Reflections on the maturation in Ireland

Introducing this very special, pewter coated, ermine lined commemorative edition, Gavan Titley reflects, maturely, on symbolism, politics, and domopolitics.

When ermine is the new black

When Mary McAleese mouthed ‘wow’ at the Queen, she mimed for me. In a week when the royal We was eclipsed by an insistently mature we – all reasonable people, minus scumbag residue from history – this was not unwelcome. But we weren’t wowed for the same reason. The visit of Queen Elizabeth II was a significant event, and as a spectacle shaped by ‘our current troubles’, arguably an unsettling one. Unsettling not within the framework of Anglo-Irish relations, but because many other dynamics, not contained by this dominant theme of normalization and ever-closer mutuality, passed without analysis. So it’s fairly obvious that this commemorative edition of Crisisjam is not an attempt to compete with Ryan Tubridy’s no doubt forthcoming QE2 in Ireland: Four Days that Pleased a Queen. Instead, we want to explore perhaps more ambivalent dimensions, and some unsettling undertones, in the context of a society that doesn’t correspond to the Stepford synchronicity of feeling ascribed to it by much of the mainstream media.


While this collector’s edition Crisisjam is in part a reaction to the softly oppressive liberal telepathy confident that ‘we all curtsied’, it is not particularly animated by the exaggerated narratives and sonorous commentary of the past week. Countless people in Ireland live lives where interrelations with England and Britain are stitched so deep into the fabric of experience and everyday existence that they pass without comment.* It is this banal reality that prevented the patronising anthropological discovery of ‘how much we actually have in common with our nearest neighbours’ from being insulting. In part, this was merely overspill from the unavoidable exaggeration that accompanies monarchy. As WorldbyStorm points out over at Cedar Lounge Revolution, ‘…part of the problem with royalty is that obsequiousness is built into the process, even unconsciously’. When channeled through our dominant media institutions - where the conflict in Northern Ireland has profoundly shaped institutional political coordinates and generationally-inflected perspectives - being constrained to interpret the symbolism of every regal gesture was always going to produce a perfect semiotic storm.

Further, it would be pointless to take these prevalent exaggerations at face value, and to simply invert them as critical points of departure. Pointing out that the euphoria of the spectacle was an ‘escapist’ reaction to wider crisis is too pat, and reveals nothing. It was self-consciously discussed as such, and beyond a mediated determination to revel in hushed tones, what the vast majority of people in Ireland felt and thought, and felt and thought in all the everyday partiality and contradiction of feeling and thinking, is unknown. That Ruth Dudley Edwards would use the visit to strain the elastic of historical method is, as she might not say, a Pope in a Big Hat deduction. That people who assumed that Northern Ireland was surprised by joy in 1998, and then vanished - and who routinely get annoyed when it pops up with its unfashionable ‘atavism’ - were deeply and loudly moved to ‘move on’ is par for that well-trodden southern course.

However, a critique generated in opposition to the widespread insistence that this spectacle had a fixed meaning would do well not to substitute its own, as what unfolded over the last days is complex, in the best sense. If the unease felt by many at the constricted palette of preferred attitudes and reactions is in anyway meaningful, it requires analysis posed in radically different terms, partial and all as these terms may turn out to be. This week’s Crisisjam draws on the spectacle to examine Ireland as a postcolonial space; as a petrified democracy; as a securitarian laboratory; and in this article, as a site of domopolitics. This idea is developed in the point below; the subsequent, incomplete, reflections on the new maturity stem from it.

1. The spectacle took place in a domopolitical state

For all the discussion of normalisation, the spectacle took place under the clearly abnormal conditions of profound political-economic crisis, and the sovereign and collective anxieties this has generated. These underlying conditions were not lacquered over by the state visit, they in significant part shaped it. The near-constant entreaties to put on a good show, to do Ireland proud, to not embarrass ourselves, to make the best of the global attention – these are not empty platitudes, but instead mean something in the context of crisis, and where the focus on inter-state relations neglected the current state of the state. So it may be useful to put to one side the question of Anglo-Irish relations, and try to approach the event somewhat differently.

To make sense of this, I found myself drawn to an idea developed by the political sociologist William Walters in his study of changing relations between state, citizenship and security, particularly in the area of migration.† For Walters, domopolitics, or the politics of home, has emerged as the image of a coherent national economic system ‘...linked in turn to a social an international order populated by discrete, bounded socio-economic systems engaged in mutual relations of trade’ – and has been largely replaced by configurations of the neoliberal state located in a space of flows. Here, the ‘business’ of governance involves tapping into and directing productive mobile goods, including what we might call, somewhat fancifully, symbolic capital. Or, as Ian O Doherty explains it in the context of the visit: ‘...after two years of Ireland being portrayed like some sort of disaster movie in the world's media, we finally got to put the best face forward and did ourselves a huge service. So, with tourism going to increase, with our international reputation greatly increased and with so many lump-in-the-throat moments, we are all united in our appreciation of the historical, cultural and political significance of the event.’

In the space of uneven global flows of capital, people, information and imagery, the ‘...governance of the state is reimagined to be like the running of a business: globalization is a world of profound “challenges” but also great “opportunities” which the well-managed state is to exploit through its constantly-shifting market strategies’. Yet in the porous order of globalization, ‘insecure societies’ are also vulnerable to mobile ‘bads’. Domopolitics cannot seek to arrest mobilities, it looks to manage and discipline their costs and risks, to ‘tap the energy of one flow while taming and suppressing the other’. Taking domopolitics seriously involves approaching the mediation of the spectacle not as a superficial distraction from the real material issues, but as central to contemporary politics. The following points attempt to do so.

2. Maturity is a post-sovereign, not a post-national, conceit

The idea of ‘maturity’ in Ireland is a code for a particular set of liberal suppositions, but not only. Ostensibly deployed to suggest a state of being where conflictual histories are overcome, it of course routinely fails on its own, liberal terms. While not agreeing with éirigí, or condoning the little violence that took place, it was striking how often condemnation resorted to class pathologies, as if the cast of Shameless had raced incontinent corgis up and down the red carpet. That liberals find only pathology in illiberal subjects is not news, nor is it mature. That the repudiation of republicanism was frequently expressed through an unreflective nationalism is more of the same.

Far more important is that any protest or dissent – anti-monarchical, anti-war, critical of the extent of the expenditure, and so forth – was largely received on a spectrum from ‘reasonable’ to ‘embarrasing’. The self-congratulatory idea, expressed from Enda Kenny down, that ‘reasonable’ protest will be tolerated, suggests that the political content of protest actually doesn’t matter. What matters is the form, the noise, the potential static in the presentation of ‘home’ as ‘open for business’. In a clear domopolitical formulation, Kenny made the point on Morning Ireland on Day One that ‘we can’t have people embarrassing us’ when we welcome important guests. The home must be made homely. In the same interview, when pressed on the future significance of ‘normalised’ relations, Kenny suggested that it meant focusing on ‘growing our economies and providing for our families’ in a spirit of mutual something. Domopolitics, redux: the priorities of the market state, with the cohering ballast of soft focus conservatism.

As Walters argues, domopolitics requires an opposition between ‘the “warm words” of community, trust and citizenship’ with the ‘danger words of a chaotic outside – illegals, traffickers, terrorists’. But if we go with the flows, this ‘outside’ is also inside, amounting to any dissonance that threatens the projection of a particular repertoire of images (to which Jedward have been fatally added). The removal of anti-war posters; of posters for the Anarchist Bookfair a week before the state visit; images of Gardaí out scraping political stickers off lamp posts; this is the home being madeover, as entertaining the Queen involves transforming urban space into the ‘good room’ of the national Irish home. While the very real security risk contributed to the overweening security, it cannot fully explain the extent of the lockdown.

What the spectacle placed on display, arguably, is the developing tendency in Ireland, and established practice beyond, for conspicuous displays of police power predicated on the constant inflation of risk. Such powers of display have become increasingly important under neoliberal conditions (as Henry Giroux, among many others, have argued). The nature of the security operation was inflected with a desire to display powers of control, displays - and command performances – of which are increasing in the age of austerity.

3. Symbols don’t walk in straight lines, so unlike the Queen, they need a steadying hand on the elbow.

The fluent ‘Gaelic’, the clinky glasses, the ritual pint; it is one thing for the visit to the Garden of Remembrance to be symbolically charged, it is quite another for every moment to be overlayed with a needy significance, ultimately anxious that the audience is not quite so fixated. The visit to Croke Park, for example, struggled to overcome the weird vignette of the Royals sitting in deck chairs on the sidelines, watching the big screen in an empty stadium. More strikingly, symbols of power were consistently relieved of that power, as to focus on the implications of that power could prove to be ‘embarrassing’. While there is something fundamentally human in admiring the sprightly stamina of the Monarch, it is at odds with the symbolic investment of monarchy to translate her into a surrogate granny. In part this is what Ireland does with powerful figures; from RTÉ opinion-formers to Taoisigh, institutional power is frequently effaced by the mediated intimacy of first name terms. But through accident and design, the affectionate adoption of the Monarch worked to efface her real symbolic roles as an anti-democratic figure, and as a military and imperial figurehead.

To focus on symbolism is always ambivalent, as the question of how symbols are recognised is deeply political. But domopolitical logics, vested in ‘marketing’ the state, do not welcome ambivalence. It is another question as to how these logics circulate in society, but it is arguable that the symbolic value of the Queen in Ireland owed much to the denial of her established symbolic value. Tap the energy of the granny flow, stem the spillage of the militarist one.

(In this context it was surprising that Fintan O’Toole, in a Guardian piece that stretched the maturity theme to include Britain’s coming of age, presented the visit as of ‘post-imperial’ significance. In the narrow guage of Anglo-Irish relations, fine, but for all the conflict over the contemporary meaning of ‘new’, ‘neo’ and ‘humanitarian’ imperialism, can Britain really be described as post-imperial?)

4. We are mediated to ourselves, alone.

While best behaviour was expected, public discourse in Ireland is anyway frequently imagined as being conducted under the watchful gaze of projected agents; ratings agencies, European ‘partners’, international agencies, and wandering and footloose Capital. In the feedback loops of networked systems, there is some truth in this, but it overplays the attention ‘the world’ pays to Ireland, and underplays its corrosive impact on public life. Of course, the act of pointing to the putative surveillance of these powerful external agencies is intended to have a disciplinary effect, and the politics of ‘embarrassment’ has gathered pace during the crisis. Pushed to logical ends, this kind of reflex recalls the dynamics of tourism in the ‘third world’, where dependence on symbolic capital results in state incentives and coercion to ‘perform’ in appropriately authentic and exotic ways. The preferred performance in Ireland is passivity; the Lynx Effect of the new maturity cannot disguise that ‘Is féidir linn’ has no object of action (mixed visits, mixed metaphors).

6. Symbolism is not the primary site of politics, but it is an important one under these conditions.

This is speculative analysis, approaching aspects of the last week as sympomatic of deeper political processes. The question remains, what can ‘we’ do, when the spectacle itself is the main answer to the question? Point 7 from the Spanish ‘Ghost Manifesto’ is worth considering:

‘It is necessary to build a political discourse capable of rebuilding the social fabric, systematically rendered vulnerable through years of lies and corruption. We citizens have lost respect for the majoritarian political parties, but this is not the same as losing our critical faculties. On the contrary, we do not fear POLITICS. To stand up and speak is POLITICS. To seek alternatives of citizen participation is POLITICS.’


* Beyond the diplomatic significance, and the personal resonances for many, aspects of the visit came over like that letter that is written to The Irish Times before every major football tournament, calling on Irish people to prove how so over it all they are by supporting the English football team. This maturity is vested in the assumption that not supporting England can only be motivated by noises in the blood, as opposed to, for example, greater admiration for teams less anxious about the effect of gravity on the ball.


†William Walters, ‘Secure Borders, Safe Haven, Domopolitics’, Citizenship Studies, Vol. 8 No. 3, 2004.