It was once said of the Irish, that “all their wars were merry and all their songs are sad”. Without doubt many Irish ballads and sean-nós singing have a haunting air about them, expressing pain that is too difficult to describe in words, coming as it does from deeply hidden wells of history, of faded dreams, and of exploitation. There is also some substance in the allegation that our wars were merry. It is said that the ancient Celtic tribes of Europe went into battle naked, save for a helmet, a shield and a sword. When a captured Celtic chieftain was paraded before the all-conquering Alexander the Great whose empire once sprawled across the world then known to Europeans, Alexander is said to have asked him, with some grudging admiration, was there nothing that the Celts feared. After some thought the captive chief replied: “Every morning when I go out, I fear the sky is going to fall on my head!”.
I can empathise with that fear, living as I do in Ireland of the Austerities. Beleaguered citizens squeezed by the policies imposed by the Troika, the EU and the IMF as a corrective punishment are now suffering for sleepwalking into a world moulded by the fantasies of the Celtic Tiger years, “But we were only following our leaders. They told us we were wealthy, that we are the greatest little country in the world to do business in. Even foreignors told us the same. Why wouldn’t we take advantage of the money available? And sure, wasn’t it great while it lasted”. And yes, indeed, it was great for a small minority but a large majority were left blinded and crippled like wounded, would-be warriors of a new and glorious age of prosperity. Little did we realise that we were but bit-part characters in a larger and grander narrative satisfying the egos of the few and providing a story line of their greed. The same leaders are now standing before us like insufferable senior students, toadying up to the Headmaster and Teachers, our betters, as they chide us for “losing the run of ourselves”. We must submit to punishment and take what we deserve.
It is heart-breaking to see and hear the deluge of stories from families and individuals who were caught up in that narrative. The stories of emigrations, of suicides, of financial destruction, of homes and families being pushed beyond their all too human limits are stirring a cauldron of memories. We are being haunted by memories of informers who ratted on our attempts at freedom, of leaders who fled the country leaving the detritus of dreams behind them, but worst of all, the spectre of the Great Famine is hanging over us, chilling our dreams. One third left, one third died, one third remained, and for what? Is the same pattern to be repeated in the era of the Great Failure? If we don’t learn from the past, then it surely will be repeated.
I remember from my studies when I worked on projects exploring leaders and leadership, individuals, groups and organisations, that the “power distance” between leader and followers is an important dimension in defining the effectiveness and behaviour of that leadership. Different countries show a wide variety of tolerance for that “power distance”. It is a bit like social distance. I am reminded of a joke abut what would happen if a man and a woman were washed up on a desert island. If they were French they would make love; if they were Irish, the man would wander off looking for the local pub; and if they were English, nothing would happen because they hadn’t been introduced!
We Irish do not feel comfortable with leaders who are socially distant from us. We don’t do anonymity. It’s a small country and a dense web of relationships ensures that we don’t need to search far to find a relative or a rival. We distrust leaders who get above themselves and we are quick to wind them in. But when we feel close to them, we are too trusting about their decency and fairness towards us. This has led to an Irish political culture based upon connections and influence. There is nothing inherently wrong with that, it is the normal currency of human society. But our TDs (members of the Dáil) are committed to “stroke” politics and doing “turns” for their constituents, often in opposition to the rules governing our society. In a strange way, it is almost as if our representatives view our government as being in some way alien and not the real authority. That was true when we were colonised, with the King or Queen in London and our other monarch, the Pope, in Rome. For 800 years Irish people had no native symbols of authority other than a precarious and threatened tribal system.
The political system demands, and is structured so that our representatives will not be re-elected if those norms are not met. Political policies are largely irrelevant in the face of “the catch cries of the clown”. We don’t do political philosophy either. We don’t really have an intellectual framework for discourse about who we are, what we want, and how we can achieve that state. It is a culture built upon activities and not on thinking. It is a culture that we have exported, most obviously to the New World (for Europeans, I hasten to add), where it thrived and spread through the gangs of NY and the Unions and Irish American politicians.
That culture is one of the main reasons why we are now suffering turmoil in trying to cope with our problems. We have known only a corrupted form of politics based upon the Civil War, that was manipulated by an over-bearing Church that interfered with political processes but forbade any questioning of their diktats. Small wonder that there is confusion and growing levels of violence in the streets. We lack a patois, a people’s language for political discourse. Pent up anger, frustration and fear is erupting in the throwing of insults and shouting confrontations with authority figures. It is not a pretty or re-assuring kaleidoscope of possibilities. Our Uachtarán (President) is a mild mannered intellectual, a poet, a champion against oppression in the Americas. This did not save him from an ignomious and hasty departure from an event in Dublin this week.
Unfortunately for Michael D., and I once knew him well enough to address his so, when we were colleagues in the Labour Party that once aspired to socialism, but yes, again I say unfortunately for him, he has had to compromise himself and his principles by lying down with dogs over too long a period. I am sure he hoped sincerely that he could achieve progress and change gradually and democratically. And he has done so but on the very limited palette of the arts where the colour red was verboten. Alas, but when one lies down with dogs, one gets up with fleas. He has been making obvious efforts to use any semblance of power left in his constitutional role as Uachtarán to good effect, but I believe that the New Labour Party of the Roses, that left Connolly’s Starry Plough to rust, merely threw a bone in the form of the Presidency to keep him out of the way and put a veneer of decency on their politically obscene groping with Fine Gael.
We are now in an increasingly precarious position in Ireland. The volume of protest and dissatisfaction is growing to a crescendo. A lot of energy is being generated but, whilst it is clearly directed at the single issue of the privatisation and commodification of water supplies, there is little sign of a new wave rising in Irish political life. Different groups are defining themselves in terms of activities and in so doing are attracting support from citizens who just want the pain to end. Shouting and screaming at the Garda Síochána, hurling abuse at politicians and at anyone who is seen as Other, and communicating in the short-hand of obscenities and spitting byte-sized gobs of abuse is no basis for forming a coherent policy of change. If the mass rallies planned for Jan 31 do not produce a tangible result and an agreed plan for further development of protest, then disillusion which is hovering in the wings, will take centre stage.
And now Syriza and Alexis Tsipras has burst upon the stage in Athens. Is this relative unknown to be a Greek hero in the mould of Athenian theatre, or a tragic figure, or ultimately an Icarus burning his wings in the flames when he challenges the Sun Gods of Finance and Politics. If nothing else he is focusing minds. He is making brave demands that are threatening to rattle the foundations of the European dream but then the Gods of Brussels feel sure they can swot this impudent Greek. Or can they? A lot will depend upon whether we in Ireland, and others in suffering countries such as Spain, Portugal, and Italy, not to mention the newbies from the former Soviet Union who were getting their first experiences of what might be theirs of right in future, whether we will find common cause and stand together with Greece. That requires leaders who have the courage and the vision to lead. It requires followers who are willing to work together in a consensus rather than fight over compromises. And, above all, it requires people who will not flinch when they look the opponent in the eyes. It looks like we are living in interesting times and whether that is a Chinese curse, or not, is for us to decide.