The scarce commodity of idealism in Irish politics

Posted By: April 25, 2016

Deaglain de Breadun. Irish News.(Belfast). Monday, April 25, 2016
WILLIAM Butler Yeats wrote after the Rising that “Too long a sacrifice/Can make a stone of the heart”.

These and other lines from his great poem Easter 1916 are very much in vogue at present, as part of a centenary commemoration that has been sober, thoughtful, respectful and very balanced in its approach.

Like others in his day, no doubt, Yeats was inclined to dismiss Patrick Pearse and his associates as harmless eccentrics. Easter week changed all that and things were never the same again. As Yeats himself put it, a terrible beauty was born.

We are still living with the consequences of the Rising. Detractors of Pearse and James Connolly argue that Ireland could have gained its independence by peaceful means in due course. Others would see that as naive: the British Empire was never going to give up so easily.

It is certainly the case that the two main parties in the south, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, would not exist if the 1916 Rising hadn’t taken place. Future Fianna Fáil leader Eamon de Valera and his Fine Gael counterpart WT Cosgrave, for example, were comrades-in-arms during Easter week but took opposite sides over the Anglo-Irish Treaty and in the ensuing Civil War.

The current 1916 commemoration will be followed in a few years’ time by a range of events to recall the Civil War. The tragedy of that conflict is epitomised by the famous photograph of Kevin O’Higgins on his wedding day in October 1921, flanked by Eamon de Valera and best man Rory O’Connor. A year later, O’Higgins signed the warrant for O’Connor’s execution and, five years further down the line, O’Higgins himself was assassinated.

It must be regarded as progress that, after all this time, the political descendants of the key figures on the two sides have been working out a modus vivendi in the evocative setting of Trinity College to ensure that some form of government is put in place following the recent, inconclusive general election.

The negotiations have not been easy, but when you see the two sides at least behaving in a civilised and democratic fashion you have to wonder how it was that their political forebears could set out to kill one another in 1922-23. Critics of Easter week would say it generated a semi-mystical, uncompromising mentality that contained too much

principle and not enough pragmatism,

while others would regard that as a gross over-simplification.

The key issue in the current political talks has been water charges. Since the banking and economic crisis of 2008, people in the south have endured cutbacks and higher taxes largely in silence but the imposition of charges on homes connected to a public water supply was seen as the last straw.

Sinn Féin and the far-left parties have been to the fore in the protest movement that developed. Fianna Fáil was previously involved in plans to introduce the charges but more recently, as a spokesman said on radio, the party wants them suspended for the lifetime of the new Dáil – normally five years but likely to be less this time – and is also calling for the Irish Water company, which manages the scheme, to be abolished.

Fine Gael, meanwhile, was officially taking a pretty hard line on the need to retain Irish Water as well as water charges. But at time of writing – an essential phrase in the current febrile state of southern politics – the word

is that a compromise agreement is on the cards.

The broader purpose of the talks has been to agree on a sufficient number of policy items for Fianna Fáil to abstain in the next Dáil vote on the position of Taoiseach. This will make it a lot easier for Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny to be re-elected as head of government, but to secure a majority he will need six extra votes from Independent TDs, in addition to the two already committed to his cause. If Labour also abstained he would need fewer votes.

Dealing with Independents is like minding mice at the crossroads: discipline is not their primary characteristic. There’s a lot of them about at present, reflecting a tendency among voters to put constituency interests ahead of wider considerations. That’s not the kind of patriotic outlook Pearse and Connolly would welcome but it is inevitable in a situation where different localities are competing with one another for scarce resources. Idealism is a scarce commodity these days but, then, as Yeats observed: “Too long a sacrifice/Can make a stone of the heart.”