Am I alone in my disappointment at how the centenary of 1916 is going? Certainly there is much to admire. The story of 1916 is being recounted in fresh ways, new areas of inquiry have been opened up. We know more about the role of women, more of the innocent bystanders, especially the children who were killed. The O’Brien Press’s impressive “16 Lives” series reminds us that sixteen individuals were executed after the rising. Where the focus had once been on the seven signatories of the Proclamation, now we have accounts of other leaders; their backgrounds and motivations. What is disappointing is the level of reflection. An opportunity to learn more of our present problems and predicaments is being lost. I do not suppose that the lessons of history are easily read or that it is the historians’ job to teach them. I do suppose that comparison is the best, if not the only way, to study society, culture, politics. Comparing the past with the present gives us a perspective not otherwise available. The material out of which to fashion the comparison is there. It just not being used.
In this post I adumbrate some of what we might expect to learn. My first point is the ‘otherness’ of 1916. The ideas that motivated the insurgents and shaped the judgments, positive and negative, passed on them are not alive today. The distinction between “mystique” and “politique”, between a politics of vision and a politics of power, made by the French thinker and poet, Charles Peguy [1873-1915] , is apposite as we gaze across the chasm that separates us from the lost world of 1916. I discuss that distinction and why Peguy supposed modernity eclipsed mystique.
As things get better, ghosts from the past appear and disturb the party. House prices increase, new houses are building, the property supplements fatten and the possibility of another bubble haunts us. The Troika depart the stage, its script completed. The burden of choice and the weight of responsibility descend on the government and their civil servants who must write the script for the next act. No wonder they are nervous, no wonder they seek the assistance of an ‘a forum on issues like pay, taxation, and what services can be afforded’, no wonder the bien–pensants are troubled by – horror of horrors – the ghost of social partnership. No! No! We are assured, this is not Social Partnership. Social Partnership was a bad thing. This is a good thing.
Now, whether it was a good or a bad thing, social partnership, Irish style, was a failure. Whether the proposed forum is a good or bad thing depends on how we understand the problem it proposes to solve. Given the record of this government it is not surprising that the problem is hardly analysed and barely discussed. Once the problem is stated it is immediately clear that while social partnership was an inadequate solution, the proposed forum barely counts as one.
The problem is not a new one. It is as old as politics. It is encapsulated in this examination question, variants of which featured regularly in my exam papers, and, I guess, politics exams everywhere. No democracy without interest groups; interest groups the greatest threat to democracy. Discuss. Students could approach the question from a number of directions. Those with taste for political philosophy could see it as an opportunity to compare and contrast Hobbes and Rousseau, while Marxists could explain how it exemplifies a contradiction inherent in capitalism and its liberal political order. The political scientists could explore the pluralist model with particular attention to its limitations as discussed by Public Choice theorists in general and Mancur Olson in particular.
It is worth reminding ourselves what we can learn from these lines of enquiry.
Frances Fitzgerald, on taking up office as minister, on June 3 2014, commissioned an ‘Independent Review Group’ to comprehensively review ‘the performance, management, and administration’ of the Department of Justice and Equality. The report of the group of 5 was published 27 July 2014. It contains little of interest to the student of our administrative system. It is the same old story, told of the Department of Health in the Travers report  and of the Department of Finance in the Wright report . The department, it seems, operates as a conglomeration of ‘simple structures’ [Litton 2006]. Senior management (the MAC) do not combine to provide the strategic perspective and oversight that is supposed to be their role.
We talk a lot about politics. We demand more accountability and transparency. We abuse the ‘eunuch’ Dail. We parade policy failures and highlight their costs. We castigate our fellow citizens for their lack of virtue and demand a ‘vision’ from god knows who. We deplore the public’s declining trust in politicians to which all this talk must contribute. We do not, however, discuss what politics is about, reflecting on what it is for, and against what standards it should be judged. Why should we? After all such fundamental questioning can be tiresome, interrupting otherwise fruitful conversations. For example, when discussing the merits of this or that automobile we do not find it either necessary, or useful, to remind ourselves what motor cars are for – the movement of persons from A to B with safety, due dispatch and, at least a modicum of elegance. We all know what motor cars are for and the conversation proceeds smoothly on the basis of this shared presumption. We all know what politics are for, don’t we?
Neo-liberalism has been in the news. Colin Crouch’s The strange non-death of neo-liberalism [Cambridge: The Polity Press 2011] provides an interesting analysis of the financial crisis of 2008-2009 and the challenges it poses. He places the crisis in the context of the history of western political economy with particular attention to the period from the 1970s onwards when the ideas of neo-liberalism came to dominance. Whatever the particularities of our history, we are part of that history; its problems and the response to them, are, in large part, our problems and our responses. His account merits our attention.