“Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes” (Vergil’s “Aeneid”)
Publius Vergilius Maro was a Roman poet who lived a little over 2,000 years ago. In the past few days whilst thinking about the election results in Greece, the quotation above from Vergil’s writings came back to me from my schooldays when Latin was taught in our secondary schools. It’s strange how memory works. That quotation means “I fear the Greeks, even when they bring gifts” and came to me, when I read Yanis Varoufakis’ blog about his thoughts for the post-2008 world. But when I thought about it, the synchronicity and the symbolism that it evoked in me was even more startling.
The quotation relates to an episode at the end of the nine years war between the Greeks and the Trojans which was an important part of Greek mythology involving one person stealing another man’s wife and then all hell breaks loose. Not unlike any of our own mythological stories such the Red Branch Tales of Ulster, Fionn Mac Cumhaill, and others. The war was over and the city of Troy had survived. Before the Greeks departed from the battle field, their leader was advised by one of his counsellors (a fortune teller really, with the same influence as our modern government advisors) to leave a gift for the Trojans. Now remember we are talking mythology here, so Gods talked and humans listened! (Which in some ways reminds me of the relationship between the Irish Governent and the people today but let’s leave that till later). On the advice of the Gods the Greeks left a massive wooden horse outside the gates of the city, probably with a note attached saying “Well done, lads, we lost this one, you can have this present to remind you of us.” Or something to that effect. Without going any further into the mythological details and boring you to death, let’s cut to the chase. The Trojans wheeled the wooden horse into their city, which the Greeks had failed to conquer, and had a wild party to celebrate. Unfortunately for them the horse set off a chain of events that led to the fall of the city. And no one was particularly happy afterwards.
If you have followed me so far, I congratulate you for your endurance and perspicacity. As you are now realising, we are in a similar situation today. For Troy, think EU, and for Trojan horse, think bail-out! The high priest of Troy had reacted violently to accepting the present from the Greeks and warned the citizens not to touch it, In Vergil’s words the high priest had said something along the lines of “don’t put your cotton-picken hands on that horse, because I don’t trust those guys even when they bring a gift”. Nobody took the advice and you know the rest. Today we have a modern Greek leader whose country has taken a pasting from the EU during the War of Austerity, but unlike the leaders before him, he is basically saying, “screw the presents, I want to talk to you about the mess you left us in. And we are not taking any more of this horse manure”. (see the connection now with the Trojan horse?) But he is bringing a kind of gift in the form of a new way of looking at the debt crisis in Europe. The people behind the walls who thought that the deal with the Greeks was done and dusted are now shocked to see what the Greek PM is doing. Worse still he is relatively young, good looking, smiling, and his people love him and are pinning their money on him. He does not really even have the “fail” option available to him.
Fast forward now, our attention switches to Ireland. Our Taoiseach is trying to measure up to the big powers in Europe and hopes to impress them by cheering them on and being nice to them, in the hope that they won’t send in their persuaders, the Troika, to beat him up again. In the meantime when he looks back at his countrymen, he finds the Irish revolting, in more ways than one as you probably know by now. So, what’s next. We know what the Government is planning to do, or so they keep telling us anyway. But what is this revolting mass of angry people going to do. Aye, there’s the rub. And that’s where my real narrative begins.
The time span within which we have to work is shortening. The pre-negotiation posturing of the EU and the hard line coming from Greece are factors that we have to bear in mind. Another is the upcoming elections in Spain. The third item is where does Ireland fit into this picture. We were the first to take the hit and were panicked into making a frightened and incoherent response to the bullying demands made by the Troika.
I fear that if we do nothing but sit on our hands and hope that we might benefit from the fall-out to come, then we are going to be even more vulnerable than we now are. If, as seems possible and perhaps even likely, the Spanish elections produce a similar result to that in Greece, we could then face the emergence of a Mediterranean alliance sucking in Greece, Spain, Portugal, and possibly Italy. That might so destabilise the Euro that it could no longer be maintained. We wouldn’t have a leg to stand on then, because we would count for nothing with the big guns of Europe, and even less with the other debt burdened countries because our Government is siding with the EU in scolding Greece!
On the other hand, if we could use our experience to date in dealing with austerity and trying to meet the demands of the Troika, to build bridges with Greece, Spain and Portugal, our collective strength might be used to good effect in forging a better deal and bring a more positive result to the negotiations. To do that, we must take a more balanced approach and be seen to side with Greece who are showing signs of having a well-reasoned brief for the negotiations.
The big obstacle to our ever achieving that is our present Government’s unwillingness to listen and change. That means that the current protests must be broadened and pushed more strongly with the intention of forcing a breakdown in the Coalition and bringing forward the general election. This then demonstrates clearly the necessity for a new alignment of political movements on the left in Ireland. Established parties and smaller interest groups must stop the insane and egotistical jockeying for position, and forge an alliance based upon consensus around a core of agreed principles and policies. Compromise is not an option, because it will not be possible to maintain an alliance under pressure. Consensus allows a safety valve for issues outside of the consensus to be responded to separately.
The online debating, questioning and examining of the issues encourages me to think that the impetus for change will come, and in fact, is already coming from the grassroots debate that is organically emerging. If that debate identifies and articulates clear principles that the people want from their government, that initiative will force political parties to respond rather than come asking for votes in the usual way based upon what they think the people should want! Unfortunately but with good reason, “politics” has become a dirty word in Ireland. Nevertheless, it is essential that as many people as possible are mobilised, not just in the protests, but in their social settings, at home, at work, to discuss with one another what they want for themselves, for their communities, for their children and their children’s children to the ninth generation, if necessary. The trading of votes for promises has failed us. The politicians are lothe to change their habits. The people must decide. And then inform the our representatives of our wishes through the ballot box as in a democratic society.