How not to run a country

I’m Irish, but haven’t lived there since 1998. I’ve observed the enormous changes the country has experienced since then, both through the lens of international media and during my own visits “home”.

The recent economic collapse – for that is what it is – has left me feeling very conflicted. I would never wish IMF intervention on any country, but at the same time Ireland’s government needed to be shaken violently until they saw the need for action.

This morning, for the first time in a long time, I commented on an opinion piece in the Guardian:

The IMF and the ECB can do all the financial and economic tinkering they like over the next decade. Unless there is root and branch reform of Ireland’s political system, the same few talentless no-hopers will be leading Ireland’s political parties and we’ll see the whole cycle begin again.

Many of Ireland’s present problems stem from a lack of leadership. The last 10 years represent a period of “bread and circuses” whereby the government let the banks loan money that didn’t exist, keeping much of the electorate too distracted buying over-priced property to notice what a complete mess Fianna Fail were making of the country.

But it goes much deeper than that. Deputies in the Dail are nothing more than glorified county councillors, more concerned with keeping their local voters happy than paying attention to truly national problems. The Seanad (Senate) is – with a few notable exceptions – a place to park political failures and yes-men for the government.

The system requires reform so that governments are held to account by parliament, so that the public sector is truly there to serve the needs of the population (and not vice versa) and so governments are forced to focus on the strategic rather than local issues.

None of this will happen as long as Fianna Fail have their hands on the tiller.

A final prediction and unwelcome side-effect of the inevitable backlash against Cowen and the rest of FF: the election of more Sinn Fein deputies to Dail Eireann.

The very last thing the country needs right now.

Colm Tobin’s piece in the Guardian was a response to Thursday’s editorial in the Irish Times. I bookmarked it as soon as I read it, knowing I would want to come back to it later and probably feature it here on the blog. It struck a chord with me and I include it here in its entirety. I think the Irish Times hit the right note. Ireland’s recent history – by which I mean the last two hundred years – has focused on securing its independence from outside influence, in order to set its own agenda and manage its own affairs.

While early independent Ireland took an isolationist stance – remaining neutral even during World War II – the last 40 years have seen the country come into its own and at last take its seat on the international stage, playing its own small part in the wider European forum. The last two governments – almost indistinguishable from each other – have undone so much of this progress.

Here’s that Irish Times editorial, putting the argument across far more eloquently than I:

IT MAY seem strange to some that The Irish Times would ask whether this is what the men of 1916 died for: a bailout from the German chancellor with a few shillings of sympathy from the British chancellor on the side. There is the shame of it all. Having obtained our political independence from Britain to be the masters of our own affairs, we have now surrendered our sovereignty to the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. Their representatives ride into Merrion Street today.

Fianna Fáil has sometimes served Ireland very well, sometimes very badly. Even in its worst times, however, it retained some respect for its underlying commitment that the Irish should control their own destinies. It lists among its primary aims the commitment “to maintain the status of Ireland as a sovereign State”. Its founder, Eamon de Valera, in his inaugural address to his new party in 1926, spoke of “the inalienability of national sovereignty” as being fundamental to its beliefs. The Republican Party’s ideals are in tatters now.

The Irish people do not need to be told that, especially for small nations, there is no such thing as absolute sovereignty. We know very well that we have made our independence more meaningful by sharing it with our European neighbours. We are not naive enough to think that this State ever can, or ever could, take large decisions in isolation from the rest of the world. What we do expect, however, is that those decisions will still be our own. A nation’s independence is defined by the choices it can make for itself.

Irish history makes the loss of that sense of choice all the more shameful. The desire to be a sovereign people runs like a seam through all the struggles of the last 200 years. “Self-determination” is a phrase that echoes from the United Irishmen to the Belfast Agreement. It continues to have a genuine resonance for most Irish people today.

The true ignominy of our current situation is not that our sovereignty has been taken away from us, it is that we ourselves have squandered it. Let us not seek to assuage our sense of shame in the comforting illusion that powerful nations in Europe are conspiring to become our masters. We are, after all, no great prize for any would-be overlord now. No rational European would willingly take on the task of cleaning up the mess we have made. It is the incompetence of the governments we ourselves elected that has so deeply compromised our capacity to make our own decisions.

They did so, let us recall, from a period when Irish sovereignty had never been stronger. Our national debt was negligible. The mass emigration that had mocked our claims to be a people in control of our own destiny was reversed. A genuine act of national self-determination had occurred in 1998 when both parts of the island voted to accept the Belfast Agreement. The sense of failure and inferiority had been banished, we thought, for good.

To drag this State down from those heights and make it again subject to the decisions of others is an achievement that will not soon be forgiven. It must mark, surely, the ignominious end of a failed administration.

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