The Civil War had just ended, and had left the country in debt — largely because of the size of the army still considered necessary. When Blythe decided he had to balance the books, it wasn’t the army he cut. Instead, he knocked 10% off the pay of every teacher in the country and five shillings off the old age pension.
Fianna Fáil didn’t exist at the time — the party wasn’t founded until four years later. But they campaigned vigorously against the cut as Sinn Féin and the memory of Blythe’s meanness helped Fianna Fáil sweep into office in the first election they fought after being founded.
When Éamon de Valera spoke at the founding meeting of his party, four years after Blythe’s cut, he still remembered the damage it had done. In fact in that speech he said that he found himself in sympathy with James Connolly’s dictum that it was the people of Ireland, rather than simply territory, that mattered.
Fianna Fáil still carry this speech on their website. Three paragraphs are particularly stirring: “I think I am right also in believing that independence — political freedom — is regarded by most of you, as it is regarded by me, simply as a means to a greater end and purpose beyond it. The purpose beyond is the right use of our freedom, and that use must surely include making provision so that every man and woman in the country shall have the opportunity of living the fullest lives that God intended them to live.
It is only since I have found how neglected of this purpose many of us are inclined to become, that I have been able to sympathise fully with James Connolly’s passionate protest: ‘Ireland, as distinct from her people, means nothing to me; and the man who is bubbling over with love and enthusiasm for “Ireland,” and yet can pass unmoved through our streets and witness all the wrong and suffering, the shame and degradation brought upon our people – aye, brought by Irish men upon Irish men and women – without burning to end it, is, in my opinion, a fraud and a lair in his heart, no matter how much he loves that combination of chemical elements be is pleased to call Ireland.
“Freedom that our people may live happily and rightly — freedom to make this nation of ours great in well being and noble doing — that is what political independence must mean, if it is to be at all worthy of the efforts and sacrifices that have been made to secure it; and it is in no small measure that we might be in a position to as close as possible, and as soon as possible, to that side of our work that I am so urgent that we should follow the line of political action which I have outlined. Whilst waiting for the achievement of full political independence we aspire to, the Republican deputies would be able to take an effective part in improving the social and material conditions of the people and in building up the strength and moral of the nation as a whole.”
It’s time for them to take that speech down from the website. Although they weren’t there to oppose the cuts that Blythe made, the “social and material conditions of the people” became part of their founding purpose — together with the freedom and independence in respect of which they had just fought a civil war.
But no more. Tomorrow night the Dáil will vote on a motion, put forward by the party that fought the civil war, to end our freedom and independence and to accept that for the foreseeable future, we will be governed by others. In doing so, the Dáil will seek to tie the hands of the next government, and to straightjacket economic and social policy for at least the lifetime of that government. The founding principles are dead.
And all last week, with the support of independents whose votes they bought, the Government voted through measure after measure that will damage the opportunity, for thousands of people, of “living the fullest lives that God intended them to leave”.
The biggest single cut in last week’s budget, head and shoulders over everything else, was the cut in support for people who live at or below the poverty line. The smallest cut, by a long way, was in the pay of better off public servants. In one stroke, the whole notion of austerity was actually turned on its head. An austere republic is one where people are enabled to live modestly, but with dignity, and whose leaders see it as their duty to serve.
It was Martin Luther King who said “everybody can be great, because anybody can serve”. In our republic, greatness is measured by wealth rather than service, and human dignity is doled out by people who think only the creators of wealth are worthy of respect.
That was the single most hateful aspect of the budget. There are thousands of people in Ireland today who need the support of the state to maintain a decent measure of human dignity. People who have made huge contributions in the way they bring up their families, in the working lives they gave the state, in the courageous way they have borne illness and disability. The budget sneered at those people.
We’re in the middle of a huge, defining crisis. It’s a time when national leaders, respected for their own willingness to carry whatever burdens are necessary, need to be able to say to all of us that it’s time for us to band together, to work harder for recovery and to shelter all those who need it. There’s nothing charitable about it — it’s the definition of a republic.
But we have none of that. Our leaders wallow in self-pity and defensiveness, and make much of the fact that their state-provided cars are to have smaller engines in future. There is no sense — not one — in which we are being encouraged to band together to get out of this mess. Instead, leadership seems to be about dividing rich from poor, public from private, older from younger. I couldn’t tell you how many pensioners I’ve met who have told me they’d have been prepared to take a step back in the interests of spreading the pain more fairly — but they weren’t even asked.
It’s clear that the next government of this country has a huge challenge. They must win back our independence, and they must rebuild our republic. It’s bad enough to inherit a mess, but the next government we elect will inherit an abandoned set of principles and values.
The wounds inflicted on us by the trusted political, banking and business elite of our country will take years to fix. The hardest part of all, though, will be rebuilding trust, because we have been utterly betrayed.