Is it slavishly following a free-market agenda, indifferent to workers? Is it responding to pressure from abroad? Is it simply incompetent? Or is it the fact that there are elements of all three causes in the wretched performance that the unfortunate citizens of the 26 Counties are subjected to by this coalition government?
Inadequate regulation of meat factories and building sites for transnational corporations, the transit of US troops through Shannon Airport and the mismanagement of a pandemic are just a few examples of this sorry state of affairs. Above all, though, there is the unavoidable conclusion that, faced with fundamental change, the Republic’s ruling order simply doesn’t know what to do, apart from holding on to office at all costs.
The coalition’s handling of the covid pandemic exemplifies a government in disarray. This, remember, is the government in which the Department of Health assigned civil servants to check whether the minister’s Twitter account was up to date. Incredibly, while searching for Stephen Donnelly’s Twitter handle, the provision of mandatory hotel quarantine places had reached capacity. This is a government that claims it has worked to balance the needs of health and safety with the wellbeing of the economy but has mismanaged the former and allowed the middle classes to benefit disproportionately.
Several issues or events have emerged over the recent past to unsettle and disorient the old order. There is the covid pandemic, with all its ramifications for the economy and society; there is the impact of Brexit on the cosy relationship with London; add to that the North and the difficult matter of partition stubbornly refusing to go away. Overhanging all this, though, is the consternation caused by the rise of Sinn Féin.
It is this latter point that goes right to the bottom of ruling-class unease. It is not so much the party itself as what its re-emergence on the political scene indicates. After decades of stagnation north and south of the border there is now a sense that not only are the fundamentals changing but that a significant number of people are looking for something different and better.
Over recent decades there has been a welcome liberalisation throughout society. While of itself this does not necessarily challenge the ruling class, it is indicative of a weakening of once-powerful conformist influences. Mechanisms for governance have not changed as visibly or as quickly, yet there is real movement away from the past.
Nothing illustrates this better in the 26 Counties than the very obvious decline of the once all-powerful Fianna Fáil.
With opinion polls consistently showing Fianna Fáil scoring approximately half the Sinn Féin return, the writing is surely on the wall for Micheál Martin and his colleagues. Moreover, the de facto merger between the two conservative parties has shifted the axis away from the old non-choice between two right-wing entities.
This is not to say that Sinn Féin is offering a radical socialist alternative, rather that its electoral progress is indicative of possibilities for a new beginning.
It is north of the border, however, that we are witnessing unavoidable evidence of profound change that will undoubtedly have an impact throughout the entire country. Just as with Fianna Fáil in the Republic, the DUP has lost its touch and is desperately trying to retain a purchase on its core support.
Contrary to some opinion, Arlene Foster and her colleagues are not just politically inept on the wider UK stage: they are also struggling with a losing hand. Just consider the cause of their anxiety. Several of the most influential publications in Britain are now talking about the potential breakup of the United Kingdom.¹ Some of this may be idle speculation, but it is certainly disturbing for Northern unionists, especially when considered in tandem with Boris Johnson’s volte-face on the Northern Ireland protocol.
Still more ominous were the results of an opinion poll by Lucid Talk for the BBC NI’s programme “Spotlight,”² which recorded, albeit not necessarily emphasising, two pertinent facts.³ A majority of those in the age group 18–44 would vote to end partition immediately, while a majority of all respondents said they believed that twenty-five years years from now the Six Counties would no longer be in the United Kingdom.
Clearly, opinion polls are subject to margins of error and may be inaccurate. Nevertheless, these findings are in keeping with such widely verifiable facts as changing demographics and recent electoral results.
While it is not incontestable that the six-county political entity is entering its final phase, no-one could reasonably dispute that fundamental constitutional change is now more likely than not over the coming two or three decades. The DUP, being the party that it is, responds not with constructive proposals or a statesmanlike approach but instead provokes unrest in deprived unionist working-class communities. This time-honoured practice of playing the Orange card may temporarily extend the party’s electoral life, but only at the cost of the overall well-being of the citizenry.
All of which raises the question, What is the Dublin government doing to address such an urgent issue? Not surprisingly in the light of what we mentioned above, the ruling coalition is not only refusing to do anything constructive but is actively promoting a tendentious narrative in order to stifle consideration. The leader of Fianna Fáil, Micheál Martin, is attempting to avoid dealing with the situation by talking up the risk of instability and violence if an end to partition is discussed or planned for in any meaningful way. Rather than acknowledge changing realities in the North and launch a programme to address this fact, he is adopting a policy of “pro-actively standing idly by,” a strategy that failed woefully to prevent bloodshed in the North when adopted fifty years ago by his mentor, Jack Lynch.
Without state power there is only so much those on the ground can do to circumvent this state of stasis. Rather than surrender to inertia, though, we can constantly emphasise the reality of the situation when and where we can. There is, moreover, the positive option of campaigning for the building of important all-Ireland institutions of vital necessity to the working class, north and south. There is already a nascent campaign for an all-Ireland national health service. That initiative deserves all our support and energy. What about also launching a drive to address the housing crisis by creating an all-Ireland Housing Executive, modelled on the best days of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive?
The advantage of such a campaign must be obvious to all who care to see. If successful it would address two major issues identified by Northern critics of reunification. It would also allow for a meaningful Northern input into the new republic. Moreover, it would make the ending of partition more attractive to the South’s working people. Finally, doing so would be a significant step towards undermining two major areas of privatisation led by vulture funds in the Republic.
If we could achieve that much I’d almost be tempted to support a campaign for Irish reunification myself!
George Parker, “Johnson struggles to find a way to keep the UK together,” Financial Times, 4 April 2021.
Tommy McKearney is a left wing and trade union activist.
He is author of The Provisional IRA: From Insurrection to Parliament.
Follow on Twitter @Tommymckearney