To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child.
The late twentieth century saw the fall of both Homo Sovieticus in Russia and, a little less noticed in the wider world, Homo Catholicus in Ireland. Autocratic nationalism replaced the former, forms of liberalism the latter. It has become apparent that neither of these developments has initiated a new era of stability. Quite the opposite. The future looks difficult for Russian nationalism, while in Ireland social cohesion has been melting steadily into a sea of unprecedented prosperity and discontent.
Neither society hankers for the status quo ante. Putin, who in his time appears to have been a very popular leader and perhaps still is, claimed the collapse of the Soviet Union was a historic disaster, yet he has done nothing to restore the communist ideal in Russian life. The Russian economy is now capitalist. Alexi Navalny, whose anti-corruption politics are nationalist and capitalist, is a more substantial opposition to Putin than the tolerated Communist Party of the Russian Federation, presumably a repository for low energy nostalgia.
In Ireland the party which might stand for a restoration of Catholic social power registers between one and three per cent in the polls. Not even the Irish clergy are pushing for a restoration, their shocked silence indicating an acceptance of the post-Catholic social order. Irish society now rejects any role for moral absolutism around individual personal freedoms, other than where the principle of consent is involved. The social force of the church has evaporated. Having lost its empire of influence, it must now find a role for itself or fade away.
Analysts and commentators in Ireland have frequently struggled to make sense of what is seen as a profound shift over a relatively short period of time. This interpretive difficulty arises from the widespread belief that Irish society, until very recently, was deeply conservative. As will be argued here, this was not actually the case. Social conformism, which was also a feature of the communist world, is a different matter from conservatism. That did reign supreme, though its force and tenure is not explained by religious obedience. It will be suggested here that Catholicism offered a framework of dogma endorsing already chosen behaviours, issuing from prevailing cultural and material conditions. The church deluded itself that these behaviours derived from obedience to its teaching.
When considering the ‘grimness’ of 1980s Ireland, a columnist in The Irish Times observed recently: ‘Nostalgia has no great purchase on public memory.’ This is certainly true but crucially the phenomenon extends back in time through the twentieth and nineteenth centuries. Nostalgia, as a kind of rear-view conservativism, was never a significant impulse in Irish politics. In the 1860s farmers did not look back fondly on the time when they had less land and paid tithes to the established church. Similarly, in the 1970s rural Ireland exhibited no nostalgia around the vernacular housing in which their families had lived frugally for generations. As Adrian Duncan recently reminded us in Little Republics, rural families enthusiastically embraced the modern bungalow. True, there was sometimes a view expressed in cities that it would be nicer if country dwellers had the aesthetic good manners to live in thatched cottages rather than alien-looking bungalows and ‘haciendas’, but rural families getting their first whiff of EEC money had very different ideas. They wanted change, ‘progress’ and modernisation. Their wish was to put poverty in the rear-view mirror.
Undoubtedly, the greatest evidence of non-nostalgia over the past two centuries was the relative ease with which the Irish language, seen by some as the badge of poverty, was left behind. If the Irish were capable of leaving their ancient language behind, it should hardly cause surprise that they are willing to leave the church behind. And when it came to casting aside the old patterns of social conformism once they ceased to be socially useful, the experience was not only painless but joyful.
The functionally conservative element in Irish society at the time Bungalow Bliss was published was the ensemble of radicals and others who opposed membership of the EEC. It was a time when Marx rested on many an anti-EEC campaigner’s bookshelves. Unsurprisingly, this cohort’s historically unmoored pie-in-the-sky visions of an Irish future did not impress the public. Well-stocked bookshelves proved an imperfect defence against derivative thinking.
Just as the Irish were not nostalgic, neither were they conservative. The thrust of Irish politics has been anti-conservative from at least 1800. Political energies were devoted to changing socio-economic circumstances, not conserving them. The Irish public have long looked kindly on any modernising possibilities which were believed likely to improve their political and material circumstances.
There are countless examples over the last two centuries. In pre-Famine Ireland there was a political passion for reclaiming marginal land as a means of generating wealth. Had a Repeal government been established in the 1840s, the Irish landscape would be unrecognisable today: for one thing there would be no bogs. Had Ireland been wealthy in the 1920s, Dublin would have been levelled and rebuilt as a modern city. After the Second Vatican Council the Catholic church, inevitably caught up in the Irish zeitgeist, became the leading sponsor of modernist building in the country. Nineteenth century altar rails were ripped out without a second thought. There was no pressure to preserve penal era churches, even as historical monuments. With the modest economic growth of the 1960s, the task of demolishing Georgian Dublin was enthusiastically embraced. Those suggesting preservation, which included the present writer, a Christian Brothers boy, were denounced by one government minister as belted earls and political queers from Trinity College.
Deep engagement with the innovative politics of democracy from the early nineteenth century offers another long-lasting example of the Irish modernising impulse. Arguably, this engagement constitutes contemporary Ireland’s greatest political legacy from the nineteenth century.
Overall, nostalgia and conservatism had little political impact in Ireland. The nostalgia for an imagined Gaelic past found in Thomas Moore and elsewhere was not genuine nostalgia but rather the political assertion of an historical right to self-government made in response to the colonial argument that Gaelic Ireland was barbarous and without culture. Politically, Moore was on the same side as the people who wanted to drain the bogs.
But if it has long been the case that Ireland was not politically conservative, there is a sense in which that may be changing. The elements of the Irish economy now widely celebrated by government and in the media are the global trading activities dominated by multinational companies. Leading political figures are committed to conserving what might be termed the Hibernian Trading Platform, not only as the dominant form of economic life but also as the key repository of Irish hopes and values. These are the new conservatives, hostile to change and in denial even as their model faces unprecedented challenges in the international arena and the evidence of massive damage throughout society becomes incontrovertible.
It should be acknowledged that attachment to the new conservative phenomenon rests on positive changes the country has experienced, and in this sense it is historically explicable. Important national political objectives pursued over a long period have been realised. The country is prosperous beyond the dreams of earlier generations, the poison of demographic decline has been halted, there is effectively full employment, and the state enjoys legislative autonomy within a voluntary alliance of democratic European states. ‘All is good, so why not keep things as they are?’ is the conservative thinking. Within its own terms this is an entirely reasonable point of view. One representative economist commentator, reflecting this rosy view of the present, has referred to our current economic condition as a ‘sweet spot’.
But there is a not-seeing-the-wood-for-the-trees problem in commentary of this sort. Something is not quite right in our arcadian end-of-history economy. There is widespread discontent and there is political instability, and it is not all about housing, massively destabilising as that crisis is. There are new structurally embedded levels of inequality and division in society. One part of the population has plenty of money available for discretionary spending. Indeed, this cohort is saving some 20 per cent of its income and still spending heavily on non-essentials. Others, some 45 per cent of the population according to one report, have nothing left at the end of the month. Another report from Deloitte puts that figure at 60 per cent. It follows that many people must either be in debt or be facing debt. Charities have never been in greater demand, causing the Irish Times journalist Mark Paul to ask: ‘How is it worse at the Capuchin Day Centre now than it was when the economy was in the toilet between 2009 and 2012?’
It is hardly surprising that the year 2022 saw a 25 per cent increase in homelessness. Sweetness is as sweetness tastes.
Behind the current social and political instability lie five decades of creeping disinvestment in society and in the idea of society. The culture of the trading platform does not rate social coherence as a political, cultural or moral good. The historically based Irish social contract has been casually violated. Loyalty to society and to the state is ebbing away. Forty-nine per cent of people between the ages of eighteen and twenty-nine are reported to be actively considering emigration to improve their material circumstances. Current conditions leave government politicians facing a fundamental discontent which is beyond the reach of even the most generous giveaway budget to heal. Once established, no level of residual Keynesianism can prevent the energies of neoliberalism dividing society into sides, those with and those without assets.
As options narrow and people begin, once more, to look towards the ports, many must now feel, like Bunyan’s pilgrim, that they face a slough of despond, but others, like taoiseach Leo Varadkar, are quite upbeat and see no swamp.
My vision for Ireland for the next twenty years is a positive one, a growing population, 6.5 million people, more than three million jobs. More investment; more trade; a society and economy that embrace new technologies of the digital and green transitions and opportunities to create new wealth.
To these words the taoiseach added that Ireland should not fear the future but ‘own it’.
In a world where power politics is once more acknowledged as the key element in international affairs, Mr Varadkar’s optimism, as leader of a country with no international power, is puzzling. It is as if the taoiseach is channelling Dr Pangloss. The powerless will not ‘own’ the future. Perhaps it would be better if tall talk shaped the world, but that is not how things work.
Domestically, the question now is what, if anything, can be done to roll back the process of social dissolution. The world is facing financial, political and environmental challenges of an immense scale. These will impact on Ireland and are not conducive to business as usual. The prospects for conservative Ireland are poor, but in the absence of robust social politics, that which might follow could bring an acceleration of incoherence and inequality. A xenophobic fantasy politics involving a version of ‘the great replacement theory’ is one of the darker possibilities. Already, characteristic government insouciance has breathed life into authoritarian anti-democratic forces whose thugs now threaten violence on the streets.
Just beyond the mounting instability of the prevailing order lies the existential matter of climate change. This is the huge challenge and dwarves many other issues, such as unsustainable debt. Climate collapse is undermining the earth’s natural systems. Every day there are straws in the wind. There can be no question of postponing the response to what is upon us, and any response ‑ even if it is to fail ‑ will have to address the question of degrowth, which certainly will not facilitate business as usual. Martin Wolf of the Financial Times argues that growth must continue, that democratic capitalism can deliver the necessary technologies and that only tyranny could deliver degrowth. But reliance on non-existent technology as the earth bakes is a conservative impulse at odds with the concerted action required to avoid disaster. If democratic capitalism, with its attachment to the death wish of compound growth, is incapable of addressing degrowth, perhaps a regulated private enterprise economy, with healthy markets and constitutionally constrained by democratically endorsed non-negotiable social infrastructure might have a chance.
Even unambiguously pro-capitalism journals such as Mr Wolf’s Financial Times treat change within the financial order as beyond question. The neoliberal let-it-rip approach is being wound down and quietly disowned. One prominent contributor recently commented:
The failings of the political and economic paradigm known as “neoliberalism” are now familiar. However well suited it may have been to addressing stagflation in the 1970s, neoliberal policy has since then fostered grotesque inequality, fuelled the rise of populist demagogues, exasperated racial disparities and hamstrung our ability to deal with crises like climate change … If capitalism is to survive, it will need to adapt as it has done in the past.
As the perceptive economic historian Adam Tooze commented: ‘We are witnessing a redrawing of the boundary between the government and business on both sides of the Atlantic’, adding: ‘The future once mapped by global business has been put profoundly in question.’
Indeed it is widely agreed that in the world taking shape around us politics will direct business rather than the other way round. The US, for political reasons, wants American corporations to reduce their commitment to China; that is exactly what they are doing and will continue to do, as directed. Business is not independent. The era when it behaved as if it were is passing, and if there are any Irish conservatives hoping for a revolt led by Harvard MBAs they will be disappointed.
The return of politics has been under way for some time. Following the Brexit referendum, Angela Merkel made it clear to German industrialists that they would lose much of their British market, that there was nothing they could do about it and that they should stay out of the debate, which was a political matter. That is exactly what happened. Brexit itself was another example of politics moving to pole position, as indeed has been the rise of the xenophobic and illiberal right across Europe, encouraged and supported by Russia. Trump-style populism in the US offers another dramatic example.
Reacting to the return of politics, Adam Tooze stated a plain truth: ‘Our world will be what the powerful make of it.’ If the Irish wish to have a say in the future, their only option is to redouble their EU commitment. The EU is the only power centre open to us. But our celebrated economic model already conflicts with the EU interest. This conflict is likely to deepen unless we manage to change direction.
It is widely agreed that Ireland is over reliant on Foreign Direct Investment, especially from the US. But changing that will be difficult because we have allowed a situation to develop in which we are dependent on FDI taxes to pay nurses, teachers and gardaí, among others. Extricating ourselves from this hole will not be easy.
FDI, described as the ‘bed and breakfast’ economy, is of its nature insecure and destabilising, but, in the absence of an alternative, there is no choice but to keep feeding the beast. We cannot afford to appear lukewarm. Because we cannot control FDI, we can never refuse an overture. We never know when a US company will decide to downsize or even repatriate production. Thus it is inconceivable for us to say to a tech company that we do not want another 1,000 jobs because our population is fully employed, or at least those with the necessary skills set are, and if we were to bring in 1,000 workers from abroad, there is nowhere for them to live, unless rising rents are used to force another 1,000 people onto the streets. We can never say no, in case we are not asked the next time and a country such as Portugal or Poland steals our great-place-to-do-business crown. In the long run, reliance on the FDI model is a recipe for societal collapse.
This is not to denigrate the amazing work of the IDA, which is a success in the tradition of the great semi-states. It should never be forgotten that that work saved the country’s bacon post-2008. Its talented executives did what the political class asked of them. The failure of the politicians was and remains their willingness to countenance an economy which flies on one wing.
Another consequence of the trading platform model is that it erodes sovereignty and unavoidably involves a degree of what our friends on the other island refer to as ‘vassalage’. Little gestures of assertion can be made but we are not in a position to disagree with the US on a matter the US views as serious and substantial. Vassalage in relation to the US could impede our involvement in EU development and could see progressive Irish marginalisation within the only global centre of power open to us. For the moment, Ireland has to hope that tensions between the US and the EU remain small-scale. An even more grim scenario would see Ireland effectively choosing a US-facing foreign policy over an EU-facing one and replacing the British as the wreckers within the EU.
To extricate itself from overreliance on FDI, it would be necessary for Ireland to look at shifting to a more balanced economic model. The alternative is to build a robust indigenously based export economy primarily aimed at the EU market as the means of promoting integration, prosperity and independence. However, achieving a more balanced economy along these lines is easier said than done.
Probably the main state agency capable of making progress on what would be a medium- to long-term strategic objective is Enterprise Ireland, in conjunction with organisations like Bord Bia. But in order for such a shift to work, it would be necessary to accept that it cannot happen solely as a result of encouraging Irish entrepreneurial activity in the international marketplace. Various policies promoting organic economic development have been tried and found incapable of delivering transformative results. Efforts were made in the 1930s and again with the economic expansion programmes of the 1960s. Later it was hoped indigenous growth would occur through spin-offs from and linkages with the FDI sector. An energetic Enterprise Ireland is today pushing local exporting industries through various supports. Initiatives in the past did bring results. De Valera’s economic programme added a huge number of industrial jobs in the 1930s, and the results being achieved today by Enterprise Ireland are far from insignificant. However, they have not achieved the necessary scale. The figures show 70 per cent of exports come from the FDI sector. In a socially and politically healthy economy, it would be the other way round.
From the point of view of Ireland’s new conservatives, increased state involvement in promoting indigenous exports would contravene fervently held beliefs and would involve an ideological leap. But the state is already heavily involved in economic intervention. Arguably, what would be required is simply moving the line demarking the limits of state intervention a few degrees south, as required by our circumstances.
The Enterprise Ireland brief could be expanded to encompass the scale of research and development necessary to identify the products and services likely to work in the EU market. Food and tech are obvious areas, but presumably there are others. To embrace such a national strategy successfully, it would be necessary to rediscover the spirit that gave us Bord na Móna, rural electrification, the ESB, and so on. State financial support would have to be provided to private companies of proven potential and the state would have to have an appropriate long-term equity interest in assisted companies. There is no point in setting up innovative companies which are then snapped up and scaled up in the US. The price of public money would be a major say in strategic objectives and equity. In this scenario Enterprise Ireland would gradually replace the IDA as the key agent of economic policy.
The political task would be to win derogation from EU rules regarding state aid. This objective could be promoted in the context of promoting a vision of full integration of the periphery in EU economic and political development. The timing is relatively positive for developments of this sort. The rigidities of the single market are coming into question. This began during Covid. The supports now being provided to German industry facing increased energy costs as a result of the invasion of Ukraine are another significant modification. Joe Biden, in an effort to turn back the destructive effects of neoliberalism in the US, is committed to restoring the status of traditional blue-collar communities. He has made it clear he is planning to use state aid to businesses to do this. Already his inflation reduction legislation makes massive aid available to green industries on condition that manufacturing takes place in America. Indeed, Brussels is scrambling to match his supports to ensure Europe does not lose green companies to the US. The mood music is changing. As Tooze remarked:
We are in an era of turbulent transition. New modes of industrial intervention are our best means of responding to the multiple challenges ahead. These involve countless conflicts of interest.
The direction of Biden’s policy in the US, including the many smaller measures he has introduced, clearly points away from the global free trade we have known and towards tending his own US garden. Europe will of course respond, albeit carefully. Its place in the world rests on its manufacturing base. Its terror is deindustrialisation as a result of being squeezed by both the US and China.
It is now open to Ireland to argue for the type of state aid calculated to serve the long-term interests of the country within the European Union and to bring about a socially and environmentally healthy economy.
However, the response of the Irish government to Biden’s innovations and clear intentions combines denial and innocence. Leo Varadkar warned against a ‘tit-for-tat’ response. He believes that, with a little good will, the world can still have business as usual and politely explains that Biden is in error, that everything can be talked better.
Europe and America benefit from free trade and won’t benefit from any form of protectionism. We’ll be very much a voice at the table in Brussels in February for the US and the EU to come together and agree how we can work together to boost green industries.
Michael M Grath, explaining why he was at Davos, confirmed the government’s unthinking attachment to the trading platform model:
It’s primarily because the companies who are at Davos this week collectively employ tens of thousands of people in Ireland. It’s important that we have political leaders here from Ireland to support the work of the IDA.
It would be wiser for the Irish government to listen to what Biden is saying and also to realise that both Republicans and Democrats are united in their intention to restructure world trade in their efforts to end the threat from China. It is unknowable how these policy changes will play out but business as usual is an unlikely outcome.
Potential tension between the EU and the US is the wider geopolitical context Ireland must navigate. The debate will presumably pick up once Russia’s western advance is halted, assuming the proxy war does not spiral out of control. In the meantime, Europe is grateful for US military support and for NATO. Self-marginalisation within the EU is the danger Ireland faces.
The overarching argument of the present essay is that if a politically effective assertion of social values is possible, if the enormous positive energies in the country are to generate a coherent political dimension, it must rest on considered historical engagement, an objective to which this essay aspires to make a modest contribution.
The recently completed centenary celebrations of Irish political independence had a curious and telling hesitance about them in relation to contemporary Ireland. It seemed as if normally vocal elements had lost the capacity to say anything of note. Significantly, there was no substantial debate on the type of society in which the newly prosperous Irish might wish to live. Yet this is the basic question of politics throughout the ages. Why, it might be asked, was this most fundamental of questions largely ignored in our centenary celebrations. The answer is, undoubtedly, connected to the influence of neoliberal thinking. Public discourse has, it seems, unconsciously come to accept that, ultimately, it is the activities of business and not politics which determine a society’s character, with the implication that the notion of democratic politics being the main and proper force shaping society is delusional. The implication is that it is folly to debate choices, such as how we wish to live, when those choices are not actually ours to make. These decisions, and they will be the best decisions, will be made by the market!
Interpreting Irish neoliberalism with exclusive reference to the phenomenon internationally does not reveal the full story. The Irish version of neoliberalism has its own historically based characteristics. Irish austerity after the financial crash, for example, was not as vicious as British austerity. Politicians here did not imitate George Osborne’s anti-working class sadism. The historical legacy of cohesion ensured that as the tax income grew even the most pro-business elements had a relaxed approach to the idea and practice of redistribution. Foreign direct investment relieved Irish politicians from the always toxic debate around supply side economics. The source of investment capital for successful exporting enterprises was largely abroad. There was no need to argue it could be found locally by privileging the rich and squeezing the poor. Not even the PDs wanted to do that. Thus, in Ireland a progressive taxation system was maintained through the neoliberal era.
But redistribution without a rigorous commitment to building social infrastructure in effect becomes handout politics, a politics which has proved incapable of halting the transfer of wealth to asset owners and the slide towards social incoherence. In the absence of overwhelming governmental support for social infrastructure, mere ‘social supports’ erode self-esteem and the sense of personal, community and national identity necessary in a stable, politically coherent society. Had social partnership infrastructure, a bête noire of the neoliberals, been maintained, the social dissolution that has been experienced over the past decade would probably have been greatly mitigated. Houses would have been built.
It should not be difficult to understood that everyone cannot work in high-paying tech and pharma jobs and that for society to function a vast range of economic activity is required, much of which, of its nature, must be less profitable than FDI companies. A grounded politics would recognise this and also the moral and political obligation to foster a culture and social infrastructure which would include rather than exclude those who were not high earners. The social folly of the new conservativism is reflected in the reported existence of a presumably well-meaning company whose slogan is ‘no science no problem’, set up to assist people such as nurses, chefs, soldiers and fitters to transition into high-paid pharma and tech jobs. In this way is society hollowed out.
Leo Varadkar, in his intellectually chirpy manner, was recently reported to have commented that prospective emigrants would not find conditions much better abroad. Despite the outrage that followed his remarks, he was not being gratuitously unpleasant. Arguably, his underlying meaning was that it is the responsibility of the individual to make something of her or his life and that there are plenty of opportunities in Ireland. If you fail to take those opportunities you are, well … a loser, and moving abroad won’t change that. So please, don’t be a loser, get on your bike not on a plane. Remember you are never more than thirty minutes away from a high-paying tech or pharma job.
The question which follows from these reflections is whether there is a historically viable social politics possible in Ireland today? In attempting to answer this, one preparatory question worth considering is whether a different form of politics could have prevailed in Ireland over the first century of its political independence. Let us look briefly at some of the options.
In Russia the closest equivalent social class to the ruling class in the early decades of Irish independence was the kulaks – mostly prosperous peasantry. The Soviets liquidated this class by means of exile and murder. Subsequently, the USSR collectivised agriculture and industrialised quickly under centralised authoritarian rule, a model entirely at odds with Irish democratic political culture. All efforts to introduce versions of the Soviet model into Ireland, and some were very energetic and involved talented and even ruthless people, ended in failure.
If communism was a non-starter in independent Ireland, neither ‑ and sadly from this writer’s point of view ‑ was muscular social democracy a serious possibility. The social democratic constituency was a numerically slight working class augmented by ‘progressive’ segments of the middle classes. Despite occasional waves of enthusiasm and clarion calls such as ‘The Seventies will be Socialist’, nothing much happened, or indeed could happen.
An additional difficulty, as signalled earlier, was that the economically dominant in Ireland did not ideologically resemble the property-owning classes in Britain and across Europe. Class hatred was never a significant phenomenon in the sense that property-owning elements were quite well-disposed toward the respectable working class and poor. (To be sure they found the underclasses, especially in their socially disruptive and anarchic manifestations, unacceptable.) The legacy of cohesion and national struggle meant the prevailing feeling was, all other things being equal, that it was an important aspiration that the conditions of the poor should be ameliorated and those of ordinary working people improved as far as possible. This was a culture which was reinforced by the voting power of the less advantaged under the proportional representation system. Keynesianism was the natural politics of pre-neoliberal Ireland.
Prior to the advent of new-right thinking there was a level of commitment in Ireland to serious social infrastructure. At a time of relative national poverty, Fianna Fáil built vast swathes of housing for those who could not reasonably aspire to private ownership. For this they were rewarded handsomely by voters who might in other circumstances have supported a social democratic party. (Under the market-knows-best ideology, as readers will be aware, that public housing stock was later sold into private hands as an exercise in social disinvestment.)
With the advent of substantial economic growth in the 1990s, people stopped emigrating and the social democratic constituency began to grow, along with the population in general. Sinn Féin, which is not a fully social democratic party, in the sense that it is motivated by its own particular overriding objectives, has, according to the polls, won the support of this constituency, a remarkable achievement given its previously modest support in the Republic. It remains to be seen just how socially ambitious the party’s politics are. The danger is they will divert to lionise the Provo war and its ‘heroes’ and that their political impulses will be at odds with the deep democratic traditions of the Republic. There is the further danger that SF in government ‑ if it makes it ‑ will be distracted by the project of implementing a United Ireland while side-stepping the question of unionist consent. This too could bring the party into conflict with deep-seated Southern impulses.
One of the fascinating questions in Irish politics is why the new social democratic support did not flow to the traditional social democratic party, the Labour Party. In answering that question various missteps have been referenced by commentators, but some broader historical factors should also be considered. The Labour Party, as the oldest political party in the state, operated under socio-economic conditions in which the classic working class was decidedly a demographic minority. That must have affected its sense of political possibility as it came to occupy a small, unthreatening role in the body politic. (It need not, of course, have been quite so unthreatening.) The party was routinely patronised by elements within the parties of private property and, when the numbers required, it could confidently be called on to ‘do its duty’. A reverse takeover by the former crypto-communists of the Workers Party, who had developed in a social democratic direction following the collapse of the Soviet Union, did not change very much. There was also, with notable but rare exceptions, on the part of grandees and members alike, a dislike of political and historical thinking, which did not help.
Following the financial crash of 2008, the Labour Party did not rock the boat but supported a clearly articulated ‘national interest’ in preference to what seemed a nebulous socialist one. It would be facile to imagine that the choices were easy or easily identifiable. But unquestionably, there was at that time a rare opportunity for the Labour Party to begin to become a national party of government. Nothing in its history had prepared it for this moment and to achieve such a major transformation would have required a high calibre of political leadership and vision, which was simply not available. As a result, Labour collapsed electorally, and at least as the polls have it, the mushrooming social democratic vote transferred to Sinn Féin. It remains to be seen whether Labour, in the new demographic conditions, possibly along with other social democratic forces, can manage to restore its fortunes.
Once again, if a social politics of substance is to emerge it is necessary for Irish society to understand the historical character of Catholic social influence and, in particular, to understand that Catholic influence did not prevent an otherwise viable social politics. There is a widely accepted view today that the church was, as it were, an evil incubus somehow visited upon Irish society and that all manner of evils followed therefrom. It will be argued here that any politics which embraces the incubus theory is essentially false and fails both to understand that Catholicism as a social influence is now a spent force and that placing Catholicism at the heart of Irish historical and political development is inaccurate and distracts from the task of understanding and challenging the new conservativism. This is not to say that Catholicism in its social dimension did not, in addition to certain positive features, become a repository of society’s most negative and vicious impulses or that residual matters, such as a religious congregation’s ownership of land on which the National Maternity Hospital is to be built, or surviving state deference towards religious orders, should not be vigorously contested.
Neither in its rise nor in its fall was modern Catholicism a central determining force in Irish history. Its ascent to overweening social influence was largely a symptom of larger historical processes which, when they lost historical potency in the late twentieth century, allowed for the swift removal of the church to the politically ineffectual margins of society where it now rests, leaving to contemporary politics important legacy issues such as the abuse of vulnerable persons over long periods in Catholic institutions and the future of its very substantial property portfolio. Had the church had real political power, it could not have been dismissed so easily.
The rise and fall of Irish Catholicism cannot be understood without reference to the nationalist passions that shaped Irish politics and public life from the early nineteenth century, and particularly the national response to the disasters which befell Irish society in the 1840s, a consequence of a foreign-based government’s indifference to Irish interests. These nationalist passions were the unrelenting desire to break the link with imperial Britain and, by so doing, to develop an autonomous Irish economy and culture that would sustain the population and realise a respected and independent status for the country and its people at home and in the world.
The politics which followed, articulated in Enlightenment-based terms, was more socially and politically powerful than Catholicism and actually shaped the Irish version of Catholicism, which was quite different from the politically conservative Catholicism of nineteenth century Europe.
The modern phase of Ireland’s struggle for political autonomy can be traced to the early nineteenth century. When the numerous phases of this protracted politics are considered, it is clear that the struggle engaged the bulk of the population, men, women and even children. In the pre-Famine decades women, for example, sat in the ladies’ gallery at the Corn Exchange on Burgh Quay engaging with the arguments for repeal of the Union. Women writers and intellectuals contributed to the explosion of journals published as the Famine ravished the country in the late 1840s. The Ladies Land League played a politically clear-headed leadership role later in the century and, as is widely known, women were active through the revolutionary period. Moreover, throughout the nineteenth century there is evidence of nationalist political awareness among children. For example Irish boys at the Yorkshire Benedictine boarding school Ampleforth in the early nineteenth century celebrated O’Connell and his achievements, to the irritation of their English peers. A slight familiarity with the libraries of convents devoted to female education suggests there was a thorough engagement with the objectives of national politics.
The bulk of people engaged in the struggle for Irish legislative autonomy were explicitly or implicitly motivated by the desire to replace rule from Westminster with a democratically controlled national government which would bring into being a society ‘worth living in’.
The distinctive and robust contemporary Irish attachment to democratic politics is undoubtedly linked to the lengthy experience of mass political engagement in pursuit of representative government and national autonomy. It is a political asset which few if any countries enjoy to the same degree. It is, however, an asset which could be squandered.
If the origins of Irish social coherence, which has in recent times been in danger, lie in the shared experience of persecution and the prolonged communal struggle for democracy and autonomy, with independence in 1922 came the challenge to realise the various objectives implicit throughout lengthy and disparate political campaigns. For most there was a self-evident need to build an economy capable of supporting a population which would grow, and in growing reverse the demographic holocaust that had raged since the 1840s. The elimination of poverty remained a constant objective from the eighteenth century. The desirability of economic growth was equally a constant of mass politics from the early nineteenth century, though emphasised to different degrees by different leaderships and their associated intelligentsias. These impulses carried into the independence period.
But progress in the independent era was painfully slow and a political revolt by the people-of-no-property was prevented only by the continuation of the heavy emigration of the poor which had begun a century earlier. A largely rural-based small-property-owning class was left in charge. This class was thoroughly committed to the development of a successful state and economy, but on its own ideological terms. The resulting political culture of national development secured the viability of the new state, but it was also a society where farmers enjoyed tax privileges and also one where the comfortable middle classes received relief on their holiday homes while the taxes paid by bus drivers were, it might be argued, used to subsidise the university education of upper middle class children. Inequality was accepted as a natural condition and, as the country was not rich, there was a great deal of poverty and misery.
The society which existed against this background of relative economic stasis was not conservative but it did cultivate particularly rigorous protocols of social conformity around external observable behaviour. It was a world in which an unspiritual, dogmatic and defensive variant of Catholicism fitted well, providing a framework for behavioural conformity.
This social conformity prevailed in a society haunted by insecurity, nervousness, interpersonal and inter-family competitiveness, and also what might be termed an unavoidable viciousness. These negative characteristics followed from economic underdevelopment, whose main symptom was a continuing decline in population. Population decline as experienced on the ground meant that only a proportion of any new generation would find a way to remain in the country enjoying a reasonable livelihood. In effect this meant competition to determine who was allowed to stay. Those who failed in this competition were effectively pushed out. This is the respect in which a certain everyday viciousness or meanness of spirit prevailed.
In such a climate of economic underdevelopment, property and its transfer between generations became society’s crucial business. Marriage was the contractual institution at the heart of property transfer. The property involved could be land or shops but also intangible ‘property’ such as family-based power to shepherd a child into a secure trade or profession. Social protocols around legitimacy were enforced rigorously. Any misstep in this area could mark out for exclusion not only the individual but potentially her entire family. In the conditions of a stagnant or declining population, it could be said that society was looking for people to exclude. For a woman a great deal hinged on being perceived as ‘respectable’. Indeed women bore the brunt of the coercive pressure to conform, not least due to the wider patriarchal character of society. The destruction of a family’s prospects and property through male alcoholism attracted considerably less opprobrium and indeed was often tolerantly characterised as ‘a good man’s weakness’. Once again, the church, which had a lighter touch on the subject of alcoholism and other forms of male destructive behaviour such as familial abuse, offered society an acceptably unyielding position on the subject of illegitimacy and the social restriction of women. Intolerance of homosexuality was in comparison less severe, presumably because gay people did not challenge the integrity of property transmission.
The impression of the author is that women from the property-owning sections of society were the ones who appear to have received the brunt of social disapproval. This was particularly so among what might be termed the petty bourgeoisie and upper working class. The well-off had resources which could be deployed to deal with illegitimacy under the radar. While the social class dimension has yet to be unravelled, it seems, again to the present author, that illegitimacy among the poor was often managed internally. Where the underclass and urban poor was involved, it was the state, more than families fearful of their status, who acted. The courts and the police kept orphanages, reformatories, industrial schools and Magdalene Homes busy. It would appear this was the state’s way of maintaining public order and, of course, the church provided the labour required to maintain this web of carceral institutions where inhuman treatment was the norm. By 1951, one per cent of the population was confined in such institutions.
In June 1950, The Irish Times published a pamphlet entitled The Liberal Ethic. It comprised a collection of letters to the editor, published over the first months of the same year. The exchange comprised a heated dispute on the subject of liberalism versus Catholic authority, at a time when Catholic social influence was at or near its peak. It revealed the hubris which underlay the church’s understanding of its status.
The exchange commenced following the publication of a report on a lecture delivered by Fr Felim Ó Briain, professor of philosophy at NUI Galway, under the heading “Liberal Ethic Condemned by Professor”. In it Fr Ó Briain is quoted as saying:
One of the fields of freedom in which Socialists agreed with Liberals was a free morality – the ethics of free love. According to this view, the ten Commandments, original sin, and the inclination to sin were impositions of a crafty priesthood on ignorant and superstitious medieval people or, as in the Socialist version, the tricks of the capitalist to maintain wealth in the hands of the exploiters. So, freedom of love was as essential as any other freedom, as necessary as eating and drinking. But sexual freedom would entail, as a necessary consequence, artificial prevention of births. As this was not infallible there must also be freedom of abortion and the state education of the children who, in the new free society, were an obstacle to the pleasures and fun of their parents. Enlightened Liberals and Socialists were claiming all these liberties, and, indeed, in many countries they had secured them.
For Ó Briain the only possible defence of the social good against the moral chaos inherent in liberalism was application of ‘the full Christian code’, a code which only the Catholic church was equipped to delineate and oversee. He was equally hostile to both liberalism and communism, claiming in one letter that each tended towards political and ‘economic absolutism arising from the uncontrolled free enterprise of the one and from the rigid totalitarianism of the other’. Both systems, he said, led to ‘moral anarchy’. He regarded Fabian social democratic politics with contempt, seeing them as inconsistent and illogical.
Before Ireland became liberal it was clericalist and highly supportive of Ó Briain’s ‘full Christian code’. Indeed, the high level of public support it enjoyed was one of Irish Catholicism’s unusual features. Professor Ó Briain, however, misunderstood popular support as obedience.
Where the Catholic spirit was strong, where there was a majority of practicing Catholics, the discipline of the church was accepted willingly by the people.
Liberalism was a curse which the church would see off. The only woman who partook in the Irish Times correspondence commented wryly that given the high level of illegitimacy in the country there must, in fact, have been more liberals in Ireland than Fr Ó Briain supposed.
The western European norm was limited social support for the Catholic church and its ‘code’. Ireland, in its wide support for the church, was unusual, but this was a support which reflected social priorities.
When it came to the USSR, a comparable level of approval for communist values was completely beyond the reach of the Soviet state which, from the outset, found it necessary to resort to severe violence in enforcing conformity. In Ireland nothing comparable was necessary. In cases where coercion was employed, milder and indirect forms of violence generally sufficed. The standard practice involved enforcement through institutionalised bullying and, where deemed necessary, the incarceration of dissident, vulnerable and ‘errant’ individuals, particularly women. and children. But the greater part of conforming society was unaffected. Indeed, the violence involved was socially accepted or, more accurately, ignored in a society where there was a general acceptance of Catholic authority, agreement with its values and with the idea that it was necessary to enforce them.
In continental Europe, the Catholic church tended to cleave to property, and especially conservative landed property. That was not an option in Ireland, not least because the gentry was overwhelmingly Protestant. Moreover, by the time of independence landlords had lost the bulk of their estates following decades of political pressure exerted by their Catholic tenantry. Land agitation was one manifestation of the broad nationalism which, as has been noted, was the predominant form of popular politics from the early nineteenth century. In order to achieve social traction and grow, the church had to engage positively with this unalterable political phenomenon. It had to defer to popular politics. This was not the normal course for the Catholic church. In Western Europe, where the church generally sided with elites, popular movements were frequently anti-clerical. Ireland was different. In Ireland Catholicism was fashioned in the image of the laity.
For the Catholic church seeking a future in Ireland after 1800, it was a question of engaging with the Irish masses or abandoning the field. In the early nineteenth century the Irish public was probably the most politicised population in Europe and democratic politics were chosen as the optimum method of winning concessions from the imperial power. As an unavoidable consequence, the church also found it necessary to effectively endorse democratic political practices. Indeed, most of the clergy emerged from the ordinary life of the country and embodied these values along with their religious faith.
The political character of the Irish clergy was quite different in its tendency from the direction in which the Vatican was moving. Following the panic caused by the French Revolution, Rome moved steadily in a conservative and anti-Enlightenment direction through the nineteenth century. But the acceptance of nationalism and democracy in Ireland meant that the politically conservative thrust of the Roman church in the nineteenth century and beyond was considerably muted in Ireland. The irony was that the Irish church in the nineteenth century was thoroughly ultramontane in its structures and religious practice but unRoman in its politics, or at least in the politics it endorsed. This Janus-faced Catholicism managed to look in both directions.
At no point in his contributions to The Liberal Ethic did Ó Briain consider that the support of the people with which the church allied itself after 1800 might at some point be withdrawn. Indeed ,as noted, he misunderstood that support as obedience. But just such a withdrawal was to occur a short few decades in the future when, to put it plainly, the type of social cohesiveness available from the church was no longer required or valued.
The evidence for the limited acceptance of Catholic authority was widespread and evident in numerous small ways. In 1952, the Archbishop of Dublin overreached himself and tried to use his authority to prevent a football match with communist Yugoslavia taking place. He was ignored. There was a huge turnout. Soccer was a different matter from the control of women. Similarly at various times antisemitic views arrived in Ireland, wafting in on clerical currents from the French Third Republic and the Vatican. Apart from the shameful violence in Limerick fomented by a Redemptorist priest and a casual antisemitism found mostly among narrow bands of the educated and professional classes, there was no popular response.
Ó Briain knew full well that criticism of democracy was out of the question and, given that Irish democracy was thoroughly supportive of the church there was hardly any need to criticise. Nonetheless, being part of a world religion led from Rome was important for him and he was pleased to note that Pope Leo XIII wrote two encyclicals in condemnation of liberalism, Immortale Dei and Libertas, and one in condemnation of socialism, Quod Apostolici Munus.
Significantly, Ó Briain does not mention Pope Leo’s encyclical Graves de Communi Re, which denounces democracy in the sense of government by the people, a position already implicit in his anti-liberal encyclicals. Nor did he refer to the fact that the same pope had condemned The Plan of Campaign in the 1880s, or that Pope Pius IX’s syllabus of errors was implicitly strongly hostile to democracy. This diplomatic silence on his part reflected the Catholic church’s untypical political position in Ireland, where it was in close alliance with advocates and practitioners of democracy. This alliance characterised pre-split Parnellism, it was to re-emerge under Redmond and again from the 1920s when the church began to take on the character of an ancillary to the state.
In the pre-Famine era of national political assertion, the church, as the only national institution not controlled by the government, was co-opted by the Catholic political leadership to support mass politicisation. Some among the clergy resisted this pressure while others enthusiastically supported the popular cause. Ultimately, the logic of the church’s dependence on the public determined its overwhelming support for democracy.
Religious practice was to change dramatically in the post-Famine era. Indeed, the church is usually and correctly charged with imposing new religious practices on the population from the time of Cardinal Cullen’s ascent in the period following the disasters of the 1840s. The recipients of church attention were the post-Famine people, who were a culturally disorientated and deeply wounded population engaged in a radical re-orientation of the agricultural economy and faced with a level of population collapse which posed an existential threat. Church-sanctioned devotions came to replace the more social and autonomous practices of the pre-Famine era as a markedly authoritarian and unspiritual form of Catholicism gradually spread.
Cardinal Cullen and others seemed to sense the possibilities on offer in the cultural and political winter which followed the twin defeats of the Catholic bourgeoisie and peasantry in the mid-nineteenth century. The full clericalisation of Irish life emerged as a tantalising and realistic possibility. It was a project which was realised steadily. Between 1850 and 1900 the number of priests rose by 61 per cent (from 2,300 to 3,700) and nuns by 533 per cent (1,500 to 8,000). This massive growth took place during a period when, as populations rose dramatically across Europe, in Ireland they plummeted in a fall unmatched anywhere else other than perhaps among native Americans. The surging numbers of nuns, priests and religious brothers were essential to the effective clericalisation of society, which was to continue well into the twentieth century.
As early as 1870 Archbishop Cardinal Cullen had the Carlow Magazine supressed because it had published William Carleton’s The Red-Haired Man’s Wife. Carleton’s crime was to have converted to the Church of Ireland. Censorship, particularly after independence, was to become a key instrument of the Catholic social order. Public denunciation from the altar and elsewhere was also an important measure. The painful case of The Tailor and Ansty was one unpleasant example, as was the public humiliation of Brian Trevaskis on The Late Late Show in the 1960s, an event reminiscent of the Soviet show trials. The last public figure to be denounced from the altar was the outstanding humanitarian and democratic socialist Jim Kemmy, who in 1983 was excoriated for recommending limited access to abortion services, including for victims of rape. He subsequently lost his Dáil seat, despite the labours of many, including the present author, to help him keep it. But even as this display of power was made, the end of Catholic influence was under way. Straws seemed to arrive in the wind on a daily basis. Women in particular were increasingly outraged by what society expected of them and indeed the Women’s Movement became a central catalyst of change.
Ó Briain’s main opponent throughout the Irish Times correspondence was Dr Owen Sheehy Skeffington, professor of literature at Trinity College Dublin. Sheehy Skeffington might have made a case for permitting certain personal freedoms on the grounds of the rights of minority church members. However, he would have found emphasising Protestant rights unattractive, as it suggested a confessionally fragmented Irish nation as opposed to a republican whole.
Less than two decades following the publication of The Liberal Ethic, the argument for freedoms based on diversity and minority rights found increasing articulation. The change which facilitated this was the advent of a significant non-Catholic demographic, whose origins were Catholic. Skeffington’s anti-corporal punishment campaign in the 1960s – which the present writer supported as a schoolboy ‑ was perhaps the first of many to draw on the support of the new demographic. (Assaulting children in school remained legal until 1982.) The ‘lapsed’ or ‘à la carte’ Catholics, now present in sizeable numbers, were a crucial addition to the liberal movement. They could not be accused of being essentially outsiders or worse, latter-day agents of the former imperial power. Once it was impossible to tar one group of liberals with that brush, it became impossible to tar anyone. This had a liberating effect on liberals from a Protestant background, encouraging involvement, and saw some individuals going on to play outstanding leadership roles in the movement for legalising personal freedoms.
This alliance and the ultimate outstanding successes of the movement for personal freedoms had one remarkable side effect. It had the effect of ending centuries of effective apartheid and mutual hostility between religious communities. Thus, the inclusive liberal ideology of the late eighteenth century finally took on substantial form, a full two centuries after the United Irish movement. Today in the republic, only out-and-out cranks care about a person’s religious background.
When it came, some time around the turn of the twenty-first century, the fall of clericalism was relatively swift, facilitated by the powerful accelerant of multiple abuse scandals. It wasn’t exactly a cliff face, as a slow erosion had been under way from the sixties. Nevertheless, the scandals were the moment when the loss of influence became definitive. It was revealed that behind the walls of unregulated clerically controlled institutions there was frequent violent and sexual abuse, particularly of children. It was the exposure of this evil, at a time when liberal ideas were spreading in society, that broke the informal contract between church and people. It transpired that Catholic Ireland took the religious teaching of the church seriously. Indeed by then the accepted province of church influence was increasingly confined to the religious sphere.
One of the basic teachings of Christianity is that individuals are made in the image and likeness of God. One can see how this principle must have aided the spread of Christianity across Europe. Believing that as an individual you are not insignificant was a powerful idea then, as it is now. It is an advantage Christianity has over communism, nazism, fascism and indeed neoliberalism, each of which in its way spurns the worth of the individual. Abuse, of its nature, denied this fundamental principle and its revelation caused public shock.
Yet abuse was carried out by only a minority of religious figures and there is no reason to doubt that the majority of the clergy were not involved. But the ‘rotten apples’ interpretation was not accepted. The reason, it would appear, is because of a general retrospective collusion through organised cover-ups to protect institutional reputation, the grotesquely cynical practice of transferring offenders to places where they could continue to abuse and, crucially, clerical silence. There was no significant rank and file protest from uninvolved clergy. The conclusion the public drew from this was the church as a body did not believe what it told the laity regarding humanity being made in the image and likeness of God nor did it believe that it would be better that those who would harm children should have a millstone tied to their necks and be cast into the sea.
This combination of cowardice and hypocrisy fatally undermined the traditional high level of respect granted to the institutional church. Many continued to go to Mass, but it was a different world for the Catholic church, which became almost Anglican in its toothlessness.
Just as there was no alternative social base to the demos for Catholicism in 1800, neither was there one in 2000. Once it lost mass support the church had nowhere to retreat to. Indeed, its only option for future growth is to find a way to repair its relations with the people in general, a formidable challenge.
Is it possible the Catholic church might have a significant future role in Irish life? What it does next may determine whether such a possibility might exist. A debate among Catholics is under way. One side says the church should endorse a range of personal sexual freedoms, equal treatment for women and the right of priests to marry. Others are arguing a fundamentalist position that the New Testament endorses a strict view on personal sexual behaviour. It is difficult to see even the possibility of a significant future for Catholicism in Ireland if the conservative elements are victorious.
There is no reason, in theory, why a Catholicism which limited its ambitions to purely religious matters might not have a significant future. Humanity is far from done with religion. Through a well-honed ensemble of myth and ritual the Catholic church offers its adherents a web of powerful non-literal meanings capable of supporting and uplifting individuals as they live and make their way through life. Offered against the inexplicable character of life itself, there is a cumulative sense of the sacred and a feeling of engagement with the transcendent, which believers accept as divine. At the everyday level, as a means of not sinking beneath life’s travails and remaining positive, even joyous, the Catholic notion of sin, sorrow and forgiveness can hardly be bettered. In this degree, it is a religion compatible with life. Indeed religious belief in this sense is incompatible with the reductive ethics of neoliberalism but quite compatible with the values of social politics.
But dramatic gestures of repentance and atonement would be required. The Catholic church in Ireland is vastly wealthy, with huge property holdings. This property, funded in large measure through the contributions of the public, could be handed back either directly or via a trust with a specific social mandate. The forebears of some citizens who are currently homeless or inadequately housed, or whose life prospects have been blighted, no doubt, contributed to the formation of this wealth.
This, it might reasonably be said, is a highly implausible development. A voluntary ‘dissolution of the monasteries’ is unlikely, and is also unlikely to be imposed, in Ireland as long as the values of the new conservativism dominate. Thus, ironically, the church, as a private property magnate whose wealth multiplied during the neoliberal glory days has a vested interest in the hegemony of anti-religious neoliberalism in Ireland.
Meanwhile Russia is moving in an opposite direction. President Putin intends his country to move away from easy Soviet-style access to abortion services. The current plan is to see the country’s abortion rate halved by 2025 by means of a vigorous discouragement process. In addition, the Russian parliament has passed legislation which legitimises wife-beating of a ‘non-extreme’ variety. The legal rights which existed, from time to time, for gay people in the USSR will not be restored under Putin.
The direction of travel is clear, as is its political objective, significant population growth and national strength through ideological uniformity, with personal freedoms an unlamented casualty. Women are effectively to be reduced to reproductive ‘duties’ and controlled socially and personally to serve that objective. Putin offers his people a simple vision: Men, Women, Babies, Russia, and of course, War.
The ideal of returning to an imagined pure pre-Petrine Russia lies beyond nostalgia and is in the realms of fantasy. Russia would be best served ‑ as would Ireland ‑ by concentrating on the possibilities of engaging peacefully with the vast EU market on its doorstep. For this it does not need an army, just an ideological leap.
Maurice Earls is joint editor of the Dublin Review of Books.
Correction: Jim Kemmy was excoriated for recommending limited access to abortion services, including for victims of rape in 1982 not 1983.