Opinion writer might be the dream job of many reporters who instinctively sense readers breezing past their bylines to read the star columnists. Nevertheless the position has its own challenges. For a start there is the relentless demand, week in week out, for opining, a task the bar bore might think easy enough, though his captive audience knows otherwise. To be properly engaging, one’s opinions should be fresh, enlightening and stimulating, but in the age of ready availability of online archives the search for engagement must be set against the need to maintain some intellectual coherence with one’s previous body of work. One does not want to relentlessly hammer out the same pet ideas forever using just one key, but neither would anyone with an ambition to be taken seriously plan to start out a Blueshirt and end up a Trotskyist, all for the sake of a good argument.
Then there is the reality, even at old-fashioned newspapers holding out against modern culture’s drive to reduce everything to bullet-points, that the canvass provided is a small one while the subjects opinion writers tackle are complex, and sometimes vast. And increasingly these subjects must be tackled in real time with an authority that readers seeking to make sense of a convoluted present find useful or reassuring. This can be treacherous, because events and their outcomes are unruly and rarely tidy enough to be convincingly analysed in a thousand words or (increasingly) less. This is especially so at moments of heightened instability in the affairs of humans. Traditionally opinion writers are better at spotting the historical nature of a particular moment than explaining what it means for the future and what our reaction to it should therefore be.
Back around the start of the decade, Ireland’s disastrous crash, which left it a ward of the troika, had been prominently covered in Brazil’s media and the wider financial crisis affecting richer nations left many Brazilians, possessed of bitter memories of dressing downs after their own experiences with economic calamity, with a wholly understandable sense of schadenfreude. Confidence was then coursing through Brazil’s society and the country had become the darling of the global investor class thanks to the dramatic 7.5 per cent economic expansion of 2010, a result of the bold counter-cyclical policies that its government implemented following the 2008 global financial crisis. It is almost totally forgotten now but Brazil’s economy crashed in the immediate aftermath of the black September of 2008 but underwent a whiplash revival once flooded with state credit.
From this Brazilian perspective Ireland’s surrender to austerity looked like an act of self-harm and many others, at the time and since, have agreed with that analysis. But now the roles have been reversed. After years of pain Ireland currently has the fastest-growing economy in Europe while Brazil experiences its worst recession since the Great Depression. Its government’s financial firepower almost exhausted, it is now paralysed, caught between implementing brutal austerity and allowing the country to drift towards the rocks of debt and stagnation.
Last year Ireland’s economy surpassed its pre-crisis level, leaving it set fair to undo some of the social wreckage caused by the crash. Meanwhile Brazil is locked into a dramatic contraction. Its industrial base, the main beneficiary of all that counter-cyclical spending, is on course ‑ if it is not already there ‑ to be smaller than it was on entering the 2008 crisis. Having previously rejected austerity on economic and ideological grounds, the Workers Party administration of President Dilma Rousseff is loath to implement it now but has not yet come up with a convincing alternative bar half-hearted suggestions of a rerun of the counter-cyclical policies that preceded its current plight.
Workers Party intellectuals and those on Brazil’s broader left argue that this time it will be different. But the country’s ability to tread the same path again is compromised by the fact that its starting position is now far less favourable than it was at the end of 2008. In this vacuum the party’s supreme leader, Lula, has warned that all the social advances made since he came to power in 2003 are now at risk. Despite a fiscal deficit of ten per cent of GDP, public services are being slashed by stealth and millions raised out of poverty during the Workers Party’s time in power have already been dumped back into it as the economy sheds jobs at a furious pace.
The point of these two sorry tales is not that austerity is preferable to its anti-austerity opposite but rather that outcomes are slippery affairs. It is exceedingly difficult to forecast the future and those who do so should always keep in mind that it is a fraught and possibly futile business. Unfortunately a cautious modesty is not the usual modus operandi of a successful newspaper columnist and in Ireland few are more successful than Fintan O’Toole of The Irish Times, arguably the country’s leading public intellectual.
For many of us whose first ever vote was cast for Mary Robinson, O’Toole was a formative influence. In a society politically dominated by two populist conservative parties and an arrogant, authoritarian Catholic church, he appeared not just as a pathfinder towards a more liberal, pluralistic society but also as a scourge of those forces that fought against its emergence, most thrillingly dissecting the real state of Irish republicanism by detailing the corruption clustered around Fianna Fáil.
But O’Toole’s long career detailing the crookedness of Irish political life, along with his Europhilia, an article of faith among most of the liberalising class, gave him a skewed understanding of Ireland’s economic crash. This is most clearly evident in Ship of Fools, his 2009 screed about “How stupidity and corruption sank the Celtic Tiger”. The book is an excellent retelling of the story of the graft and cronyism that infested Ireland’s political-business power nexus, which O’Toole had done so much to expose in the 1990s and into the new millennium. But its economic analysis is wanting, overlooking as it does the fact that Ireland’s crash took place in a wider global context in which states happily not under Fianna Fáil rule also saw their economies implode, some of these more, some less, corrupt than Ireland according to Transparency International.
Ship of Fools skips past the crucial fact that shaped the Irish crisis, not the country’s supposed land hunger, or the moral vacuum left by the disintegration of the Catholic church, but rather its membership of the euro. Of course economies outside the single currency were also skittled by the crisis, perhaps the best proof that 2008 was nothing more than another of the characteristic destructive spasms of capital that have been with us since at least the tulip mania of the seventeenth century. But the extraordinary inflation of the Irish economy and then the state’s inability to navigate an independent path out of the mess when the bubble burst took place within the context of membership of the euro.
Corruption in Irish political life has existed since the foundation of the state, though on a smaller scale than in some of our near European neighbours. This is not to deny the pernicious impact it had or the fact that this worsened under Fianna Fáil after CJ Haughey rose to prominence. But it is hard to argue that any of it equalled the damage done to the country by its membership of the euro, which allowed a previously unimaginable flood of cheap credit in until it eventually destabilised the ship of state. Rather than corruption, it is arguable that it was wishful economic thinking, rooted in our Europhilia, that caused the crash. And Europhilia was rampant at the time of joining the euro, when disdain for the UK’s decision to keep out was paraded as a badge of some sort of Irish superiority rather than an example of the naivety of a newcomer.
At the time of the Maastricht referendum, O’Toole was cementing his reputation by reporting on the beef tribunal and perhaps did not have the time to subject the proposal to rigorous analysis. But the desire to join was the result of a national groupthink that meant the only major party in the state which can now look back and say it opposed membership of the single currency is Sinn Féin. The benefit of being in the euro was an article of faith that united conservatives and modernisers. For the former it helped advance the project of shifting the state out from under the economic shadow of the old colonial master across the Irish Sea. For the latter, Europe was viewed as a font of social good thanks to the mixed market economy that O’Toole eulogised.
If Ship of Fools paid little attention to the European context O’Toole has since gone some way towards making up for the oversight, but without ever taking the time to wonder if ardent pro-Europeans like himself had been wrong about the nature of the EU project, preferring instead to argue that a group led by Angela Merkel betrayed it. The crash resulted in Ireland’s first serious falling out with the idea of Europe and O’Toole’s response to the EU-brokered deal that provided the state’s citizens protection from a brutal experiment in autarky was to thunder against the community’s mean-spiritedness. “European ideals and values have been exposed as window dressing,” he wrote in the immediate aftermath of the bailout, ignoring the fact that treaties entered into by the EU’s democracies, such as the one creating the euro, specifically ruled out any such bailouts:
Yesterday’s bailout of broken and delinquent Ireland is much more Versailles than Marshall. There is no sharing of the burden. There is no evidence of a single thought for the consequences of mass unemployment, mass emigration and war on the most vulnerable. There is no European solidarity. And there is not even a genuine sense of self-interest. The sadistic pleasures of punishment have trumped the sensible calculation that an Ireland enslaved by debt is not much use to anyone.
O’Toole predicted that the bailout would fail given that it shoved one of its members “into a vicious downward spiral of depression and debt”, calling the programme “a punitive, short-sighted and utterly unsustainable deal that will not solve the Irish crisis and that reduces the EU to the status of a banker’s bailiff”.
Fintan O’Toole is rightly praised for his penetrating insights into Irish culture and society. But as a forecaster, like most opinion writers, he has a decidedly dodgy track record. After Fianna Fáil’s victory in the 2002 general election he wrote:
Fine Gael, in other words, is finished. For the foreseeable future, the party will not be what it has been for 70 years: the core around which any alternative government could be organised.
Adding that not even Labour could save it, he told us “[t]he two-and-a-half party system is gone”. [http://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/ahern-master-of-a-quiet-revolution-that-produced-slick-ff-machine-1.1057850]
Five years later, with the economy already on the precipice, he was fighting manfully for a fairer redistribution of the wealth being generated by the Celtic Tiger. “That task of integrating economic progress and social justice is the fundamental job of our society for the next decade,” he wrote before Bertie Ahern’s third election victory. After Ahern fell short of an outright majority O’Toole was back facing the durability of the two-and-a-half party system he had declared finished five years before. Amazingly he recommended that Labour, the political party that then most closely represented his political philosophy, enter into coalition with the man whose corruption he had spent years denouncing in his columns. Such a deal opened up long-term perspectives for O’Toole:
Barring a catastrophe, Fianna Fáil and Labour can be practically certain of at least a decade in office. They could look forward confidently to the respective heirs of Patrick Pearse and James Connolly occupying the GPO for the 2016 celebrations.
Of course catastrophe was already under way and Labour’s refusal to follow O’Toole’s advice and thus find itself in government when the storm broke probably saved its political bacon, leaving it well-positioned to enter coalition with Fine Gael less than a decade after O’Toole had declared that party finished.
This mixed track record in forecasting did not prevent him from making dire predictions as Ireland signed up to the punitive terms of the bailout. As well as forecasting that this would fail he also warned that the EU itself would now be subject to a crisis of legitimacy for its failure to mutualise its crisis resolution. Here he might yet be proved correct if austerity helps deliver power to anti-EU parties. But this possible outcome should not distract from the fact that the EU’s opting for austerity was in part a response to the reluctance, enshrined in treaty, among voters in the EU core to bail out the periphery. For it to have gone ahead anyway and done so might have been the morally satisfying path but could well have provoked a very different crisis of legitimacy rooted in its own democratic deficit that might have led to disintegration anyway. History rarely presents leaders with a set of clear binary options no matter how much columnists pretend otherwise. One might say that the solutions are not always as obvious as the problems, or at least those that seem obvious should be treated with suspicion.
In this binary framing of choices, usually between good and bad, O’Toole and those like him who draw clear moral lines downplay the difficulty of navigating a path out of crisis for a supranational organisation built on top of multiple democracies, all to one extent or another wedded for better or worse to a model of turbo-charged global capitalism whose unruly energy is rapidly transforming our global society in ways that are contradictory and fiendishly difficult to predict.
O’Toole’s analysis consistently seeks to exclude the broader economic and geopolitical forces in play. His analysis of Germany’s role in the Irish bailout exists only to provide a villain for his story rather than involving any serious engagement with the complex realities and conflicts within that country. In O’Toole’s view, if the deal was morally wrong then it could not work. But when his predictions of failure were proven to be off the mark he had his answer ready, writing at the end of 2015 that “all of the things that have rescued the Irish economy from disaster are strokes of fortune”. [http://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/fintan-o-toole-a-toast-to-the-luck-of-the-irish-second-time-around-1.2478807]
Contrasting this analysis with the one he provided on the causes of the crash exposes a double standard. When things go wrong in Ireland it is the fault of our corrupt political class while external factors (which from abroad look suspiciously like determining factors) are relegated to the footnotes. When things go right, disproving his own predictions that they could not, then the role of the Irish state and behind it the sacrifice of the population in turning things around is to be ignored. Instead it is all down to “cheap oil, cheap money, the ECB’s belated reversal of policy, the strength of the US and British economies and the weakness of the euro. Luck, by definition, is about the things you can’t control and, for us, those things have turned out spectacularly well.”
Of course international factors have played a role in the recovery, just as they did in the crash. But behind the contradiction in O’Toole’s analysis lurks the suspicion that he cannot reconcile himself to the reality that the process of Irish modernisation with which he is centrally identified has so far failed to break the old Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael duopoly on power and that having led the country into disaster this stale double act is now leading it out of it. His frustration at the country’s peculiar political features is a familiar one among Irish progressives:
Having two big right-of-centre parties gives Irish conservatism both belt and braces. It can manage the dramatic gesture of whipping off the belt to whip Fianna Fáil’s behind, knowing the braces will ensure it is not exposed.
No credit can ever be given to this system, which he has spent his whole career denouncing and exposing but which despite all the changes in Irish society in recent decades remains entrenched, even if increasingly frayed at the edges. At the height of the crisis O’Toole called for the replacement of the democratically elected Fianna Fáil government by “a non-party technical administration” and for the country’s response to the crisis to be decided by plebiscite.
Sovereignty belongs, not to the State, or the government, but to the people. We have outsourced it for too long to an incompetent, amoral and self-serving elite. Now we face the starkest of choices: use it or lose it.
There is a Rousseauistic thrill to such language but a cooler head might spy in it an unintended door through which demagogy might sneak through. It also hints at a desire to find a path around the glaring failure of those among the roughly half of Irish society who now reject the traditional duopoly to build a viable political alternative, the chief culprit here being the political organisation that best represented O’Toole’s beliefs, the Labour Party, with its fondness for subaltern roles in right-wing dominated coalitions.
It also overlooks the problem that any “collective decision” by the sovereign Irish people would in no way be binding on foreign interlocutors. As Greece was later to learn under Syriza, a sovereign people might vote for something entirely different but still be left with a choice between austerity and a crude autarky that, as the debt crises of Latin America demonstrate, is usually the most brutal form of austerity of them all.
Of course Ireland did not go down the path sketched out by O’Toole, leaving him to label voters “timid” the week before they voted in 2011 for their refusal to embrace his rejection of EU-imposed austerity and plans for a radical reordering of Irish democracy and instead giving over half their votes to the old duopoly.
That timidity might now instead be seen as good sense when one looks at the relative fortunes of Ireland compared with, say, Greece. This is not to enter into a moral debate with O’Toole on the evils of austerity relative to its alternatives but rather to point out that given the seriousness of the situation, the relative balance of forces in the field, the best evaluation of what was available beyond the bailout and the uncertainty surrounding the outcomes offered by such alternatives, Irish voters demonstrated an unheroic but quite sound sense of realpolitik.
O’Toole’s early analysis of Ireland was rooted in its own realpolitik, that is the ability to look behind the rotting edifices erected by the Church and Fianna Fáil to the actual reality of the country rather than the official version, which no longer matched the experience of most people, if indeed it ever had. But dissecting the 2008 crisis and its aftermath has demanded skills beyond dissecting the ills of Ireland’s elite. And O’Toole, in undertaking this task, has settled instead for curating a certain type of liberal discourse (redux: “austerity is bad”) that does not allow or even have need for uncertainty.
The irony is that the voters are with O’Toole when it comes to social liberalisation, as the marriage equality referendum proved. But they do not yet trust him with their money. He thinks this a result of the historical cultural repression experienced by Irish society but a look around Europe would indicate that much of the continent has long favoured long stretches of conservative or Christian democratic government even as it evolves into a more socially pluralistic place. O’Toole has written reams on wealth redistribution but seems little concerned with its creation. It is hard to remember a tax or social benefit he has come across that he does not approve of.
But governing and deciding who governs us is not just a question about how to distribute wealth in the interests of social justice. It is a debate about where to strike the compromise between wealth creation, and the often unpalatable measures needed for this, and distribution. There is an inherent tension in this debate that has nothing to do with the moral superiority of the redistributionist agenda (or looked at from the opposite point of view, held by some Goldman Sachs bankers, the superiority of those wealth-creating titans carrying out God’s work). Most voters would sign up to no poverty, but they have the right to ask at what cost to themselves or to the future prospects of their children this would come. Opinion writers who acknowledge this tension will not only leave their readers better informed but will also find themselves better engaged with one of the central issues that voters have grappled with for decades in Western societies.
This could benefit O’Toole, who has confused the anger of the citizens with an appetite for radical measures when in fact much of the Irish electorate remains, in common with much of the European one, intrinsically conservative, a fact he should be more aware of having brilliantly engaged with it reporting from the frontlines of the country’s cultural wars.
In a complex and changing world calls for new republican beginnings, greater social justice and wider European solidarity might provide a rallying point for some of those uneasy about the direction of events. But no matter how desirable these things might be there is a risk that, once reduced to pieties and disengaged from the complex realities of modern societies coexisting in an integrated global economy, they will in the emerging century become for more and more voters practically irrelevant no matter how often politicians of all stripes pay them lip-service. However dispiriting this may be, conservative caution is as likely a reaction to troubled times as revolutionary action.
The recent election results bear this out. Rather than being evidence of the breakdown of Ireland’s “imaginary consensus” as described by O’Toole, political scientists might in years to come wonder how after a corruption-tainted crash and punishing years of austerity Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, once their unruly former members running as Independents are counted in, retained over half the vote, leaving Micheál Martin, after an apology and five years on the opposition benches, rehabilitated and in the running to become taoiseach.
O’Toole’s deep disdain for the enduring pattern of Irish politics, and behind it the conservativeness of the “timid” voters who sustain it, has seen an increasingly sarcastic tone enter his writing in recent years. One might speculate that this could be the cost of an intense personal engagement with the realities of public life over three decades. But dangerously the sarcasm comes with a flip-side, an increasingly unshakeable belief in the superior virtue of his own positions, which should be a warning light for any commentator. There has also been something of a narrowing of horizons, necessary in order to avoid engaging with the fact that perhaps the Irish voter, unhappy as he is with the status quo, will not risk anything too radical in the current climate of global uncertainty. O’Toole is a surprisingly provincial writer for one whose influence on Irish public discourse is so great. A stint in China has left almost no apparent trace on his thinking of how the economic re-emergence of this global behemoth is reshaping our world. His engagement with Merkel’s Germany reads as if conducted from a desk in Dublin.
Of course O’Toole once famously considered greater direct engagement in politics himself, having toyed with the idea of running for the Dáil as an Independent in 2011. One of the features of this year’s general election has been the rise of the independent TD, yet bar a few exceptions, this is a conservative expression of growing discontent with traditional politics, narrowing as it does the voter’s gaze further from the national to the local or single issue. Looked at from one angle the rise of the Independents might be read as the electoral arming of the citizenry against a self-serving political class. But considering the damage this does to the party system, how will greater accountability of the deputy ‑ another piety we can all agree on ‑ in the Irish context not just aggravate the tyranny of parish pump politics at the expense of the serious business of national governance?
The dream of a republican citizenry taking over from the professional politicians also overlooks the evolutionary role of parties in democracies. They exist because history shows people tire of permanent political mobilisation. It is why they delegate rather than leaving their fate in the hands of the most committed, too often synonymous with the most aggressive. In explaining his decision not to run in 2011 O’Toole wrote:
What if it were possible to stand, in every single constituency, someone not currently involved in party politics, but with a track record of civic achievement in business, in the arts, in community and voluntary activity, in sport, in single-issue campaigns? What if they could be united on a small core of big questions, while retaining their independence, so they could bring some free thought to the Dáil?
Some might spy in that idea the genesis of a new party. O’Toole, however, might find the debate involved in drawing up “a small core of big questions” instructive as to the difficulties of party politics and why it is an inherently disappointing system. After all, most broad-based parties are not conspiracies against the citizens of a state but rather a working compromise between groups of them. Countries that have flirted with new movements bent on ending corrupt political systems (such as Argentina’s Que Se Vayan Todos ‑ Kick Them All Out ‑ movement which followed the 2001 economic implosion) have quickly come to realise that while political parties may often be reprehensible institutions they still constitute the most practical method of mediating disputes across regions, classes and generations within a democratic polity. We can all be for more accountability within our democracies but achieving it is no easy thing or it would have been accomplished long ago. The brush with running for office seems to have brought some of this messy reality into focus for O’Toole. His article explaining his decision not to stand ends: “If nothing else, to misquote Karl Marx, I’ve been reminded that analysing the world is a lot easier than changing it.” It is a pity that his commentary since then seems to have ignored this lesson.
O’Toole’s narrow gaze also allows him to portray the cockups and conspiracies and now “cockspiracies” of Irish public life as a reflection of something deeply amiss, one could almost say uniquely so, in our society. His closely cropped view allows him to denounce Ireland’s public services as “squalid”. But squalid compared to what or to where and at what cost in the places where they are not squalid? Such language feeds a persistent belief among many Irish people that their country is little more than a banana republic, a term O’Toole largely avoids using though the rest of his language lends significant ammunition to those who do. Suffice to say that anyone who thinks Ireland is a banana republic should visit a real one to properly understand how the state they live in is not unduly burdened with intractable political disputes among corrupt elites governing masses bereft of hope.
Here is where O’Toole’s reluctance to widen his gaze is limiting. Which country would he have Ireland be more like? One might assume from his writings one of the Scandinavian monarchies (though without that region’s increasingly influential xenophobes). But such a forthright declaration would have to acknowledge the progress the Irish state has made to have such an ambition in sight and to accommodate the admission that there are fewer countries left to emulate thanks to that progress.
When he does venture a comparison in his columns it is usually to highlight some statistic that proves the country’s failings. Low wages, lack of social spending, lack of investment. But statistics are adaptable. If O’Toole wanted to understand the enduring power of the country’s conservative parties he might consider that according to the United Nations Ireland is the sixth best country in the world to live in, tied with Germany. Or that according to Eurostat, Irish inequality is close to the mean on what remains, even after the recent crisis, the most socially just continent on earth (again tied with Germany).
It is of course within a columnist’s remit to highlight what is wrong and what could be done better. And in Ireland there is much that could be done better, but this is a view that is shared by utopians and realists alike. For all the failures, the modern Irish state has also delivered successes. A sense of realism ‑ and proportion – are thus the most likely means to prove effective in driving forward debate and winning adherents to one’s side.
O’Toole’s writing in recent years, however, has been moving in the opposite direction. He has responded to the crisis with the urgency the situation demands but his moral indignation has not been allied to the forensic grasp of detail he demonstrated when laying bare the cronyism in Irish public life. Instead there has been a retreat into liberal pieties, placing him squarely in a wider trend towards the ideological siloisation of public discourse (hugely driven by the Internet) involving a failure to engage with both wider social, political and economic contexts and the innate conservativism of a majority of Irish and other European citizens. Instead his work is veering off into calls for a new republic, as if this will somehow prove more successful than the present model. France is on its fifth republic but it is hard to discern the advantages of regularly retooling the state. One is entitled to ask if this type of commentary continues to add to public debate or now serves rather to divert us away from the ground where key issues will be resolved.
As ever, future events will help resolve that question. And as ever the events keep coming, constantly reshaping our understanding of the world and testing our values. Angela Merkel, the scourge of the Greeks and author of Ireland’s austerity, is suddenly politically vulnerable because of her morally correct and widely praised decision to admit one million Muslim refugees from the wars in the Middle East. Meanwhile the euro zone crisis awaits its next flare-up while broader markets are in turmoil. China’s long transformative boom might have ended in a glut of overinvestment, useless spare capacity and bad debts. The US’s recovery remains underwhelming and is still doing little for long-stagnant workers’ incomes just as it enters an election process that seems to signal its gathering transformation into an outright plutocracy. Against this background, in an Ireland now accelerating away from the crisis of recent years, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil once again dispute the right to lead the state. Meanwhile, in Brazil, genuinely squalid public services are worsening by the day as the government holds out against a final surrender to austerity.
Tom Hennigan is the South America correspondent for The Irish Times and is based in São Paulo, Brazil.