Meejit May 2007

Pragmatic Politics, bowled by Bertie and Enda civilisation


Pragmatic politics

Despite Ken Loach's cinematic intervention declaring, effectively, that there was actually some deep-rooted politics involved in the Civil War Divide here, it has long been widely understood that the Irish electoral scene is largely non-ideological, or perhaps post-ideological.

This applies most clearly to the two largest parties, but Ireland had also had a watery, “pragmatic” labour party for many decades before watery, pragmatic Pat Rabbitte came on the scene; and the PDs, drawn from both sides of the divide, also contain a remarkably wide span of vaguely-held “views” for such an infinitesimally small grouping. The North's new and implausible coalition suggests that the fundamental condition transcends the border.

Indeed, it is infectious further afield: late 20th-century Ireland was on the cutting edge, with allegedly pragmatic, allegedly technocratic politics now very much the norm globally, and political parties essentially defined as rival networks of clientelistic relationships rather than as rival instruments of ideological struggle. The Ukrainian crisis throws this development into perhaps most dramatic relief, as a young and desperately corrupt “democracy” struggles to cope with the instability of its networks when elected politicians are too ready to change colours to get closer to the patronage/action. (The outside media, obsessed with “pro-Russian” and “pro-Western” labels, largely miss this basic point.)

It is in this context, as the election nears, that we should view the occasionally flaring argument about the alleged political sympathies of leading political journalists and publications in Ireland. While it should go without saying that in the history of the field there have been a few old lefties clinging forlornly to the Labour Party, and perhaps some sneaking-regarders with a grá for the Shinners, the allegiances of pol-corrs should largely be seen as an extension of the parish pump. Journalists go to the well for stories; politicians slake their thirst not as Good Samaritans but as part of a patronage transaction. The reporter is just another client.


Bowled by Bertie

Fianna Fáil, having been in power for most of the last 20 years, has tended to be in possession of most of the stories. Most journalists honestly think of themselves as having no ideological axe to grind, but the result of two decades of patronage is a condition that would have been inconceivable in 1987: most influential political journalists – as Phoenix has accurately documented – are basically sympathetic to Fianna Fáil and the government it leads.

No, this is not necessarily all sweet, innocent, unconscious and unimpeachable. The close relationship of the Taoiseach and his family to Rupert Murdoch's corporate empire certainly deserves closer scrutiny when we see how News Corporation's print and broadcast outlets handle Bertie. It's arguable, indeed, that the Sun and News of the World have been central to the creation of “Bertie”, the lovable Dub with whom the whole nation drinks pints, talks football and nods to the North. (When you hear entire radio news bulletins refer to the state's head of government only by his diminutive first-name, it becomes very hard to imagine the voters tossing him out, whatever scandals are unearthed and chewed over by the uncharmed Mail.)


However, outsiders are too easily attracted to conspiratorial images of politicians, journalists and business-types hatching plots for their mutual advancement. The system works far less consciously and explicitly. Sure, it is fair to note when it appears journalists have backed a specific horse in a political race. But the point about, say, Stephen Collins and Kevin Rafter shouldn't be that they may or may not lean slightly to one side or another, but that there is not a dime's worth of difference in terms of genuine politics between these two leading political editors – nor between them and most of their peers, nor between the prospective governments we are being offered.


Enda civilisation

The apparent support of the Irish Times is exciting for some Fine Gaelers – and is interesting in a gossip-y sort of way given the PD heritage of the paper's editor and the PD links of Collins. But its earnestness has been rather sad to observe. (Remember when Miriam Lord used to be properly cynical?)


The end of the paper's editorial praising Enda Kenny's conference speech verged on pathetic: “Promising to resign if specific election promises are not kept is an interesting political development. If it resonates with voters, Mr Kenny may have found himself a winning formula.” The last sentence, evidently trying to be Times-ily cautious, instead strays into dim tautology.


The saddest thing was that Kenny's sly bit of immigrant-bashing in his conference speech went unremarked upon by that paper, or any others we might have hoped were attentive. Having made the crowd-pleasing but basically idiotic push to get children into school younger – it's widely discredited by educational psychologists – Kenny said: “It is our children whose education is suffering, because of the failure to manage the rapid increase in immigration into this country ... [This] change ... must be managed in a way that emphasises people's rights and responsibilities, keeps Ireland safe, and improves, not threatens, our working and living standards.”


From the party that promises, in classic racist code, to “say what needs to be said”, this was nasty in several ways: the reference to “our children” (in Tonto's apocryphal words, “What do you mean ‘we', white man?”); the clear suggestion that the current climate for immigrants is all rights and no responsibilities; the non-sequitur allusion to national safety when in reality it is mainly immigrants who are in danger. The discourse gets uglier, and the indifference is overwhelming.