Michael Clifford: Hopefully this time our leaders will mean it when they invoke 1916 ideals

Sinn Féin, the parties of the left, and to a lesser extent Fianna Fáil, all embraced the so-called mandate for change after the recent election, writes Michael Clifford
Michael Clifford: Hopefully this time our leaders will mean it when they invoke 1916 ideals
Capt Peter Kelleher reads the Proclamation at the GPO, O’Connell St, as part of the 1916 Easter Rising centenary commemorations. The egalitarian aspirations of 1916 didn’t get too far after independence — but now, a national emergency has seen them suddenly sprout in the form of income supports, rent freezes, and a one-tier health system. Picture: Maxwells/PA

Sinn Féin, the parties of the left, and to a lesser extent Fianna Fáil, all embraced the so-called mandate for change after the recent election. Who would have thought that the most unlikely of revolutionaries, Leo Vardakar, would be the one to deliver it, writes Michael Clifford

At last, the men and women of 1916 can rest easy in their graves. Covid-19 has, at least temporarily, brought about a Republic that resembles that which was presented as an aspiration on Easter Monday in 1916.

The coronavirus has gone where no Government or electorate has ever sought to bring the country.

There is irony also in the composition of the Government that is overseeing the current measures. Like the 1916 revolutionaries, it has no democratic mandate.

And like Sinn Féin, the party which claims to pursue the Republic proclaimed on the steps of the GPO, the current administration is, to some extent, being run by unelected individuals. As Mr Yeats wrote in his poem ‘Easter 1916’, “All changed, changed utterly”.

The question remains whether a new beauty has been born and whether, if so, it will be terrible or transformative.

On Tuesday, in laying out the new measures to tackle the virus, the Taoiseach invoked the Rising.

“Four years ago we commemorated the 1916 Rising, and we celebrated the men and women who helped us win our freedom and our independence,” he said.

I never believed that we would be called upon to match their courage, or their example.

It’s fair to say he never believed that he would be drafting measures that would resemble the Republic dreamt of by James Connolly either.

Look at one of the hugely influential vested interests that have suddenly seen its power evaporate. The so-called men (and women) of property have seen their grip on governance loosen.

Heretofore, anytime the power of personal property was up for grabs, every Government resisted by reaching for Dev’s constitution. Problems with corruption in rezoning land? Can’t touch it. The needs of the “common good” over private property? Don’t hit me with the constitution in my arms.

A housing crisis in which some renters have been summarily thrust into homelessness? Beyond our power.

Now we are told that evictions can suddenly be stopped. The power to control rent? During the recent general election, Fianna Fáil reached for the constitution once more to say they can’t go there.

Now the virus has gone there. Rents have been frozen. One might even invoke the line in the Proclamation that goes: “We declare the rights of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland.”

We’re getting there. Leo Varadkar, he who once carried himself like a child of Thatcher, is driving the van.

There are also parallels with the aftermath of the Rising.

Dublin required rebuilding in 1916. Once the virus is gone there must be rethinking about how Airbnb has contributed to the devastation of the prospect of housing for all. All that Airbnb stock should be put to use in housing the people of Ireland.

What about health, the service which has been two-tiered for so long? On Tuesday, Mr Varadkar revealed that the private hospitals have come on board, ready to get down and dirty and operate as public facilities. With one stroke of a pen, the two-tiered system was flattened into one.

“Private and public patients will be treated equally and the private hospitals have agreed to do this on a not-for-profit basis,” he said.

We were told that it couldn’t be done, that the blueprint for a single service, SláinteCare, would take a good five years at least to be fully operational. And along comes that revolutionary by the name of Varadkar to do the job in a bloodless coup.

The cherishing of all the children equally (a term frequently misinterpreted as referring to minors) has also entered a new realm.

Successive Governments have baulked at the idea of introducing a “living wage” to ensure that all people can exist with some modicum of dignity.

Again, Che Varadkar has intervened. Those who have been thrust out of work by the virus are entitled to receive a payment of €350, about 50% more than the unemployed received heretofore.

For some, this rises to €410 depending on the job that is — hopefully temporarily — terminated.

“The cost of this will be great,” the Taoiseach noted. “Many billions of euro in the coming months.

But we can bear it and we will be able to pay it back as a nation. We do so willingly, because it is the right thing to do and because we owe it to our fellow citizens.

That’s a big departure from the standard position that there is only so much to go around for the weakest and most vulnerable of our fellow citizens.

This is what change looks like. The recent general election threw up a so-called mandate for change. Sinn Féin, the parties of the left, and to a lesser extent Fianna Fáil, all leaped on this as an interpretation of the result in their favour. And what do you know? Just as he’s marching out the door, Leo Varadkar is the one who ends up delivering this change.

Will it all be a temporary aberration before normal service is resumed once the virus is sent packing?

History records that the aspirations of 1916 — beyond the main one of breaking the link with Britain — didn’t get too far once independence was achieved. The new State was conservative by nature. Vested interests, including the Church, managed to shape the country in their own likeness. The form of democracy that emerged didn’t leave any room for radical thought.

Let’s wait and see what emerges from the new dispensation once the virus has, like our former colonial rulers, been dispatched.

Hopefully, some of the egalitarian values that have suddenly sprouted will survive the scramble to get life back on track. Hopefully this time our leaders will really mean it when they invoke the ideals of 1916.


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