Posted By: June 08, 2013

Patrick Murphy. Irish News ( Belfast). Saturday, June 8, 2013

THERE are no rules governing what a president should look like but if there were, Michael D Higgins would probably break most of them. Previously the subject of a song by the Saw Doctors (Michael D Rocking in the Dail), he looks more like a favourite uncle than a president.

But when he speaks, Michael D is most presidential. His references to literature, society and cultural trauma created a speech of power and beauty at this year’s Famine Day commemoration.

It is surprising, therefore, that his public statements have not attracted more attention, especially his outspoken criticism of the European Union (EU).

Although he holds a non-political position, his speeches, including one this week in Croatia, have challenged the EU in a manner most Irish politicians avoid.

The president’s views on the EU, which are radical by Irish standards, merely state the obvious. He argues that the austerity policies are “leading to a crisis of legitimacy for the Union”, with almost 27 million unemployed. EU citizens, he says, are threatened with an unconscious drift to disharmony, a loss of social cohesion and a deficit of democratic accountability.

So why should a non-political post holder be the most strident Irish voice against the EU’s stimulation of emigration, unemployment and deprivation? You may have your own explanation, but try this one: history indicates the reason for Irish subservience lies not in politics but in religion. The Irish may have largely abandoned the Catholic religion but they still practice Catholic (or at least catholic) politics. Where, you ask, is the evidence?

Catholic politics developed when Daniel O’Connell redirected the struggle for Irish freedom towards a campaign for Catholic emancipation. Like Stormont today, he implied that only Catholics could be Irish. The radical Presbyterian John Mitchel blamed O’Connell for facilitating the conditions which caused the Famine, arguing that he had bewitched the Irish people to their destruction.

Mitchel had a point. Catholics won emancipation in 1829 and 20 years later the emancipated Irish died in docility rather than fight for food. Today they display a similar response to the EU’s economic decimation of Ireland. For example, Sinn Fein’s switch from allegedly fighting for Irish freedom to claiming the war was really about equality (presumably for Catholics) is more O’Connell than Mitchel. Apart from the issue of abortion, for some politicians Irish politics – including most unionism – is conservatively catholic.

Whether you think that is good or bad is your own business. But it might explain the apparent acceptance that the Famine was somehow God’s will. It might also explain the current unspoken philosophy that Ireland must suffer economic penance for previous financial sins to seek the salvation of solvency. Economically, Ireland is doing Lough Derg.

This ‘catholic politics’ theory is further strengthened by the Church’s pivotal role in establishing the EU. Michael D says that the EU concept effectively began at an event to celebrate the 1400th anniversary of the birth of Columbanus in France in 1950, which was attended by the future Pope John XXIII. According to Pope John Paul II, the EU’s founders – Adenauer, de Gasperi and Schuman – all met in a Benedictine monastery for meditation and prayer prior to negotiations for the Treaty of Paris in 1951.

So, the theory goes, conservative catholic politics explains Irish loyalty to the Catholic-inspired EU. You might point out that the theory falls down because Catholic Italy, Spain and Portugal have not quite been so docile. Good point. But unlike Ireland, these countries have a history of strong left-wing political movements as a base for protest.

The scale of the EU’s failure has prompted even the Pope to criticise it. He has denounced ideologies which defend the autonomy of markets and financial speculation, thereby denying the state the right to uphold the common good. No Irish politician would say that. (You may now march to the Dail with a placard reading: “The Pope opposes austerity”. Gardai will be unsure whether to draw their batons or genuflect.)

So the Pope and the president have seen fit to criticise the EU’s role in creating Ireland’s lost generation of emigrants and unemployed. Until we can explain – and change – Irish subservience to the EU, we risk losing another generation.

You might reasonably disagree with the ‘catholic politics’ theory – it certainly needs refinement. But if you do, you will have to come up with a better explanation as to why the president is our most radical politician and why Irish politics are now more catholic than the Pope’s. Our lost generation deserves an answer.