A humbled Ireland looks to its roots

Enough is Enough: How to Build a New Republic, by Fintan O’Toole, Faber RRP£12.99

Irish Republicanism is overlain with the history of struggle against English rule, the war of independence, the civil war that followed and divided nationalists into opposing tribes that still dominate the main parties, and, of course, the bloody campaign of the provisional Irish Republican Army to eject the British from Northern Ireland.

It takes a brave man, then, to call for a new republic – with a small R, but big civic values – rooted in universal republican ideas and ethics.

After the monumental binge of the past decade, in which Ireland’s financial and political elites alchemically transmuted the real Celtic Tiger boom of the 1990s into a vast property bubble, Fintan O’Toole argues that “the republic is still an idea that can frame the search for public morality in a despairing Ireland”.

Indeed, unless politics and public life are radically transformed, he believes, there is no way out of the financial pit Ireland’s cronyist elites have dug, which all too many Irish citizens happily leapt into. “Irish people have had a crash course in the nature of self-serving elites,” he says, with their “notion that no self-respecting patriot could be expected to get out of bed for less than €250,000 a year plus a pot of gold at the end of the pension rainbow.” To this O’Toole counterposes “a republican ethic of citizenship in which excess is not worshipped, rules are agreed to and kept and responsibility is taken – for ourselves and our society”.

This is a trenchant critique, written with style and passion, fluency and sardonic wit. (O’Toole is an admirer of Swift, from whom he took the title of his best-selling polemic of last year, Ship of Fools.) A columnist on the Irish Times, O’Toole is an important voice in the debate reverberating across Ireland. Unabashedly on the social democratic left, he tends to polarise opinion in what is still a conservative country.

An admired literary historian and critic, he is patronised by rivals and critics who suggest it would be better if he had stuck to that. Yet Ireland’s vibrant literary world seems to have had a keener sense of where the country was heading than the cheerleaders of the Celtic Tiger – not just the builders, bankers and gombeen politicians who brought the country to its knees but the economists, commentators and so-called risk analysts who pulled on the green jersey to egg them on.

O’Toole suggests the Celtic Tiger frenzy filled the God-sized void left by the decline of the Roman Catholic church, and its quasi-theocratic control of sexual morality and social mores. “The Celtic Tiger wasn’t just an economic ideology. It was also a substitute identity. It was a new way of being that arrived just at the point when Catholicism and nationalism were not working any more.”

Now there is a new vacuum – the long-ruling Fianna Fáil is finished as a national movement if not as a party – and leadership, especially of the aspiring middle classes who had most to lose in this bust, is up for grabs. “There is a calculated judgment that the Irish people will take all the pain of shrinking public services, mass unemployment and forced emigration in order to pay off the gambling debts of their betters and that Ireland will remain politically stable,” says O’Toole. He does not believe this. What does he propose?

He retrieves the short, bell-clear Democratic Programme of the first Dail of January 1919 – Ireland’s first genuinely representative parliament – which stated that “all right to private property must be subordinated to the public right and welfare”.

There is an echo of Orwell in O’Toole’s repetition of the word decency and his assault on public squalor. Drawing on Tony Judt, the historian who issued a call to social democratic arms just before he died this year, he contrasts Ireland’s recent history with postwar reconstruction across Europe: “that vast public enterprise of putting a floor of decency underneath the feet of every citizen is one we have never experienced”.

He paints a picture of a highly centralised Ireland with an unaccountable executive and MPs devoted to clientilism rather than legislating. For example, the complex bill to reform the central bank went through the Dail in slightly over the hour before lunch, without a single minister present from the Department of Finance. The need, he argues, is for real local government, locally funded, freeing members of the Dail to focus on national affairs.

Other needs would include unravelling the cat’s cradle of board membership through which three dozen people dominate almost all Ireland’s private and public corporations, and for public appointments procedures to cut through tribal loyalties and build up an intellectual immune system. A republican agenda indeed.

The writer is international affairs editor

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