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.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Tony Blair might be a toxic figure - but his influence endures

Politicians at home and abroad are borrowing from the former prime minister's playbook. 

On 24 May at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, a short distance from where he once governed, Tony Blair resurfaced for a public discussion. Having arrived on an overnight flight, he looked drawn and puffy-eyed but soon warmed to his theme: a robust defence of liberal globalisation. He admitted, however, to bafflement at recent events in the world. "I thought I was pretty good at politics. But I look at politics today and I’m not sure I understand it."

Blair lost power in the summer of 2007. In the ensuing nine years, he lost reputation. His business ventures and alliances with autocrats have made him a pariah among both the public and his party. A YouGov poll published last year found that 61 per cent of voters regarded Blair as an electoral liability, while just 14 per cent viewed him as an asset. In contrast, John Major, whom he defeated by a landslide in 1997, had a neutral net rating of zero. It is ever harder to recall that Blair won not one general election (he is the only living Labour leader to have done so) but three.

His standing is likely to diminish further when the Iraq inquiry report is published on 6 July. Advance leaks to the Sunday Times suggest that he will be censured for allegedly guaranteeing British military support to the US a year before the invasion. Few minds on either side will be changed by the 2.6 million-word document. Yet its publication will help enshrine Iraq as the defining feature of a legacy that also includes the minimum wage, tax credits, Sure Start, devolution and civil partnerships.

Former leaders can ordinarily rely on their parties to act as a last line of defence. In Blair’s case, however, much of the greatest opprobrium comes from his own side. Jeremy Corbyn inclines to the view that Iraq was not merely a blunder but a crime. In last year’s Labour leadership election, Liz Kendall, the most Blair-esque candidate, was rewarded with 4.5 per cent of the vote. The former prime minister’s imprimatur has become the political equivalent of the black spot.

Yet outside of the Labour leadership, Blairism endures in notable and often surprising forms. Sadiq Khan won the party’s London mayoral selection by running to the left of Tessa Jowell, one of Tony Blair’s closest allies. But his successful campaign against Zac Goldsmith drew lessons from Blair’s election triumphs. Khan relentlessly presented himself as “pro-business” and reached out beyond Labour’s core vote. After his victory, he was liberated to use the B-word, contrasting what “Tony Blair did [in opposition]” with Corbyn’s approach.

In their defence of the UK’s EU membership, David Cameron and George Osborne have deployed arguments once advanced by New Labour. The strategically minded Chancellor has forged an unlikely friendship with his former nemesis Peter Mandelson. In the domestic sphere, through equal marriage, the National Living Wage and the 0.7 per cent overseas aid target, the Conservatives have built on, rather than dismantled, significant Labour achievements."They just swallowed the entire manual," Mandelson declared at a recent King’s College seminar. "They didn’t just read the executive summary, they are following the whole thing to the letter."

Among SNP supporters, "Blairite" is the pejorative of choice. But the parallels between their party and New Labour are more suggestive than they would wish. Like Blair, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon have avoided income tax rises in order to retain the support of middle-class Scottish conservatives. In a speech last August on education, Sturgeon echoed the Blairite mantra that "what matters is what works".

Beyond British shores, political leaders are similarly inspired by Blair – and less reticent about acknowledging as much. Matteo Renzi, the 41-year-old centre-left Italian prime minister, is a long-standing admirer. "I adore one of his sayings,” he remarked in 2013. “I love all the traditions of my party, except one: that of losing elections."

In France, the reform-minded prime minister, Manuel Valls, and the minister of economy, Emmanuel Macron, are also self-described Blairites. Macron, who in April launched his own political movement, En Marche!, will shortly decide whether to challenge for the presidency next year. When he was compared to Blair by the TV presenter Andrew Marr, his response reflected the former prime minister’s diminished domestic reputation: “I don’t know if, in your mouth, that is a promise or a threat.”

The continuing attraction of Blair’s “third way” to European politicians reflects the failure of the project’s social-democratic critics to construct an alternative. Those who have sought to do so have struggled both in office (François Hollande) and out of it (Ed Miliband). The left is increasingly polarised between reformers and radicals (Corbyn, Syriza, Podemos), with those in between straining for relevance.

Despite his long absences from Britain, Blair’s friends say that he remains immersed in the intricacies of Labour politics. He has privately warned MPs that any attempt to keep Corbyn off the ballot in the event of a leadership challenge would be overruled by the National Executive Committee. At Methodist Central Hall, he said of Corbyn’s supporters: “It’s clear they can take over a political party. What’s not clear to me is whether they can take over a country.”

It was Blair’s insufficient devotion to the former task that enabled the revival of the left. As Alastair Campbell recently acknowledged: “We failed to develop talent, failed to cement organisational and cultural change in the party and failed to secure our legacy.” Rather than effecting a permanent realignment, as the right of the party hoped and the left feared, New Labour failed to outlive its creators.

It instead endures in a fragmented form as politicians at home and abroad co-opt its defining features: its pro-business pragmatism, its big-tent electoralism, its presentational nous. Some of Corbyn’s ­allies privately fear that Labour will one day re-embrace Blairism. But its new adherents would never dare to use that name.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad