We need alternatives, but the Irish left is a joke

One of the reasons why we are stuck with the same politics and the same old codgers - in spite of ongoing austerity and deepening inequality - is because the Irish left is a joke. By Vincent Browne.

Four years ago this month, Paul Tansey died suddenly while playing tennis with Shane Ross. Paul had been a brilliant economics commentator first with the Irish Times, then with the Sunday Tribune (where I got to know him in the mid-1980s), and finally again with the Irish Times.

Along with hundreds of others, I queued up in the church in Monkstown in Dublin, waiting to offer my condolences to his widow, Olivia O'Leary, and their daughter, Emily. I found myself beside Brian Lenihan, who had become Minister for Finance a few months earlier, and I talked to him enthusiastically about an ESRI mid-term review that I had read while on holidays.

This mid-term review was authored in the main by the ESRI's chief economist, John FitzGerald, who in 1986 had been the first to see that there was going to be a boom in the Irish economy in the 1990s. The review suggested that, while there was a dip about to occur in the Irish economy, it would be a mere blip, and everything would resume as before in the next six months to a year.

I asked Lenihan why he and the new Taoiseach, Brian Cowen, had failed to convey that sense of optimism. Lenihan said it was because they did not share that sense of optimism and because there were rough times ahead.

I thought it was a pity that Paul was no longer around to lend his expertise. Actually, I think now that Paul would have disagreed with the ESRI projection from the outset - not just because he was a pessimist instinctively but, because of his intelligence and economic expertise, he would have read the signals of a collapse, signals evident almost immediately after the ESRI published its unfortunate prognosis.

But Paul would not have fully anticipated what has transpired in the four years since; nor, of course, did John FitzGerald, nor Brian Lenihan and certainly not I. Four years of economic decline, budgetary nightmares, banking collapses, debt mountains, never-ending austerity, cruel cuts affecting the livelihoods of the least well-off - with a further four (or eight, or 12) years of the same yet to come.

If we'd had the perspicacity to anticipate all this, surely we would have expected that such a calamity would cause political upheaval, involving a rejection of the neoliberal doctrines that propelled us - and so much of the rest of the world - into this catastrophe, with a rejection of the political parties and personalities that had imposed their pernicious models and doctrines on us?

We surely would have expected the emergence of a very different political culture, inspired by a very different brand of politicians, bringing us back (or it is forward?) to the values of solidarity, the values of the collective.

But precisely the opposite has happened. The very same parties that brought us into this mess - Fine Gael and Labour were just as much part of the culture that drove the Celtic tiger as Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats - are in office. The same ideology that brought us into this crisis remains the dominant force, except with sharpened claw and tooth. Worse still, we have forfeited forever large parts of our sovereignty to European institutions which are even more driven by that ideology than we are. And we are about to forfeit even more of what remains of our sovereignty in the context of a more centralised Europe, currently being devised.

If you wonder how this has happened, you may ponder how our media, along with the political establishment, have propagated the culture of neoliberalism, the ideology of individualism, of everyone for himself/herself, of there being "no alternative", of the unavoidable disciplines of markets, of the "irrationality" and impracticality of equality.

But you might also wonder about the Irish left.

Just observe the farce of Clare Daly's resignation from the Socialist Party and the probable consequential collapse of the United Left Alliance. Is it plausible that people serious about the creation of an alternative force in Irish politics, absorbed in elaborating a credible programme to create a different and more equal society, would be diverted by a personally-motivated equivocation over, essentially, an irrelevance - Mick Wallace's false tax declaration?

One suspects that the reason why there is a hullabaloo over this equivocation is because the left here is not about much else. No serious attempt has been made by any of these left-wing TDs to devise a credible alternative programme. Yes, there are soundbites about taxing wealth and debt default, but no concrete costed plans, showing how we get from here to the kind of society that they claim to envisage.

Remember the hash they made of the Fiscal Treaty referendum campaign, and their refusal to address a central question in voters' minds, i.e., where would we get necessary funding if we could not access ESM funds?

One of the reasons why - in spite of this ongoing austerity, this incremental surrender of sovereignty forever, the massively unjust debt burden, this deepening inequality, these cruelties inflicted on those least able to bear them - we are stuck with the same politics and the same old codgers, is because the Irish left is a joke.