Guest post from Prof Donncha Kavanagh (UCD)
Much media commentary on the general election has been framed around the notion that the Irish parliamentary system should finally rid itself of its Civil War legacy and embrace the Left-Right system of political discourse that befits a modern democracy. However, there are profound weaknesses in this argument. Irish politics has sensibly avoided the Left-Right structure up to now, and hopefully it will continue to do so into the future.
Traditionally, the Left has been identified as the party of movement and change, while the Right has been associated with order, the status quo and conservativism. However, as Anthony Giddens argued in his book, Beyond Left and Right, published in 1994, the Left had become conservative, in so far as its focus has centred on retaining the status quo of the welfare state, while the Right had become associated with change, in that the market, which it celebrates, necessarily upsets the current order.
In Britain, it makes much sense to see the Right as supporting the owners of capital, the privileged and the powerful, and the Left as aligned with workers and the less advantaged. However, this has never worked particularly well in Ireland, which never experienced an industrial revolution, out of which the capital-labour distinction emerged. For instance, the Land Acts of the early twentieth century—which applied to Ireland but not to the rest of the United Kingdom—made the capital-labour distinction meaningless in the context of Irish agriculture, as farmers became the owners of capital (their farm) while they were also the main workers on these farms. And the type of factory that flourished in nineteenth-century Britain, with identifiable owners and large numbers of workers, never really materialised in Ireland, even when agriculture lost its dominant position in the economy. As Fintan O’Toole once quipped, Ireland moved from the pre-modern to the postmodern without ever really stopping at the modern.
Ireland may never have been modern, but other countries are also finding that the old division between Left and Right is becoming an increasingly less credible way of framing political discourse, given the complexity of global business and finance, where workers contribute to pension funds that then own corporations, where transnational corporations are often more powerful than sovereign states, and where states feel compelled to enter into Faustian pacts with corporations. Citizens and politicians alike are finding that the Left-Right distinction doesn’t provide sufficient traction in terms of determining the appropriate actions to take in particular situations and that other framing devices have more to offer. The February general election provides a good illustration, in that the result could reasonably be seen as reflecting differences between the East and West of the country (or North and South), or differences between urban and rural, or differences based on gender, race, religion or age. Moreover, parties on the Irish ‘Left’ are vehemently arguing against taxes—specifically the local property tax and water charges—that, across Europe, would be seen as consistent with a Left ideology. For their part, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael would resist being pigeon-holed as parties of the Right. For instance, notwithstanding Fianna Fáil’s popular association with big business, its close links with the labour movement were instrumental in framing the social partnership agreements that were hugely important between 1987 to 2008. Going further back in history, that party used to pride itself as the party of the “man of no property”, while Fine Gael can point to its long-standing advocacy for social justice, most especially when Garret Fitzgerald was leader. Certainly, it is clear that the Left-Right continuum is neither the only, nor the most helpful, way of sorting political positions or of aggregating contentious issues.
We should resist simple arguments that the 32nd Dáil should be structured around a Left-Right continuum. Rather, it would be best to see the Dáil as 158 representatives of the citizens of the state who must figure out a way of doing its business. That will take time.
With Leinster House in need of substantial renovation, the Dáil might usefully start by decamping to Croke Park, partly because a new environment might inspire new ways of thinking about how parliament should do its business, but partly because the GAA provides a ready example of an organisation that gets things done without recourse to the adversarial, parliamentary system that is institutionalised in the Dáil. Once ensconced in Croke Park, the members might invite contributions from Kieran Mulvey and others from the Workplace Relations Commission who have specialised in fostering harmony in workplaces (the Dáil is a workplace, after all). It would also make much sense to bring in some Quakers who are experts in conflict resolution and have thought deeply about how meetings and assemblies should be organised effectively without unnecessary adversity. Their use of silence and their belief in the principle of saying little —“let your words be few”, as they say—would also provide a timely and important counter-position to the excessive amount of talk, much of it in predictable clichés, that pervades parliamentary debate. What we need is a parliamentary model that has less adversarial debate and more discussion and collective decision-making. Others who might help design such a model include thinkers like Edward de Bono (or others versed in his ideas) who have thought deeply about how to structure thinking and dialogue without recourse to adversary, aggression and argumentation. Almost certainly, a less macho parliament should be a warmer place for women.