Ireland votes for more of the same

Fianna Fail may have been routed, but the country’s likely new leader is not the man to clean up our

A few hours in to a redundancy party just before Christmas, an old friend of mine, whose rebellious streak never extended much beyond leaving Mass early, found himself squatting with his pants around his ankles on the grave of Charles J Haughey, the utterly corrupt Taoiseach widely blamed for starting the rot of galloping graft and cronyism that slid Ireland into the godawful mess it is in now.

Maybe it was the wind off the Irish Sea, or the thought of how he would explain this to his German wife and their nine-year-old daughter if he was caught, but neither the beer nor the anger in his belly could turn righteous indignation into a dirty protest. Like many a would-be Irish rebel before him – from Robert Emmet to the men of '48 – he found himself alone in the dark with his arse in the air.

It was in a similar spirit that three million furious, humiliated, exhausted people went to the polls yesterday, knowing that they need to make a dramatic change in the way Ireland is run, but not able to bring themselves to do it. Instead, what they are likely to prove is that, if sufficiently softened up, spun and made to feel that objecting would only make them seem like worse fools, turkeys will indeed vote for Christmas.

And so the man likely to take up residence on Monday in the office in Government Buildings where Haughey once received brown envelopes and his successor Bertie Ahern reluctantly accepted well-meant "dig outs" from absurdly generous friends is Enda Kenny.

Now Kenny is a decent enough skin, a man you could have no serious objection to if he was about to take the reins of your local under-14 hurling team. However, by some strange trick of fate, he is the leader of Fine Gael, the party that has been the principal rival of Haughey and Ahern's Fianna Fail party since Ireland's hobbled independence in 1922. He was only ever meant to be a stop gap, but somehow he has hung on because the real heavyweights in the party can't agree among themselves who should be leader.

Beyond the spelling of their names, there are all sorts of subtle differences between the Fine Gael and Fianna Fail that foreigners, particularly English people, could never hope to understand. But suffice to say Fine Gael is not as good at corruption and clientelism as Fianna Fail, and so it has not been elected as often or for as long as Fianna Fail.

When it has, this has usually only been with the help of Labour, a party that exists solely to frustrate and demoralise all those deluded, overeducated individuals who think all this must change. Then of course there's Sinn Fein, which is a kind of cross between Fianna Fail and the Catholic Church, but with extra guns, paedophiles and front businesses. That's all you really need to know about Irish politics.

It also helps if you can think of Ireland, à la José Saramago, like a piece of southern Italy cut adrift and lost in the mists of alien northern seas. Graft and gombeenism have always existed, but under Haughey they became institutionalised on an unprecedented scale, spreading from the banks and the civil service to the justice and regulatory system, where senior appointments seemed to be filled on their candidates' ability to look the other way. Unlike Italy, which has an independent magistrature, there are no checks or balances in Ireland. Those that object don't usually last long.

In an ominous augury for Ireland's bright new future, the moment the election was declared the plug was pulled on the Sunday Tribune newspaper, one of the few voices that consistently stood up against corruption. At the same time in ministries across Dublin, Fianna Fail was packing every state board with supporters and pulling every pork-barrel stroke and land deal they could before the movers came.

What Italian prosecutors would call a mafia, Irish politicians regard as seeing yourself and your friends right. Holding up your end of the round. In short, doin' da daycent ting.

Ireland is in the mess it is now principally because it did the daycent ting. In the greatest and most misunderstood act of personal generosity in world history, Bertie's old deputy Brian Cowen – having enriched Fianna Fail's traditional backers in the building industry by creating a property bubble beyond their wildest dreams – agreed to take on the debts of several incorrigibly crooked but ever-understanding banker friends who had funded the bubble and now found themselves embarrassed for a few billion when their round came to be paid for. Not only that, but they were in effect given an open bar. The result is a bill to the taxpayer alone of somewhere north of €100bn. It is one hell of a hangover.

The good thing is that Enda Kenny doesn't drink. That said, Ireland will wake tomorrow to find that it has elected a country schoolteacher with all the charisma of a bag of wet turf to get it out of this mess. With his own party so convinced of his ability that it tried to oust him again only a few months ago, who wouldn't be feeling confident?

I wish him luck, but really it's Ireland that will need it. I have suffered plenty of teachers cut from the same boulder as Kenny, and all they ever taught was how to keep your head down and take your medicine. Given the limited scope for manoeuvre Kenny and Fine Gael have already given themselves, they may as well cut out the middleman and hand the country straight over to the European Central Bank and the IMF.

With Irish banks now owing British ones at least €107bn (£90bn), why not go one further and give the place back to the Queen, if she'll have us? It seems the logical step now that we've been been pretty much recolonised by Sky Sports, Tesco and the tabloids. We would be getting a United Ireland into the bargain, granted one under British rule – but it would at least guarantee us a vote on Pop Idol.

Even if Fianna Fail is wiped from the political landscape as surely as the old Home Rule Party was in the last major electoral earthquake in 1918 – and I very much doubt it – like rushes in a newly drained field, they, or something very like them, will be back. Ireland needs a new deal, a total top-to-bottom clear-out, a new secular republic that goes even beyond the one suggested by Fintan O'Toole in his brilliant, angry Enough Is Enough and Ship of Fools. There is no shame in failure. The French are on their fifth republic, and boy, could they do with a sixth.

But with so much on the telly, and so many mortgages to pay off, there have been very few volunteers to sit out in the rain in our own Tahrir Square. Instead, there have been isolated acts of revolt and defiance. In the meantime the old ways of doing politics have not changed in any real sense. In my native Donegal today, votes were being herded in like sheep from the hill on the same old shibboleths of clan, locality and favours rendered.

You cannot but fear that Ireland, having passed from Tiger to Ostrich Nation, is taking a new trajectory to Sucker Nation. The Irish will forgive you anything. Just ask the English. As my friend pulled up his pants over Charlie Haughey's grave, he began to feel sorry for the old rogue who had bled the country dry as it sank into poverty and emigration.

Haughey got a state funeral, with food and drink for 5,000, and never spent a day in prison. Nor, by the looks of it, will Bertie Ahern. But why should we be surprised? This is the country where, as more than a million people starved to death during the Great Famine, only a handful rose in revolt in the debacle of the Widow McCormack's cabbage patch.

In electing Kenny, Ireland has fallen prey again to fear and shame, the old curses we were supposed to have long left behind. Unable to trust even itself any longer, it has elected someone who is so patently gormless, unimaginative and dull that he is surely unable to pull the wool over anyone's eyes.

They thought the same thing about Bertie and his anorak. How they laughed as he got lost in his own circumlocutions. And look where he landed us.

Fiachra Gibbons is an Irish journalist based in Paris.

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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit