Ireland is suddenly on the world’s centre-stage, but for all the wrong reasons. For two weeks, fleets of media vans have been parked opposite government buildings in Dublin as international viewers are fed images of a small nation struggling Sisyphus-like under its enormous debts.
There has been forensic reporting on greedy bankers, hapless politicians and of course how Ireland’s woes fit into the narrative of the eurozone crisis. But on one pernicious factor there has been rather less comment: what about the role of Ireland’s political culture, and in particular the cosy and often cronyist culture of Fianna Fáil, the senior partner in government and the predominant force in Irish politics for the past 80 years?
Eamon de Valera, the party’s founder, famously said he only had to look into his heart to know what the Irish people wanted. In those years a comfy relationship evolved between politicians and constituents, in which dealing with the heartfelt concerns of the most humble citizens rather than national issues formed the basis of political careers.
Then in the 1960s, as Ireland emerged from decades of economic hardship, Fianna Fáil, in need of funds, became the beneficiary of wealthy businessmen. Politicians now had a new layer of clients, namely the property developers and others who had bailed them out. The umbrella organisation then used for this purpose was called “Taca”, the Irish word for “support”.
A virulent strain runs through Fianna Fáil from the establishment of Taca to the present meltdown. The arrangement by which the interests of politics and big business were effectively fused was seized by nimble-footed politicians such as Charles Haughey, who must have thought he had landed in paradise. Haughey, a puppet-master supreme, used the system to benefit himself and his cronies. This affected not just his generation, but those who came after him and who hold power today.
That is not to say that Ireland’s current leaders are corrupt. They are not. But they are the mute inheritors of a way of doing business that is inherently contrary to Ireland’s national interest.
A tradition has evolved in our constituency-based, proportional representation system that makes clientelism a sine qua non for a political aspirant. Everyone plays this game. When we moved to our new house in the late 1970s, we needed contacts at cabinet level to acquire a telephone. An elderly friend, who recently applied for new dentures through the public health system, was advised by her dentist to contact her local member of the Dail. The symbiosis between representatives and the needs of their client constituents, be they bankers, property developers or old ladies in need of new teeth, makes effective government impossible.
In my latest novel, a banker lends vast sums for property development to a builder, whose father-in-law, a Fianna Fáil minister, is called upon to deliver the necessary planning permission. I had to do little research.
Regulation of banks and other such institutions requires objective legislators who are not over-burdened with grassroots concerns and who can preside over an independent system. In a small country such as Ireland, where everyone knows everyone else, this is difficult to achieve, as has recently been shown. A more sophisticated breed of legislator is needed.
This crisis presents a unique opportunity to change the nature of Irish politics. Polls suggest Fianna Fáil will suffer major attrition in the general election scheduled for early next year.
Enda Kenny, the Fine Gael leader and likely next Taoiseach, is already associated with promoting political reform. He is committed to abolishing the Irish senate, by way of referendum. He also says Irish voters are over-represented: he wants to reduce the total number of members of the Dail, currently, 166, by at least 20. His party has signalled it wishes to empower local authorities to deal more with local issues, thereby releasing national politicians from the suffocating embrace of their constituents.
With exports running at record levels and costs falling, Ireland, now facing four years of austerity, will grow out of this mess probably sooner than anyone thinks. And if political reform does come, it can emerge stronger and more prosperous than before.