Tuesday, 25 November 2014

The Case for "Fianna Gael"

It needn't have come to this but, to reprise one of the more nauseating political cliches of the 2008-2011 Cowen-Lenihan omnishambles, we are where we are. Today, the Irish political system sits astride a toppling steed destabilised by a crisis of its own making. The water charges debacle has left us with an unenviable choice. 

On the one hand, we have a political establishment which, having been forced, after decades of craven, lowest-common-denominator gombeenery, to concede that it is an ecological and economic imperative that the users of our crumbling Victorian-era water infrastructure must pay charges commensurate with its use - as they do for groceries, natural gas, heating oil, LPG, electricity, coal, turf and a whole host of other necessities - and then chooses to implement its new policy by establishing an opaque and inefficient national monopoly, adding Byzantine layers of bureaucracy onto an existing system, creating duplicative layers of management and administration, perpetuating the fetid culture of "everyone gets a bonus" that has infected whole swathes of our public sector and then, to add insult to injury, attempting to appoint political cronies to its governing body.  

On the other, we have a coalition of the social and political fringes led by such trustworthy figures as, er, Gerry Adams. The anti-water charges campaign - which is merely the latest incarnation of the more generic anti-austerity movement which has been active since 2008 - is like an inversion of of the Lyndon Johnson Great Society dictum of the mid-1960s - they're against all sorts of things, but they're for mighty few. Have they suggested a viable alternative means by which to upgrade Ireland's leaky water mains system? No. Have they made constructive suggestions as to how to reduce the costs of management and administration inside Irish Water? No. Have they provided specific, costed alternatives to the charging and metering systems that the government has sought to put in place? No. Have they provided any list of specific conditions that would have to be satisfied before they would be willing to come aboard a water charging agenda? No. And no, ladies and gents: "Make the rich pay" is not an answer. It's a slogan - and one which grows more meaningless by the day. Or maybe those who ask these questions are just "out of touch" (to employ another of their tired cliches) - perhaps such things as answers and proposals and solutions are luxuries that only the "rich" can afford.

In government, we have a coalition whose behaviour is capricious, arrogant, authoritarian and sleazy - dispensing patronage with a glee that they can't be bothered to disguise (e.g. John McNulty and Hilary Quinlan), demonstrating a disturbing lack of discomfort with the selective enforcement of laws (e.g. penalty points) and the arrogant dismissal of the concerns of whistle blowers (e.g. Maurice McCabe). Meanwhile in opposition, we have people who throw projectiles, barricade politicians in their cars, dispense death threats and threaten the physical safety of employees of public bodies. The situation brings to mind the meeting in the British Foreign Office between George Walden (a diplomat who was later to become a Tory MP) and Henry Kissinger (then as now, the former US Secretary of State). Walden asked Dr. Kissinger what he thought of the then raging Iran-Iraq War. Kissinger's characteristically sardonic reply: "It's a pity they can't both lose." This encapsulates the drama through which we are now living. A victory for either side will be unpleasant. However, there can be no doubt. If the "Jean McConville had it coming" coalition wins this battle, then it will truly be a case of "Would the last person to leave Ireland, please turn out the lights?".

For months now, my hope has triumphed over experience, reserving, as I have, my grim judgement on the state of the Irish right until concrete signs emerged of a new reforming force - likely to revolve around Lucinda Creighton and/or Shane Ross. However, as precious months go by, precious little is being achieved. My firm view now is that it won't. Few have taken into account the party funding laws that have proliferated over the last 20 years and the concomitant increase in state funding for incumbent parties. The last serious new political party to be created in Ireland was Democratic Left in 1992, the last centre right one the Progressive Democrats. The left independents and anti-[insert cause du jour] coalitions can only operate at the level at which they do because of the subsidy that is available to them courtesy of their amen corner in the media and the unions - who, one suspects, are not motivated out of genuine belief but of a desire to divert public dissent into something useless and destructive that will leave the public with no choice but to leave self-serving incumbent interests in situ. The next few months will represent a serious test to my hypothesis that party funding laws have rigged the battleground in favour of existing political parties and media pets like People Before Profit and the Anti-Austerity Alliance. But I no longer doubt my guess. There will be no third force of any significant or material character.

Even if I'm wrong, I can't see the creation of such a third force as anything other than a "so what?" moment. Its potential leaders inspire little confidence. Lucinda Creighton is a serious politician with an inner spark of classical liberal zeal - but she sticks depressingly to the script on the issue which, with the resolution of the Northern conflict, represents the new National Question, namely our continued relationship with the EU. Shane Ross has the intellectual heft and the private sector experience to make a formidable leader but he has shown a consistent preference for pavilion populism over the hard road of thankless engagement with the mundane nitty gritty of serious public policy - and why should he want to change now when it's worked out so well for him? Finally, Stephen Donnelly's political views seem to consist of little more than Stephen Donnelly's belief in how much smarter Stephen Donnelly is than anyone who isn't Stephen Donnelly - "I went to Harvard" is no more compelling a policy platform that "I'm an ordinary person". If this new vehicle can be started successfully, there seems little reason to believe that it will even amount to a new PD party, let alone a UKIP, a Progress Party or a Ron Paul Revolution. At best, it might become a new Fine Gael. At worst populist elements might turn it into something much worse like the derisory Direct Democracy.

This brings us to the solution that is finally crawling from the woodwork. The Sunday Independent has devoted part of its most recent front page headline to suggesting it. Leo Varadkar has described it as a right thing that would at first seem wrong. But the late Professor John Kelly put it somewhat more laconically: the match made in heaven. I am talking about a merger between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail. In the absence of a new third force, it has become increasingly clear that the left will eventually consolidate and when it does, there will have to be consolidated right to face it. The arguments against a merged "Fianna Gael" are superficially quite compelling. Both parties are tainted by corruption - Charles Haughey, Ray Burke and Liam Lawlor in Fianna Fail and Michael Lowry and the late Tom Hand in Fine Gael, to name but a few. Both have a history of dispensing patronage under a "Jobs for the Boys" system. Both have consistently interpreted the legitimate objective of looking after local constituency interests (which the sanctimonious left sneers at, preferring more politically correct metropolitan class patronage) as entailing the hijacking of national policy by local electoral considerations - look no further than the current address of the Legal Aid Board in Cahirciveen, Co. Kerry, the home town of the Minister for Justice who was in charge at the time when this supposedly "objective" decision was made. Both parties have presided over civil service continuity government, fostering a political culture which rewards politicians who attend Fleadhs and Ploughing Championships instead of grappling with their policy briefs. Both have been ideology-free, philosophy-free zones, which have allowed themselves to be driven by the tides of intellectual fashion without wishing to influence those self-same tides in any way - I believe the term is "centrist". Finally, neither has been consistently true to even what little philosophical definition it has had - remember Fine Gael's flirtation with leftism under Garrett FitzGerald, Sean Lemass's "We're the real Labour Party" motif or Bertie Ahern's cringe-inducing self definition as a "socialist"?

Nonetheless, I submit that what makes a merger deeply unattractive on the surface makes it attractive in a deeper sense. My thesis: Fine Gael and Fianna Fail are not the Tweedledum & Tweedledee combo that they appear on the surface to be; rather, the Civil War division between the two has been the fundamental source of their dysfunctionalities.

Firstly, the perennial wheeze on the left that Ireland is run by "two right wing parties" - Fintan O'Toole calls the phenomenon the Fianna Fail belt and the Fine Gael braces - disguises the true consequences of this systemic division. The arrangement has worked out badly for left wing politicians and political cadres - who have been denied access to the spoils of office like six-figure salaries, chauffeur driven sedans, expense accounts, government jets and lucrative retirement sinecures. However, it has worked out rather better for left wing ideas and philosophy. With the "right" permanently locked into power, the left has concentrated its efforts on colonising centres of power and influence such as schools, universities, civil service bureaucracies, unions, professions and the media, which are immune to the sceptered sway of the ballot box and which can build permanent institutional memory and continuity - no matter who is in power. This has led to a suitably paranoid right whose opposing tribes must contort themselves into the painful configurations necessary to win elections in a system where, absent ideological divisions of any meaningful kind, the only means by which to move voters into their own coalitions is to offer pork barrel blandishments.

Secondly, a consequence of the first phenomenon has been to give Ireland's left-of-centre voters the privileged status of "swing" voters. These voters are extremely influenced by the views of cultural and political transmitters in the left wing deep state and permanent establishment - such as unions, the public sector and the media - and this has led to the phenomenon wherein it is the instinct of whichever centre-right party is in opposition to rat the other out from the left. Remember how "right wing" the Bertie Ahern government of the late 1990s and 2000s was when Michael Noonan was the leader of the opposition? You know, the government in which Michael Martin served in no less than three ministerial portfolios? Well, it just so happens that now that Michael Martin leads the opposition and Michael Noonan administers the nation's finances, the current government - which includes the impeccably 1970s era Labour Party - is also "right wing"? It's not that either man has a genuine socialist bone in his body - it's that where the paper of record, the state broadcaster, the educational establishment, the arts and culture luvvies and those in receipt of a government stipend have such flexible loyalties and the majority has such fixed ones, the path of least resistance is to court the faithless and take the faithful for granted.

Thirdly, with little by way of ideology to fight over and no political threat to our chosen way of life, the FF/FG complex has been left with almost infinite freedom to fight over what it truly cares about - sinecure public appointments. Again, the pious left bitches and moans about this phenomenon with joyless monotony. However, once again, it serves them relatively well. Set against the few tens of millions a year that it costs to keep Blueshirt and Irregular bums warm, think of the billions that the left wing deep state has bilked out of the taxpayer by convincing generations of "right wing" governments to bid for their support in spending auctions - by 1975, Ireland had a top rate of income tax of 77% despite never once having had a left-led government. I call this the Homer Simpson doctrine and to illustrate why, I'll give you the following quote:

Bart Simpson: "Why'd you get Lisa a pony?"

Homer: "Because I thought she didn't love me."

Bart: "Hey Dad, I don't love you. I want a quad-bike."

Homer: "I know you love me so you don't get squat."

Poor Bart, and poor Middle Ireland. Her love goes unrewarded while her fickle rival gets to routinely threaten the solvency of the entire nation by her demands. However, now the decades of appeasing public sector interest groups have created a political paradox. With each passing political cycle, successful left wing campaigns such as the anti-water charges and (rather ironically) anti-property tax campaigns of the 1990s have gradually placed on the backs of the Irish taxpayer a greater burden than he can realistically bear. So, ironically, the massive growth in left wing sentiment between 1982 (when the right won a staggering 84% of the vote) and 2014 (when it failed to even muster 60%) represents bad news for left wing ideas, because the left wing surge that they are enjoying represents the unravelling of a "Heads I win, tails, you lose" electoral system whereby notionally conservative political parties bid for swing support from the public sector.

Finally, the left wing in Ireland has been flattered by never having had to bear the responsibility associated with the constant failures and dysfunctionalities of its policies. This is why the left in Ireland has constantly been able to hunt with the hounds and run with the hare - thereby setting the political paradigm through which Fianna Fail and Fine Gael have been forced to compete for power. In the 1970s and 80s, the left had its way on government spending - with (at peak) 30% of the Labour force employed in the public sector and 33% of houses being built by local authorities. And yet when the tax bill came due for this profligacy, who manned the barricades of the PAYE Protests? None other than the very ragbag of leftists and trade unionists whose endless appetite for spending had led to the necessity to impose such nosebleed taxes in the first place. In the long run, Ireland could do far worse than to have a left wing Taoiseach and Finance Minister to whose capacious rumps the public boot can be directed when it all goes wrong.

So there's an irony in all of this. Thanks to the Irish Water debacle, the Irish public sector left is busily engaged in sawing away the very tree branch on which it has been happily perched since the 1930s. A merged (or at least coalesced) Fine Gael and Fianna Fail after the next election would represent the first government since 1932 that owes the left nothing and will be able to consolidate its own support base by adopting policies attractive to it - particularly on taxes, spending and regulation. It might even - perish the thought - result in the horror of a left wing political bloc having to reach out beyond its angry urban coalition in order to attain power.

Now that sounds like just what the doctor ordered.