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Time to Choose Your Symbol

Ireland’s Bread and Circuses

by HARRY BROWNE

Dublin.

Last Monday, the Irish state paid €1.465 billion (about $2 billion) to senior unsecured boldholders in Bank of Ireland, as part of its obligation under the blanket guarantee of Irish banks issued by the government three years ago this week. This was, according to the Bondwatchwebsite that is keeping a grim tally of these things, part of a total of €4.3 billion paid this month by a government that continues to impose crippling austerity measures on its people.

That’s a lot of bread being taken from our mouths and fed to international financiers. You’d think we’d be up in arms about it. But Ireland’s chattering classes love, above all other things, an election, and next month’s presidential election in the Republic is offering one hell of a circus to distract us from the beggaring of the people by the state, in partnership with the unholy troika of the EU, IMF and European Central Bank. The story of how we are bleeding into the coffers of the bondholders barely merits a mention.

It’s understandable. The deadly bonds have been around for years, and there’s no doubt this election offers an interesting and entertaining choice, from no fewer than seven candidates, including a couple of much-loved Southern lefties and an important leader of Northern militant republicanism. Then there’s the former Eurovision singer, the celebrity businessman and the charitable lady who lunches. To add further weirdness: the one candidate who is widely regarded as standing little chance of winning is the career politician who represents the most popular party in the state, the senior party of the current government, Fine Gael.

The trouble is, despite all that choice, and despite the single-transferable-vote system that will ensure a long and intriguing count as we track the lines of ideology, geography and gender along which votes will flow from eliminated candidates to those who remain, this is really just a meaningless election to a meaningless office. It’s no doubt lovely for the triumphant individual, who will earn a hefty annual salary in the region of €300,000, travel the world, and with a bit of luck live to retire into further global prominence, a la Mary Robinson. But the Irish constitution gives the office of president very little power — taoiseach (prime minister) is where that lies — and so this is merely another opportunity for voters to make some sort of symbolic gesture. (Actually, the last general election here was a lot like that too.)

So choose your symbol. Dana Rosemary Scallon (formerly known simply as Dana) won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1970 with the insufferably treacly ‘All Kinds of Everything’, and spent a few years doing Christian radio and TV in the US; she has since served as a member of the European parliament, and with her record of anti-abortion activism, she represents the clearest ‘throwback’ on offer. She’s one of two candidates from Derry, which as part of British-controlled Northern Ireland has no vote in this election. Sean Gallagher, from the border county of Cavan, is the one who Knows Business, as viewers have seen on TV’s Dragon’s Den — the equivalent US show is apparently called Shark Tank — and has spent time on the national executive of the hugely discredited Fianna Fail party, whose fall is so steep that it has not even named a candidate this time, for an office it has controlled throughout the history of the State for all but Robinson’s seven years. Mary Davis (who hopes to be the third President Mary in a row) was in charge of the Special Olympics when it came to Ireland and is the favoured candidate of media tycoon Denis O’Brien, ensuring her at least some degree of favourable coverage; she is adept at vague platitudes: her slogan, “Pride at Home, Respect Abroad”, was somehow also adopted by Fine Gael candidate Gay Mitchell, who thus had to abandon it in favour of “Understands Our Past, Believes in Our Future”. Polls suggest Mitchell will provide the evidence that support for a particular party doesn’t translate into support for its presidential candidate.

The three frontrunners, according to bookies’ odds, all come, broadly, from the Left. Poet and politician Michael D. Higgins has been holding up the left wing of the Irish Labour Party almost single-handedly for many years — so many years that his age, 70, is seen as his chief vulnerability. No one calls him “Higgins”: he is always, mostly affectionately, “Michael D.” Left-wing campaigns have usually been able to count on his support even when his party leadership was not so sure; the slight downside, from campaigners’ point of view, was the passionate but long and rambling speech he was sure to make at your event. Few who were there will ever forget the night in 1989 when hundreds of solidarity activists filled the National Concert Hall to welcome Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega. Michael D. seemed like he would burst with emotion as he made the main welcoming address, but it was anyone’s bet when it would finish so that Ortega could speak. (When Ortega did speak he was so dull that we were instantly nostalgic for the interminable passion of Michael D. — only the sight of Ortega’s beautiful wife Rosario Murillo sitting on stage in her spectacular blood-red dress kept our eyes from shutting.) As a government minister looking after the arts and communications for a few short years in the 1990s, Michael D. achieved real popularity with the constituencies who benefited from his department’s largesse.

Senator David Norris has never achieved even that degree of actual political power — the senate here being largely an irrelevant talking shop. A witty, entertaining lecturer on Anglo-Irish literature in Trinity College — I can recall him literally dancing across classrooms when I attended his lectures on Joyce in 1985 — his fame and popularity came about because he is gay. Back in those days it was often remarked that if you asked most Irish people what they thought about homosexuality, the reply would be: “Oh, I like that David Norris, he’s lovely.” Norris was more than lovely, he was important: he took the legal case to Europe that struck down Ireland’s anti-gay legislation, and despite his British colonial background (he was born in what was then Leopoldville in the Belgian Congo) and previous status as a leading “Irish friend of Israel”, he has moved steadily to the left over the last two decades, especially on international issues. He might even be counted as a friend of CounterPunch, having launched my book about activists who bashed US planes at Shannon Airport, Hammered by the Irish, not long after he launched my wife Catherine’s poetry collection, A Bone in My Throat — and must be one of only a handful of people who would and could do both those launches exceptionally well. Like Michael D., he might be accused of liking the sound of his own voice, but in Norris’s case there may also be an addiction to the gales of laughter that often interrupt it.

Norris would, it is claimed, be the world’s first openly gay head of state, and much of the independent left has supported him. But as an independent he has had to chase nominations from members of the parliament and from county councils, and in the midst of his efforts over the summer, controversy erupted. First, an old interview surfaced in which he appeared to favour, at least in principle, the ancient-Greek idea of a young man being sexually initiated by an older one. Then there emerged letters that he wrote in 1997 pleading for clemency for an ex-partner who was convicted in Israel of statutory rape of a 15-year-old boy. The revelations in recent years about the Catholic Church have made many Irish liberals very illiberal indeed when it comes to sex with minors: there is no room, it seems, to consider the facts of a particular case, no room for debate about the principle and age of consent. In this context it is quite extraordinary that Norris has nonetheless, and just barely, got himself nominated in time for this Wednesday’s deadline, and that he generally leads in the opinion polls; but it could yet get ugly. And it would appear that his campaign’s revival at the last moment was at least in part inspired by the desire of some right-wing and anti-republican elements to support a candidate who could block the real political giant in this contest, the late-emerging Sinn Feiner Martin McGuinness, the race’s second Derry candidate, who has stepped down as deputy first minister in Northern Ireland so he can run for president in the Republic.

McGuinness says he joined, then left, the Provisional IRA in the early 1970s. No one believes him about the ‘left’ part, and credible sources suggest he was the paramilitary group’s chief of staff for at least some time in the 1970s and 1980s. He says he has fired a gun but never killed anyone, an assertion that has been greeted here as the Irish-republican equivalent of Bill Clinton’s professed failure to inhale.

There is no doubt that the austere, largely teetotal McGuinness was a hugely important member of the ‘republican movement’, the formulation that takes in both the IRA and the Sinn Fein political party. When I first saw him speak in the late 1980s he was a compelling voice for an understanding of the Irish nationalist struggle in terms that were more broadly anti-imperialist, and revolutionary-socialist. Since those days he has clearly stood beside Gerry Adams in guiding the ‘peace process’ — veteran journalist Ed Moloney, in a definitive Irish Times article, recalls IRA hardliners who could say with confidence, “If Martin is for it, then so am I.” His own personal peace process progressed to the astonishing point where in recent years he formed a warm governing double-act, dubbed “the Chuckle Brothers”, with the Protestant bigot Ian Paisley. His candidacy has been endorsed by many of the sort of people the IRA tried to kill during the Troubles.

The fact remains that McGuinness  is, at best, opaque about his past. And perhaps more pertinent, though certainly less discussed here in the Republic, is the fact that Sinn Fein’s record in its powersharing coalition with the Paisleyite Democratic Unionist Party largely belies the leftish rhetoric that has brought the party some electoral success down South.

But since the Southern media is allergic to the realities of Northern politics, and given that the office of president isn’t a policy-making one anyway, the focus of the campaign will clearly be on unpicking McGuinness’s past, all the better to revive the partitionism and distaste for Northern nationalists that tend to dominate Dublin’s middle class. This revival is by no means sure to discredit and defeat him, since the distaste is far less prevalent among the population at large. The outgoing president, Mary McAleese, came from a Northern nationalist background. When she ran for the office in 1997, an influential newspaper columnist described her as a “tribal time bomb”, but this did not stop her from being easily elected then, and returned unopposed in 2004, all the time working to strengthen relations between her alleged tribe and the opposing one of Ulster unionism.

There is nonetheless a big difference between McAleese, previously a lawyer and academic, and McGuinness, who is seen, rightly or wrongly, as a leader almost without parallel of the Provos’ quarter-century armed campaign. To elect him, so that he would be president at the centenary of the Easter Rising in 2016, would be arguably to accept the proposition that his journey from insurrection to the corridors of power is directly analogous to that of the generation of Irish freedom-fighters whose struggle led to the establishment of the State. He and his supporters spend a lot of time mentioning Eamon De Valera and Nelson Mandela, ‘terrorists’ who became the very embodiment of their nations. The assertion sticks in the craw of a middle-aged Dublin establishment who, while they have grown accustomed to Sinn Fein’s rise, have never liked it. After all, if there was even a little legitimacy to the Provisional IRA’s struggle on behalf of Northern nationalists against an oppressive British-backed state, then our children might well ask us what exactly we did during the war.

On the other hand, those of us who did nothing may gain some small measure of satisfaction, a sense of striking our first blow for the Republic, by voting for Martin McGuinness. The discomfort McGuinness brings to the political and media elites could, in these ugly days of crushing orthodoxy, be all the more satisfying. For all his good qualities, Michael D. Higgins, after all, represents one of the parties in the awful Dublin government. David Norris may be a noble friend of CounterPunch as well as a friend of Dorothy, but in this election — politics indeed making strange bedfellows — he is also on intimate terms with the reactionary Sunday Independent, where commentators who cheered the invasion of Iraq will tell us that McGuinness is an unacceptable man of violence.

It is inevitable that our choice of symbol from this extraordinary array will dominate discussions here in the coming weeks, and for leftists perhaps it is heartening that, whoever wins, Higgins, Norris and McGuinness are almost certainly to gain more than half of the first-preferences between them. But after the election on October 27th, it’s vital that we ditch the symbol-making, get down to the reality of our predicament, of the global predicament, and start to fight our way out of it.

HARRY BROWNE lectures in journalism at Dublin Institute of Technology. He is the author of Hammered By the Irish, published by CounterPunch / AK Press. He can be reached at: harry.browne@gmail.com