Dr Diarmaid Ferriter, Professor of Modern History, University College Dublin


I was last here in 2010 and we addressed the notion of returning to the ideals and the ambitions of the founders of the state in order to rethink the Irish republican project. Much has happened in the 3 years since; the arrival of the Troika and the bailout and the consequent diminishing of sovereignty, the general election of 2011 which we were told amounted to a democratic revolution, the election of Michael D. Higgins as President, the Mahon report, austerity and significant emigration, more revelations of historic abuse, some apologies and of course, promises of political reform, coupled with an ongoing and destructive ambiguity about delivering that reform.

All of these themes, in their recent and historic manifestations raise big questions for the historian and are relevant to one of our central themes here this year; the contrast between rhetoric and reality, the preponderance of ambiguity when it comes to the nature of the Irish republic which the programme tells us we will celebrate in 2016, though I’m not convinced celebrate is the correct word: what exactly is there to celebrate? It seems to me there is much more to lament.

That is not to dismiss the efforts of those who fought for Irish independence nearly one hundred years ago, but in terms of delivering on the rhetoric of revolutionary promise in Ireland, there is much to lament and little about which to be optimistic. This is due to a distressing continuity in our historical experience of governance since independence and in the demonstration of ambiguity about, if not downright and cynical hostility to, the idea of fundamental change.

This is an issue that was directly addressed by Michael D. Higgins on his final day in the Dáil in January 2011.  He said that in 1969, when he first stood for election, he was conscious of the great failure of a country that called itself a republic, and 42 years later as he retired from party politics, he said, “I believe no real republic has been created in Ireland”.  There had been, he maintained, a failure to make political power republican because there has not been enough distribution of power.  From the foundation of this state, he asserted, the hegemonic power of the Department of Finance that was inherited from Britain was not challenged, and the monopoly enjoyed by government and parliament was not overcome. What is also clear from other interventions he has made is his belief that it is simply unacceptable that society, the economy and politics should be seen as separate spheres. That, in his view, is not what citizenship is about and historians, when they go searching for the reasons why we have ended up in the state we are in, need to consider the long-term impact of such compartmentalisation.

But what is disturbing is that there is still such hostility to ideas and consultation in Irish political culture today.  For all the talk of a “democratic revolution” in 2011 – these were the words used by Fine Gael and Labour to describe their election victory – there has been little sign of that meaning anything in reality. The Constitutional Convention, for example, does not address this in a meaningful way; there has been no consultation with the public regarding topics for discussion and one third of the seats are reserved for politicians which is hardly conducive to the notion of deliberative democracy.

Centralisation and unaccountable elites still dominate, if anything more than they did in the past; even the cabinet as an entity now plays second fiddle to the Economic Management Council, a four-person group within cabinet that makes all key decisions on the economy and spending. The decision not to countenance reform of the Seanad but instead opt for its abolition or retention as an unreformed assembly is a dangerous power grab that if successful will inevitably further copper fasten the power of a tiny elite to leave us in an even worse position than we are in now. Those with power do not want a reformed Seanad with enhanced powers of oversight and scrutiny.  Those who are seeking to abolish the Senate should be asked a simple question: have you learnt nothing about the dangers and consequences of the excessive centralisation and abuse of power in this state?

Most people agree that the decision to create the Free State Senate under the 1922 constitution was an enlightened thing to do, in order to ensure that minority, especially Protestant, concerns were heard.  It brought to prominence distinctive and independent voices (as it still does), but also occasionally challenged legislation coming from the Dáil.  Because Senators were obstructing the Dáil, De Valera abolished that Senate in 1936 as he was entitled to do because the 1922 constitution could be amended without a referendum. This abolition revealed the danger of a lack of constitutional safeguards, and the following year, de Valera introduced a new constitution.  At the Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis in 1936 he used these pious words in relation to the proposed new senate under his 1937 constitution: “I hope to see developed gradually here a functional organisation of our society by voluntary action and when that day comes the Senate which we are now proposing can very well develop in to a senate that will be representative of that organisation”.

The problem was that he did not mean a word of that.  Instead, he effectively ensured that the new Senate would wield no real power. It was a relatively toothless assembly of 60, elected by an elite of university graduates and other politicians, with 11 senators hand picked by the Taoiseach. There was a blatant manipulation of the requirement that 43 senators be elected from vocational categories; in practice these elections were used to bolster government support or compensate those who had failed to be elected to the Dáil; as Minister for Defence Patrick Dongean admitted in the Dáil in 1974, in relation to his time in the Seanad in the late 1950s, “I must admit that during that period I regarded the Senate, and I am sure the hallowed walls will not fall in when I say this, as a place or state of punishment where I must suffer until I returned to the Dáil’

De Valera’s dislike of second chambers was clear but was not shared by all his peers; his colleague Seán MacEntee, for example, pleaded with him, to no avail, not to allow the Senate to become “a complete creature” of the Dáil.  But for all its inadequacies, at least there was a role for the Senate in revising legislative proposals and subjecting them to greater scrutiny.  All proposed legislation has to be sent to the Senate; there it can be properly analysed, scrutinised and if it is flawed, such defects can be exposed. However, this is a power of delay rather than a power of veto; to address this we, in our current predicament, need a reformed senate that provides more scrutiny and more oversight, not less. Without such checks and balances, rushed and defective legislation can simply be rammed through the Dáil.

Proponents of reform are proposing a Seanad that will have more powers of scrutiny, the right to convene public hearings on matters of importance, a gender balance between the candidates elected from properly vocational panels, and the expansion of the senate electorate to include people entitled to vote in other elections, but also emigrants and people in Northern Ireland who are eligible for citizenship. It holds out the possibility of a properly representative and independent senate.

One of the chief causes of the contemporary crisis was the absence of alternative views and insufficient scrutiny of flawed decision making.  Handing absolute power to a dysfunctional Dáil, which in any case is a servant of the cabinet and its civil servants, beggars belief given the crisis we are in.  Reforming the senate at least provides some genuine possibility of moving towards a state conducted for the public interest, not one that is a separate, unaccountable and arrogant entity, divorced from the people it is supposed to serve.

Why the hostility to ideas and reform?  Why has politics remained more about power than vision?  As far back as 1903, Sinn Féin’s Arthur Griffith warned of the danger of “a cocky disparagement of the work of modern thinkers” as “characteristic of the shoddy side” of Irish nationalism. Young men praised an imaginary medieval Ireland and then wondered why Ireland was decaying around them: “Ireland’s clever young men…while knowing better in private, announced in public that Ireland’s innocence was more sacred than the wisdom of an infidel world”, an infidel world many Irish would ultimately emigrate to.  Too many of these “clever young men” sought to restrict free thought, but the ambiguities of these “clever young men” have often been forgiven by historians and political scientists.  In 1997, at the time of the 75th anniversary of the foundation of this state, political scientist Tom Garvin penned a robust defence of politicians’ performances in the context of their success in establishing the legitimacy of the state and its democratic institutions, particularly during times when other countries in Europe failed lamentably to do that. “Despite their mistakes and sins” he wrote, “the Irish revolutionaries-turned-politicians got it more right than wrong.” It appeared quite a convincing argument, underlining the achievements of the civil war generation in overcoming civil war divisions in order to create stability during difficult times.

But the cumulative affect of the various tribunal reports, most recently Mahon, and the current crisis, may require political scientists and historians to question or qualify some of their earlier assumptions about the achievements of independence and to look at the extent to which critics such as J.V Kelleher, a well-known Irish American writing in the Foreign Affairs journal in 1957, were correct in maintaining that a hostility to intellectual and psychological freedom was doing immense damage to Ireland.  He suggested in his article “Every democratic politician has the right to be pushed. The sad truth is that there has been no push at all in the Irish political situation since before the war.  Instead of vocal discontent, there is silent emigration; and in what emigration leaves behind there is apathy below and smugness above”. And what of those running the Irish show?: “to a great extent this has been achieved by a round-robin process of politicians, clergymen, professional Gaels, pietists and other comfortable bourgeoisie looking into each other’s hearts and finding there, or pretending to find, the same tepid desires”. He also identified a paternalism that required “the general public never be asked to register its opinion”

Taking the long view, perhaps the very impulses that created stability and centralisation in the earlier decades of independence also facilitated a neglect of civic morality and citizenship and the embracing of ideas and challenge –and the emigration of so many did not help. This neglect ultimately contributed to the sort of “systemic and endemic” corruption exposed by the Mahon report and, as revealed previously by the Moriarty report, what amounted to a devaluing of “the quality of democracy itself”.

There was not enough debate about policy, ideology or the consequences of a ruthless centralisation and authoritarianism and destruction of local government. As Garvin observed, whatever about devotion to national politics in 1922, “these unenthusiastic democrats were qualified in their attachment to democratic ideas and were not prepared to trust people with the power to run local affairs”.  After the laying of the state’s foundations, the practice of politics was simply about the spoils of the system rather than engagement with ideas about the nature of citizenship.  Politics was about management rather than vision. Irish politics became, in Brendan O hEithir’s phrase, about “how the bottom rung of the ladder to power is hammered into place” and then about how to keep that power once won.  Interestingly, in 1957, Kelleher referred to the absence of local government in Ireland and to the fact that the Dáil ‘is the only political forum in the country that has any semblance of real power –when  the democratic process is reneged upon there, the end of the line is reached’.  But even that was being overly generous; as Barry Desmond was to comment nearly 20 years later in 1975, “successive cabinets regarded the Dáil and the Seanad as wearisome intrusions into the routine of implementing cabinet and departmental decisions, the two areas of real parliamentary power” while Fine Gael’s John Kelly referred to the frustration with what he termed “a ghost parliament”.   Political culture was male dominated and a closed system in which those who had ideas about doing things differently were dismissed as maverick, or worse still, intellectuals who had no place or role in Irish politics. As Bertie Ahern – of that glorious class of Fianna Fáil politicians first elected in 1977 and which included Albert Reynolds and Pádraig Flynn – recorded in his autobiography, he had nothing but contempt for intellectuals challenging the ward boss conception of politics.  Ahern thought political intellectuals would “ruin the country…I kept my appeal very simple…I would turn up at supermarkets, to flirt with the housewives and joke about football with the husbands”. For him, the oldest rule in politics was that “the other lot are the opposition but you actually find your enemies on your own side: …….from the moment I won in 1977 the only plotting I was doing was about how to hold on to the seat at the next election”.  On such sophisticated foundations was built the career of a three times elected Taoiseach, the most electorally successful in modern Irish history after Eamon de Valera.  Voices seeking reform, decrying machine and clientelist politics and conceiving of both politics and the state in a different way were drowned out by those who sought to continue the ambiguity.  Failure to innovate was also about abrogating responsibility to the Catholic Church in too many crucial areas, including education, with a resultant narrow focus on what constituted immorality and national welfare which has resulted in a politics of cultural defence still being played out in the abortion debate today.

The network of alliances, powerful vested interests and pressure groups that were built up and facilitated corruption and the stymieing of debate did not just emerge in recent decades. They thrived, initially in a small, protected economy and in a society that was snobbish and hierarchical. This is a reminder that our focus should not just be on politicians; there were many venal people willing to buy Irish politicians, politicians who were exposed as corrupt or untruthful continued to be elected and endorsed and many of the Irish electorate sought to champion excessive localism to their advantage.  Likewise, in relation to the revelations of recent decades about the cruelty suffered by those locked up for the crime of being poor or being deemed morally suspect, it was not just state and church that created the circumstances that gave rise to excessive use of institutionalization. There were a wide range of reasons the women entered the Magdalen Laundries, for example, and a host of power alliances and socio-moral attitudes that facilitated their entry. If there was one thing nearly all the inmates had in common, it was poverty.  Thousands of poor girls and boys ended up in institutions because of their class and social background and Irish society – all strands – came to rely on these intuitions.  And therein lies another example of a typical Irish ambiguity; a denial that class divisions were relevant to Irish life, and the impulse to hide and incarcerate those whose existence and circumstances exposed the hollowness of the rhetoric of Irish republicanism.

Fifty years ago, in 1963, Seán Lemass referred to the Democratic Programme of the First Dáil in 1919, when newly elected Sinn Féin TDs unveiled their social and economic vision with promises of greater equality, humanity and an enlightened use of power, as not a programme in a real sense, but “an avowal of an intention to make national freedom, when won, the beginning of a continuing campaign to undo all the economic and social consequences of national subjection”.  What is striking in this is the phrase “an avowal of an intention”.  There have been plenty of such avowals in modern Irish history, but precious little attempt to move beyond them.  We don’t complain enough about this; if we accept a definition of republicanism that is about participation, a say in our fate, civic engagement and realising freedom and self-determination among citizens, we face the conclusion that any exaggerated celebrations in 2016 will mask the persistence of ambiguity and the endurance of the gulf between rhetoric and reality.

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