IN A media-obsessing today about a government reshuffle, it is worth remembering that policy not personality matters most. There are exceptions. Some personalities are so strong that for good or bad they become the policy issue.
Alan Shatter is a case in point; a brilliant, angular man who didn’t realise in time, and maybe still doesn’t, that being right is not enough. Whether he was, of course, is questionable. The younger Michael Noonan, feared in combat, never acquired affection until, at least in public, the honey of drollness replaced the vinegar of acerbity. Des O’Malley, whom I admire politically, was famously cranky but he left catch-all politics to lead a niche, wherein he was iconic.
Pat Rabbitte’s acidity never moderated and seldom succeeded in drawing more than applause.
The strobe lights of the media have largely bleached personality, at least the pungent sort, out of politics. And there are other reasons. A Ming Flanagan or a Mick Wallace can spring-up, cause mayhem for the so-called establishment but usually ebb away before they make a lasting difference.
The pedestrian, organisational teamwork required by all successful political parties leads mainly to blandness, and it should be said a fair measure of decency. There are certainly little monsters lurking in the deep of Irish politics, but few big ones. It’s generally a better, if less interesting world than it was.
When the hoopla of the reshuffle settles down, the fundamentals will remerge. Some of the most important of those are economic. But others are about our identity; the question of who and what we are. The Taoiseach says he wants to keep his government on the road until 2016. But he aims not only to go the full distance, he wants to stand as Taoiseach outside the GPO on Easter Monday 2016. The man who led Ireland out of the bailout; his ambition is to bath vicariously in the iconic leadership of the Rising.
In Irish politics this is nothing new. The national flag has been used and misused as a foundation garment by generations of politicians. The reintroduction of the Easter commemoration ceremony in 2006 was both progress and politic. It said that the Rising was not the ideological property of the Provos. The Easter commemoration was put in a carefully balanced context where for the first time, the Battle of the Somme was commemorated as well. Not only could the Easter lily be worn with pride, so too could the poppy. Ireland has different and identities and thenceforth they would be honourably celebrated in harmony.
If statecraft was one influence, so was practical politics. 2006 was both the 90th of the Easter Rising and the year before a general election. Fianna Fáil intended to enforce its constitutional republican credentials in the face of Sinn Féin’s challenge.
Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness failed to attend the commemoration, and implicitly failed to recognise that there was one and only one legitimate Óglaigh na hÉireann. That was the army of the Irish state marching past the GPO, saluting its commander-in-chief, the President of Ireland. A year later, the much vaunted Sinn Féin advance dissipated; their number of Dáil seats fell from five to four. It was a stunning reverse.
Since then a lot has changed and much of that change is irreversible. It is Fianna Fáil who were subsequently on the receiving end of an even greater reverse in 2011. Whatever the scale of its future revival, it will not in a foreseeable future be the political power or the pillar of constitutional republicanism it was in 2006. Sinn Féin has moved on, not only electorally, but politically. The ambiguity that marked its absence from the 90th centenary will be history when it attends the centenary in 2016. I accept the genuineness of their commitment to the peace process, and I fully understand the importance of their role in sustaining it. But if some ambiguities have been clarified, others remain. If largely ignored, they are also inexorably coming centre stage.
I don’t know if Sinn Féin will be in government after the election the Taoiseach plans in 2016. But whether they are in government sooner or later, there are now grounds for assuming they will be eventually. The unspoken, unsolved crux of that dilemma, is not the military campaign the IRA and, by extension, Sinn Féin waged against the British state. In significant measure a view has been taken on that at the ballot box, North and South, in the Good Friday Agreement. No the crux for our society, our identity and for our government in advance of 2016 and after, is the role of militant republicanism in policing and controlling their own communities, during the Troubles.
There is an omertà, of unspoken but open secrets, about what went on, went unreported, and remains unacknowledged within nationalist communities. The irony of apparently ever increasing electoral support for Sinn Féin is a jettisoning by default, of the inherently partitionist posture of southern politics. The ultimate consequence will inevitably at some point be a reverse takeover of both a responsibility and a demand for accountability for the recent nationalist past in Northern Ireland. While Sinn Féin remains in opposition, its past is the currency of political charge, but no more. In government, holding the seal of office, an unresolved, and unmediated past will become a central issue for the integrity of the State.
The reshuffle expected today is the last change of scenery in government before the centenary and an election planned for now, after it. The greatest issues the Government face are not tactical ones about its own survival, or even the management of its electoral prospects. It is the culmination of the peace process within nationalist Ireland, and with loylaism. This cannot happen without a reckoning, and a truth telling. Any attempt to advance beyond 2016 without such a reckoning, will yield rotten fruit. A commemoration that is not an exorcism, as much as a remembering, will fail in ultimately its only useful purpose; the modernisation of the Republic and the stabilisation of the peace process.
Sinn Féin calls for an Independent International Truth Commission. This may be partly cute politics, but it is also the essential prerequisite of moving beyond 2016, to a normal politics in a healthy society. The lesson of our recent history is that eventually every omertà collapses. Unaddressed and unresolved, it’s past role in its own communities will inevitably collide with the future it expects in government.
Industrial schools, Magdalen laundries, and Mother and Baby homes all stood for decades in plain sight. What they were for, was unspoken, but never a secret. The murder of Jean McConville and Robert McCartney are ultimately nonnegotiable obstacles to the future, not because they were exceptional, but because they are totemic signs of abuse over decades in brutalised communities.
That brutality has complex origins, and many sources, including the security forces. But it is not confined to them, and ultimately it will not be confined to history.
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