The Irish state, which can be loosely defined as the combination of the civil service and the revolving elected bodies, was both constrained and buttressed by a number of social features of Irish society in the 20th century. These traditional structures, of Church, of professional guilds, and of rural patronage evoked a complicity in Irish politicians and civil servants. If something had to be done, it had to be mediated through these entities. The primary energy of progressivism and humanitarian empathy in the Irish body politic has emerged from one of the hangovers left by colonialism – a grotesque form of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ where the wealthier and more cosmopolitan members of the Irish middle class have fretted over the image of Ireland as a perpetual backwater belching forth immigrants, unattractive and alien to the values of modern bourgeois society.
The slow chipping away at these structures through changing demographics and destabilising cultural borders culminated in a rapid collapse of tradition in the 90s. The rapid ‘shock doctrine’ of the Warsaw Pact is principally showcased as the epitome of the process of globalisation in shaking up the economic and social basis of society, but the Celtic Tiger coupled with a release of long accumulating tension oversaw a dramatic change in Ireland as well. The reflection of these profound changes in the international and domestic environment was not immediately seen in politics, as the old-style gombeenism of the political class struggled to accommodate itself under its last DJ in the form of Bertie Ahern, only to fall into disgrace and cast doubt on the future of the two-party civil war system.
In spite of these developments, the successor to the old way was slower still to adopt the habits of the new media politician emerging in the UK and US. Gone was the familiar plámás of Bertie Ahern, but yet to begin was the slick discipline and careful arrangement that had been born, come of age, and died already in the 2000s. A generation had already experienced the Blair Government, the Obama government, and others who had hijacked progressivism in order to further neoliberal agendas with vicious imperialist policies in foreign affairs. Enda Kenny was a stiff, amusingly uncharismatic gatekeeper for the interests of capital in Ireland. He did not attempt to rock the boat of an already precarious political situation by engaging in neoliberal modernisation. As a result, the pillars which Irish civil society prided itself on as its only redeeming feature in the 20th century had been preserved. Neutrality, a commitment to academic input, and institutions which even if powerless to intervene in the bitter morass of conservative Irish society, at least tried to maintain a nominal separation of state provision from partisan politics.
Leo Varadkar, however, is a moderniser. He is a student of the noughties, of pop media, of marketing. He has grasped the raw potential there is to be harnessed in providing a safe, party-curated alternative to radical liberationary politics. LGBT and Feminist concerns have now found acceptance in a re-engineered public relations façade for Young Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, as the need for ‘total positivity’ and a media savvy approach has made obsolete the nastier, boys’ club model of conservative discourse. The promise implicit in this politics and blooming under Blair and Obama is that you can cut single mothers’ benefits, free corporations from the burden of contributing to infrastructure, and still go home with a clear conscience. Alistair Campbell, Tony Blair’s speech writer and chief strategist, set up a new and unprecedented institution in the UK government under New Labour called the Strategic Communications Unit. During the lifetime of this unit, the ideological needs of the state executive would be served using civil resources, to combat both the private media and marginalised dissent. After the creation of this body, manipulation of media sources was linked to the death of an academic critic of the Iraq War and a myriad of other scandals. The role of this body was at the heart of the disillusionment of the British people with neoliberal politics and the rise of the Corbyn wave. In an unsettling resonance, Leo Varadkar has also chosen to create his own personal state apparatus for the reproduction of not only the class relations of society, but also his own party and personal political interests. He has taken the (precedented) step of giving this body precisely the same name as Alistair Campbell’s – the Strategic Communications Unit – and it has already become enmired in a prolonged parliamentary dispute as Fine Gael has tried to increase its electoral performance through marketing a bizarre ‘Ireland 2040’ plan. This unit has been slated for disbandment by Dáil review as of writing.
Varadkar, in another Blair-like move, has expelled a Russian diplomat and stated that Irish neutrality is over. Young Fine Gael has passed a motion at its national conference to call for NATO membership. Overall, the attitudes reflected in the work of the present leadership of shark smiles and publicity stunts is one of acute awareness of the zeitgeist. This process hasn’t always been smooth, with multiple blunders in Varadkar’s attempts to emulate the charisma and pragmatic flexibility of the Obama and Blair administrations. However, if the polls are anything to go by, it’s working. The cynicism of the youth of the Financial Crisis era has given away to a numbing, anodyne breed of young thatcherites who attempt to court public perception with boring, diminutive proposals like disposable cup taxes. The bigotry and class war politics are now relegated behind closed doors, but as the recently elected Chair of Young Fine Gael’s tweets about ‘coathanger abortion’ suggest, they are still very much alive.
Enda Kenny seemed very much a Wizard of Oz, elusive and camera-shy for fear of bumbles, lurking in the background while his poll ratings shrank. On the other hand, Public Relations hustle and social media utilization are Leo’s modus operandi. It represents a new but also very old leadership style of appearance over substance, hiding the mechanisms of state and diverting the public eye from vulture funds and slumlords with (for the first time in Irish public life) a totally co-ordinated and carefully controlled media complex celebrating the glory of such triumphal extravaganzas as the Taoiseach’s frequent visits to UCC. This is the result of years of change in how politics is done globally, with sculpted portfolios and resumes which mark out team players and silent collaborators being the gateway to political power. The loss of a community base in Irish politics has weakened parochial power dynamics, but the lack of a community connection, of authentically being of one’s own and for one’s own has finally culminated in its logical conclusion: a predatory ruling class whose only brethern are the fellow predators of other nations. This change is possible only because the vacuum left by the passive soft power exerted by the Catholic Church and landowners has been replaced by a dynamic power which observed the uncertainty gripping the interregnum and understood it was an opportunity to take over.
Today, the 30th of March, the Refenderum Commission announced it would not “police” the referendum to Repeal the Eight Amendment. It would not issue clarifications if necessary, or challenge outright fabrications from campaigning groups. This is part of a gradual parring away of the outwardly and acknowledged partisan nature of the state. It is a strengthening of the implicit neoliberal consensus which dominates society as the ideology of its class system. This neoliberal ideological system, disguised as a neutral, unbiased, and distanced vehicle ready to bury the ugly and confrontational role of the state as an entity with opinions and functions, only deepens the state’s hand in reinforcing class contradicting, and protecting the interests of the propertied and wealthy, rather than allowing the occasional outbursts of popular resistance that defuses class tensions. This action by the state protects the ability of the No side, an elaborate misinformation campaign with access to cutting edge technology and analytics, to exert a concerted attack on the minds of Irish people and their ability to discern their interests and hold empathy for the interests of their compatriots. Creating the appearance of a consensus using a minority and then pushing people into a panicked mindset is the basic formula being applied to bring desired outcomes. Save the Eight has hired Cambridge Analytica, a group practicing such mass control techniques by manufacturing social media traction and purchasing influence space, to participate in their media push. Trawling the comment sections of any Irish newspaper on Facebook, one can see these at work, frothing at the mouth and, between commas and arcanely misplaced symbols, calling eveybody they lay eyes upon murderers.
One of the pressing issues which we must face as communists is the urgent need for a daily all-Ireland left-wing newspaper. Such a newspaper could provide a function similar to the Morning Star in the UK by rapidly deconstructing the reporting patterns and assumptions found in the media and the misleading filibustering that governmental sources use to conceal their motivations. The reason why we are in our present predicament has been the absence of a left narratorial voice to counterpoint and call to task the media-state complex. Paid articles are a rampant phenomenon but are not reported due to the priority placed on corporate rights by quangos and the self-inculpation papers would face by investigating. The outcome of the absence of class analysis and professional ethics in culture is stark. Recent analyses have shown 17% of Irish people have a negative view of the intelligence of people of certain races. They also have some of the worst attitudes towards immigrants in Western Europe. Irish conservatism has not gone away with the fall of its ancient institutions and representatives, it has simply transformed into a more secular incarnation. Leaner and meaner, it is compatible with the political culture of the nations whose capitalist classes have superiority over the Irish one, and who have a neo-colonial relationship with the Irish economy. This is the result of the effort of the great cosmopolitan Irish reformers. A country which is able to support the growth of prejudice by being subject to mass manipulation, but in a nice cosmopolitan way that matches the rhododendrums in the neighbours’ gardens.
This is the false promise of liberalism. Social change is not possible through reform or legislation. The culture of society can’t be changed from above. The deciding factor in the thoughts and social mores of the Irish people has been the relationships between people found in the Irish economy and the relationship of that economy to the global economy. This is an issue that will rear its head again, in more obscure, absurd and delirious combinations, as the bridge between the external truth and the internal truth bound with society grows more distant. Only by understanding our nature and place in the world through the study of class and grasping our economic liberty through all means can we come to change ourselves. Only by immediately commencing work on an economic revolution that disassembles the capitalist style of ownership from below can we win the apathetic, the apolitical, and the disillusioned to our banner. Hundreds of years of failed reformers and thwarted revolutionaries lie behind us, and the Ireland we live in today is a shattered legacy of efforts and aspirations that will have been in vain unless we struggle to complete them.