anything they asked for: low corporation taxes, low capital taxes, low social insurance contributions and a virtually unregulated labor market. (David Begg, Secretary General of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, 2005)

It was soon obvious that social partnerships were not about democracy. The institutional arrangements to deepen deliberative democracy, did not work for democracy. The voice and ability of the civil society to criticize policy and lobby for social change were muted.

The community and voluntary sector became a tool of welfare provision, rather than developmental active citizenship. All the above together with the neo-liberal paradigm, has allowed elites to inflict severe damage on Irish society, with very few critical voices being raised.

Any ideology can appear to be absent in the Irish state, but Irish politics is not non-ideological. Conservative economic and social stances tend to predominate among Irish policy makers. The Irish state saw itself earlier as a subservient to the power of the Catholic Church, but now they appear to be doing so to the power of the global capital, which runs most of the economy.

The discourse in Irish politics rarely acknowledges its ideological neo-liberal content. This ideology has been hidden in the discourse about "partnership", combating "poverty" and fostering "equality." The absence of clear left-right political divide and the consensus mentality suggests a pragmatic, flexible state and bureaucracy, marked by the absence of critical debate about alternatives and dominated by a narrow range of voices.

The role of the country's media here is very important and decisive. The country's weak intellectual political tradition, the media ownership and the fact that writers, academics and critics depend on state funding, also contribute to that phenomenon. Fianna Fail was a dynamic populist party, that marred traditional "clientelistic" Irish political techniques with modern forms of manipulation of political opinion.

Its founder Eamon de Valera used the family owned Irish Press newspaper groups, to mould public opinion and discourse. In that way a dominant technocratic ideology, that is rarely challenged by other ideological perspectives was established.

The Irish civil service also plays a role in the formation of the country's political traditions, as it acts as the unelected state. In its creation, the Irish state inherited the British Westminster model of politics and the British Whitehall model of civil service and public administration. In fact the Irish civil service is still influenced by its colonial traditions.

It inherited a structure based on strict hierarchies of power and on the dominance of the Department of Finance. The civil service in Ireland has power. Only during the past two decades up to the financial crisis, power was shifted more to the political system, with ministers overriding the advice of civil servants on matter like the country's budget.

Until then, a lack of control, accountability and responsibility on the part of the Irish political class was widespread. The elected politicians allocated to the state bureaucracy and the civil service, the role of the principal initiator and designer of policy, rather the executor. The Whitehall culture let to conservative bias to policy and administration and a culture of secrecy.

Professional civil servants have much power in administration and in policy development, that it leads to incrementalism and the civil servants are using this power subtly, keeping the status quo and avoiding radical change. They are also in contact with interest groups without control, accountability and responsibility on the Irish political class.

Though a lot of important reforms took place in Ireland the past few decades, like the establishment of the Ombudsman's Office and the Data Protection Act, the country still maintains its neo-liberal political ideology that promotes the interests of the global capitalist elites.

The way that the Irish government has dealt with the current economic crisis, testifies this fact and it comes with the cooperation and involvement of the other European governing elites. And it achieved everything it wanted with very little reaction from the Irish voters.

From the Irish case we can understand how difficult is to reform a political system and I am sure that many of us, will find a lot of similarities between Ireland and our own countries. Especially when we are examining the case of countries like Greece, that has been through very similar transformations and political traditions over their very short modern history.

When your country's elites form a "national" consensus that all of us must accept in order to feel that we belong in a collective "national" culture and mentality, is it possible to break free and form our own? How easy is to criticize the current establishment and what actions can we take to push for reforms, when we are against a very old, established and well functioning political system that is influenced or controlled by global elites?

The only way is to study our nation's history with an open mind and explore the role of all actors that are, or have been involved in the past, inevitably forming our national and political conscience of today. But without a proper educational system that will allow and encourage this, or a platform that citizens can come together and discuss politics openly, this seems impossible.

If we do not change the way we think of or get involved in politics, our communities won't change. If our communities can't change, then our countries won't change either and so is Europe, or the way the whole world is shaped and develops. And that makes us accomplices of the current political reality.

The above article was written based on notes of the various publications by Dr. Mary Murphy and Prof. Peadar Kirby, that I read while studying politics as part of my journalism studies.

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