Watching the strong performance of UKIP in the English county council elections, I couldn’t help thinking how an English version of Fianna Fáil would do.
I suspect quite well, especially when one considers that one of the more curious aspects of modern British politics is the breakdown in traditional concepts of left and right along the political spectrum.
In particular, the assumption that left voters go to the centre before the right, or vice versa, just isn’t true. A more accurate reality is that modern British voters are prone to cherry picking from various points along the political spectrum, being left wing on health care and spending, but right wing on immigration and law and order. Tony Blair (a Fianna Failer if there ever was one) recognised this, and translated it into three successive election victories. Nigel Farage does too, judging by UKIP’s cross party appeal.
But what really would work for an English FF would be its classlessness, the fact that both entrepreneurs and social welfare recipients would feel perfectly comfortable lobbying the party, and not feel that the party owed a pre-loyalty to a different section of society. Fianna Fail’s centrist “whatever works” approach is a very attractive proposition for the modern non-tribal consumer-voter, provided it is accompanied by competence and not marred by self-obsessed corruption dressed up as party loyalty, something which Fianna Fáil suffered from in Ireland.
Perhaps Fianna Fáil should consider opening a UK franchise. After all, isn’t that effectively what it is in Ireland?
There is a sequence in Stanley Kubrick’s classic “2001: A Space Odyssey” which could provide a wonderful metaphor for the future of Irish politics. In it, there is an astronaut in a spaceship, clean, modern, advanced, the very epitome of progress. Juxtaposed against that image is a group of prehistoric apemen, throwing shapes and grunting at each other, as they scrabble in the dirt.
A scene from a film. Or a reformed Seanad operating alongside an unreformed parish-pumping whip strait-jacketed Dail. A Seanad that looks like the modern Irish nation, with both sexes having at least 40% representation, peopled not by professional politicians but teachers, businesspeople, farmers, artists and trades unionists. A Seanad that the Irish in Sydney and Sydney Parade Avenue both vote for, approaching the nation’s business from one side as Mattie McGrath and Michael Healy Rae do their thing in the other house. If the Zappone/Quinn model is adopted, the serious discussion about the nation will happen in the Seanad. It will be where the grown ups will meet, and the Dail will suddenly find itself under scrutiny for its archaic practices and vast swathes of strutting chest-thrusting pointlessness like never before. This is all to the good.
That’s potentially what’s on offer, and it is the most exciting prospect not just in Irish politics, but as a fascinating model for other countries in a post-party political age. If we do this, other countries will point and say “we want one of those!”.
And yet… I’m a sceptic about Seanad reform. If the Zappone/Quinn model is on offer, I will vote for that. It’s advocated by many people whose judgement I trust and respect.
But the fear still remains, that reform is only being dangled now because those who have defended the status quo for so long are now staring into the abysss of abolition, begging and pleading with us for their institutional lives and offering us anything, anything to let them live.
But what if we do? What if we spare them? Will it bring the Zappone/Quinn Seanad, or instead be used as an excuse to say that the status quo has been given a democratic mandate, and radical, big reform of the Seanad vanishes back into the mists they have kept it shrouded in for so long?
I want to believe. I really do. I want to believe that the choice in September is not between retention or abolition but abolition or reform, and that a vote to retain will lead to the Zappone/Quinn bill. But I need to hear it from Enda.
Sean Fleming TD’s odd intervention on the property tax, where he either a) did not read the legislation but nevertheless managed to have a strong opinion on it, b) read it but did not understand it, or c) was being deliberately obtuse in selectively interpreting it as a political stunt.
Whatever was the reason, he made Fianna Fáil look bad. I find this particularly annoying because it is not as if this government has not lied enough about real things that it should be held to account on, as opposed to deliberately omitting facts.
Fianna Fail is actually above this sort of stuff, and it’s not often you’ll hear me say that.
As we head towards Seanad abolition (possibly 20 weeks and counting?), a number of arguments are being raised as to why THIS unreformed Seanad should be retained.
1. “Yes, the Seanad should be reformed, but let’s save it first”. This argument would be believable, save for the fact that so many people who make it have opposed reform when they had the power to do it. Some Seanad reformers are credible and sincere. Many are not.
2. “This will give the Govt too much power”. Name all the times in its 76 year history that the Seanad has forced the govt to back down. Where was the Seanad on the night of the bank guarantee?
3. “If we let the Seanad be abolished, the Irish people will not agree to a new reformed Seanad later.” So? It’s their Seanad.
4. “The Dail is not capable of holding the government to account”. Surely that’s an argument for abolishing the Dail, not keeping the Seanad?
5. “The Seanad has provided a vital platform for different voices”. So would an Irish Times column, and be cheaper too. We should keep an entire House of Parliament for six people? This term’s Taoiseach’s nominees are so noticeable because they are so rare, and normally just hacks. As they will be again if the current Seanad is retained. Vincent Browne and Fintan O’Toole aren’t senators. Neither are David Quinn or Breda O’Brien.
6. “We need more time for reform”. No we don’t. The last in-depth report on Seanad reform was in 2006, where it was then let gather dust by many of those who now claim to be passionate reformers. Why did they not push reform then? Because they don’t believe in it.
7. “This is a power grab by the government”. What power? The govvernment already have all the power, a situation Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and Labour all seem quite happy with when in government
The fact is, most of the arguments for keeping the Seanad are theoretical, whereas the reasons for supporting abolition are based on its 76 year history.
I’d also be more convinced about Seanad reform if it were made by people who don’t have a vested interest in it. Many, like Gemma Hussey and Michael McDowell don’t, to their credit, but…
Finally, I’m all in favour of a reformed Seanad. I just don’t believe in future promises of reform from Irish politicians, who, as a general rule, have a difficulty with the truth. Of course, if they vote through reform before the referendum I’ll vote to retain. Maybe they’ll surprise us, but I doubt it.
There’s an old saying that the two most interesting things in the world are your own money, and other people’s sex lives. Irish people have an add-on to that. They are fascinated by other people’s money, and equally obsessed with keeping their own secret, so what I’m suggesting here will never fly in Ireland.
But just supposing if tomorrow the Revenue Commissioners publish a spreadsheet of everybody’s declared income and amount they actually paid in tax. What would be the outcome? Well, aside from the outrage and at least a thousand people haring it down to the High Court for an injunction, what else would happen?
For a start, we’d learn the truth about income taxes. People would see the huge amounts of actual income tax that the wealthy pay. We’d all immediately look up Michael O’Leary and Bono et al, and discover the truth. Or perhaps we’d discover that they didn’t pay that much after all, through some deft but legal accounting. But either way, we’d all know, and at least the debate would start from an honest base.
As to what would really be the result? I suspect that some very wealthy people would be revealed to be paying very large amounts in tax, and some wouldn’t. And the Revenue would immediately be on the spot to explain why, which would be a very useful exercise in itself.
But of course, it’s never going to happen, and not because of any conspiracy. If we put such a proposal to the people in a referendum, it would be overwhelming rejected, not just by the very wealthy but by farmers and publicans and middle ranking civil servants, because, as with everything in Ireland, the majority would have more to lose from change, and those who would gain probably wouldn’t vote anyway.
Repost: On the 25th November 1992 over a million Irish voters, 62% of those who voted, voted Yes to the 13th amendment to the Irish constitution. This was to give the right to travel to Irish citizens, which in the context of the day was primarily a right to seek an abortion in the UK or elsewhere.
In other words, the Irish people voted that day not against abortion as a practice, but merely as a practice to be carried out HERE. We specifically inserted into our constitution a provision to ensure that the state would not attempt to prevent the procuring of an abortion by an Irish citizen. When other countries ask are you pro-life or pro-choice, we ask WHERE will the procedure be carried out? How Flann O’Brien of us.
Of course, some pro-lifers argue that it is not practical to stop Irish women seeking an abortion abroad. Why then did we have to pass a constitutional amendment to specifically prevent the government from doing that? We did it exactly because an Attorney General tried to do it, and we were mortified at him taking all this right to life of the unborn stuff seriously, making a show of us in front of the Brits and everybody else.
I genuinely am conflicted as to where I stand on abortion, but I’ll tell you one thing: nothing makes my stomach churn faster than watching alleged pro-life Irish politicians dance the popular No Abortion Here jig, and then go all quiet when asked about defending the unborn being exported for abortion. They go all quiet because they know that most Irish people are not pro-life but geographical abortionists, cherishing the unborn until the moment the Ryanair boarding pass is handed over. If they really believed, they’d be advocating a reversal of the 13th amendment and a law making it a criminal offence to seek an abortion abroad. But that would conflict with the look-the-other-way values of the Irish people.
It’s an awful pity hypocrisy isn’t an Olympic sport, because we’d be weighed down with medals.
Some years ago, and this just popped into my head yesterday, for some reason, I saw an elderly couple of American tourists holding hands on a street in Dublin. Both were in their late sixties, I’d estimate, and the woman seemed slightly more infirm than the man. But what really struck me was the tenderness he showed towards her as she struggled to open a door into a shop, he making sure she got through and her thanking him with a kiss on the cheek. It seemed to me (and I could be wrong, of course) that they loved each other quite a bit.
Yet here’s the thing: she was black, and he was white. Now, who knows what their history was? They could have met in a retirement home late in life, or they could be married, I can only speculate.
But one thing is certain: when they were young and growing up, it was highly unlikely that either thought they’d end up in their later years with someone of another race. Not only was it not socially “done”, but in some states it was actually illegal.
The fact is, many of the arguments against interracial marriage are the same arguments used against same-sex marriage. That it is a breach with tradition. That is will somehow damage the institution itself, and that children raised in such an environment will be bullied. Above all, the core objection of many is that they don’t like seeing other people doing it. In the same way they didn’t like the idea of President Obama’s parents, they don’t like the idea of Adam & Steve.
Yet where are all the segregationists today who argued against equal rights for blacks and opposed interracial marriage? Where are the “we told you sos!”? They can’t all be dead. Where are their political descendants on platforms denouncing interracial marriage as an experiment that has failed and should now be reversed?
The truth is, they’ve shut the hell up and hope that nobody brings it up, followers of a social Voldemort who would just prefer if we all forget that the unpleasantness ever occurred.
That’s what surprises me about same-sex marriage opponents. Surely they can see the lay of the demographic land? 20 years from now we will see elderly gay couples sharing their golden years together, and where will the opponents of gay marriage be then? Hoping that nobody kept all those clips and newspaper articles of them opposing the tide of social evolution, because that’ll be seriously embarrassing.
Repost: For most of my life, Fianna Fail were the baddies. This was the party of Charles J. Haughey, of tapping phones and beating up political opponents, where corruption was the norm. This was the party where Ray Burke and Pee Flynn and Liam Lawlor were regarded as the mainstream, and where George Colley and Des O’Malley and Bobby Molloy were regarded as traitors for not going along to get along.
This was the party that ran on slogans of “Health cuts hurt the old, the sick and the handicapped” and “There is a better way” and then in power brought in even harsher cuts in spending.
But most of all, Fianna Fail were the party of minimum change, the establishment and the status quo. If there was anything wrong in Ireland, it was either Fianna Fail’s fault for doing it or not doing anything to stop it. Elections were about keeping Fianna Fail out, or at least keeping an eye on the bastards when they were in power.
Then Fine Gael and Labour got in on a platform of reform and change, and started to break promises within weeks. And not just economic promises. Within weeks of entering power, Fine Gael and Labour were abandoning any real political reform and instead paying their cronies the salaries they had attacked Fianna Fail for.
Which leaves me with a choice. Who do I vote for? The government with the biggest list of broken promises in the shortest time in Irish history? Sinn Fein? The Greens, who I have time for but have shown that even in government they struggled to have an impact? Could I vote for Fianna Fail?
What would Fianna Fail have to do to get me onboard?
1. Stop pandering. I have no problem Fianna Fail criticising cuts to public spending. What I have is a serious problem with Fianna Fail refusing to lay out, euro for euro, its alternative. If it can’t do that, if Fianna Fail has not got the intellectual capacity or the political willingness to do so, then it is trying to get elected on the same platform of lies as this crowd.
2. Become a proper liberal party. Fianna Fail is now a member of the European Liberals in the European Parliament. Now, I’m not so naive as to think that overnight FF can become socially liberal, but then, I would not expect it to. Nor does it even need to. Michael Martin should announce that the parliamentary party will designate certain issues, like gay marriage and abortion, as matters of individual conscience, and allow members to vote accordingly. It would be a major step for the party, put pressure on FG and Labour to follow suit, and allow constituents to lobby on those issues meaningfully.
3. Fianna Fail still has an ethics issue. Nothing has changed in FF to prevent the sort of carry-on from the past. The party should appoint an Ethics Commissioner from outside the party, someone of absolute public integrity, perhaps a retired judge, with the power to investigate and permanently dismiss any member from the party. Overnight, FF sets the gold standard on political integrity.
4. Set up an arms-length think tank, funded but not run by the party, with 51% of its board being non-FF members. The objective will be to examine and draft policies to reflect modern Republicanism, with the party free to pick and choose from its output, and even fly the occasional kite. It will also allow FF to broaden its support base without formally asking people to join the party. In the US, UK and on the continent it is becoming the norm for parties to draw on sympathethic exterior bodies. FF could look at the Centre Forum in the UK as an example. As a working title, how about The Lemass-Collins Institute?
5. Fianna Fail needs to start thinking about future coalition arrangements, in particular with Fine Gael and Sinn Fein. If Labour get hammered at the next election, an FG/FF coalition has to be an option for debate, and coming out with a simple historical “No” will lead to FF TDs and senators being made look like clowns on the telly and the radio, because the public does not respect that answer. Secondly, FF needs to have its SF answer ready. Where would FF stand on an SF justice or defence minister controlling Garda promotions, or an SF education minister rewriting what history is taught in our schools?
Of course, all this hinges on Fianna Fail not being dominated by an old guard who think that nothing has changed, and they just have to sit tight, shout at the government, lie to everybody else and wait for the clock to reset. They might even be right.
He has spent years in the Seanad blocking even the slightest of changes. What’s worse, he has pretended that he hasn’t, participating in every debate and report on Seanad reform and slowed up every reform with the “need for consensus” and “all-party agreement”. The truth is, the little people, the PAYE drones who pay his generous salary, expenses and pension should shut up and know their place, which is existing to fund him, not elect him.
On the other hand, just watch him with his councillor electorate, whom he treats like members of the Court of the Sun King, grovelling and forelock-tugging like an extra on Downton Abbey. If he had to carry a bottle of Listerine in the car for use after ensuring that the lonely farmer councillors had been satisfied, he would.
And now, abolition is on the cards, and suddenly, he’s calling for reform, proposing passionately the same tinkering minor changes that he stalled years ago. Calling for a third of the Seanad to be elected, or the Institutes of Technology to have votes, or some other gracious concession, he can feel his heart racing as he sees the ground possibly go out from under him. He knows it won’t be enough. Either the Seanad will be elected 100%, by real vocational voters, farmers and teachers and workers and artists, or it will be abolished, neither of which fills him with cheer. The Seanad has always been the preserve, for the most part, of the politician’s politician, and now the rabble are going to have a say?