Edited by Fintan O’Toole
Faber and Faber, 2012
By Fintan O’Toole
Faber and Faber, 2010
By Fintan O’Toole
Faber and Faber, 2009
“L’Irlande sort de la crise et inspire l’Europe du Sud.” On 23 February 2013, that was the banner headline of Le Monde, that New York Times of the French-speaking world. Whether Ireland has really emerged from the global financial crisis is debatable; I’m even more inclined to doubt the degree to which their widespread debt and insolvency is now an inspiration to their fellows in Spain, Portugal, Italy or Greece. Nevertheless, I must confess to the schadenfreudian response that this headline produced in my mind. I loved the image of Fintan O’Toole happening upon it, and I chuckled dishonourably at the mental image of steam shooting out of his ears.
O’Toole is one of Ireland’s most widely read journalists. From his columnist’s perch at the Irish Times he has been an indefatigable force for Irish modernisation, a constant bug up the nose of the country’s corporate, political and clerical hierarchy. He’s also quite versatile, in a trans-Atlantic sort of way: he currently lectures at Princeton, he had a stint as drama critic for New York’s Daily News in the late 1990s, and he’s published quite a bit on American culture at both article- and book-length. His reputation as Ireland’s leading political and cultural critic is well-earned; his writing is lively, well informed (in fine journalistic style, it’s often dense with detail) and politically committed. He’s a liberal of the New Republic sort, a magazine he has written for and been acclaimed in (in some ways he puts one in mind of a less cranky version of Leon Wieseltier).
Really, though, he has been at the forefront of Irish political debate of the last few years because of his trilogy of books about the end of the “Celtic Tiger.” This began in 2009 with Ship of Fools: How Stupidity and Corruption Sank the Celtic Tiger. He followed this in 2010 with Enough is Enough: How to Build a New Republic. 2012 saw the publication of a collection of essays that he edited called Up The Republic! Towards a New Ireland. In some ways, these books were very much of their moment, serving in some ways as mouthpieces for the widespread anger about the meltdown of the Irish economy. All three of these books, and especially the first two, rage against the excesses of Ireland’s banker class, a class that O’Toole sees as either embodied or enabled by the long-governing party Fianna Fáil.
Until their loss of the most recent election, Fianna Fáil had seemed to be the Republic of Ireland’s natural governing party. These days the Republic’s system of proportional representation seems to strongly favour multi-party alliances (the last six governments have been coalitions), but Fianna Fáil has still been remarkably dominant, forming or leading 19 of Ireland’s 31 post-independence governments. No surprise, then, that this has bred a fairly intense form of cronyism and an all-too-widespread sense that Fianna Fáil basically is the Irish government. That was shattered by the last election, which saw them sink to third place behind Fine Gael and Irish Labour (followers of Canadian politics will find this familiar, with the once-indomitable Liberals now in third place behind the governing Conservatives and the left-of-centre New Democratic Party). But for O’Toole, the damage to the Irish political psyche wrought by a stagnant, goodoldboyish politics has been lasting.
A big part of this can be traced to Fianna Fáil’s full name. Although it’s rare to hear or see it except on campaign signs, they are properly called “Fianna Fáil: The Republican Party.” The reasons for that have to do with the party’s Civil-War heritage; it was formed by members of Sinn Féin who left the party so they could take their seats in the parliament of the Irish Free State (whose deputies were obliged to swear allegiance to the Crown, anathema to Sinn Féin). In Fianna Fáil’s early days they had a highly compelling interest in presenting themselves as the practical, real-world heirs to the Republican tradition.
It’s the meaning of that term, “the Republican tradition,” that is really at the heart of O’Toole’s antipathy towards Fianna Fáil, at the heart of his three books (which I’m calling a trilogy here because O’Toole is the guiding spirit, though not the sole author, of the third). It’s at the heart of his overall political project too, a project he sets out most concisely in the opening pages of Enough is Enough:
Most current debate in the Western world is organised around a clash between the left’s argument for a strong state and the right’s argument for a strongly engaged society. In the depths of its despair, Ireland badly needs both. And I believe that these ideas can be fused in what is a rather old concept – that of the republic. A republic can and should be a state that draws its strength from the active and independent engagement of its citizens…. But I believe there is a natural time frame for a programme of change – the short period between now and the hundredth anniversary of the 1916 Rising in which a republic was declared but from which it never flowed. There is nothing here that cannot be done by 2016. There could be no better way of honouring the ideal of that failed republic than the achievement of a republic worth living for – and in.
Just specifying the country that I’m talking about here speaks to the complexity of this overall political project. Although it’s colloquially known as “the Republic of Ireland,” that state’s constitution actually says, to quote Article 4 in its entirety, that “The name of the State is Éire, or, in the English language, Ireland.” The word “Republic” does not appear anywhere in that document’s text. The Civil War of 1921-22 was fought in no small part because of the acceptance of a treaty that created not the Irish Republic declared by the rebels of the 1916 Easter Rising (including Fianna Fáil founder Éamon de Valera), but instead the Irish Free State, whose semi-independent status was modelled after Canada’s. Fianna Fáil did away with that Free State business by pushing through the 1937 constitution, but that document’s aforementioned Article 4 still couldn’t quite manage the word “Republic.” That fell to John Costello, leader of Fine Gael, whose coalition government passed the “Republic of Ireland Act” in 1948, following a minor diplomatic flap in Canada. It was a rushed, barely-thought-through political gesture, based on the Canadians’ failure to toast the Irish president alongside the King. It did not set the stage for a richly nuanced understanding of the word “Republican.”
O’Toole’s anthology Up the Republic! Towards a New Ireland sets out to change that. It’s a collection of essays on the concept of republicanism: as a philosophical position born of the Enlightenment-era classicism, as an ongoing aspiration in Ireland, and as a model for global struggle for a more just world. O’Toole is an idealist on the matter of republicanism, and is very unhappy about the connotations that the term currently carries in Ireland. Indeed, I suspect not all that many contemporary Irish voters think of Fianna Fáil as “The Republican Party.” When Irish people the word “republican,” they think of Sinn Féin or the IRA. This drives O’Toole nuts, and he writes in his own contribution to Up The Republic!:
At the risk of obnoxious arrogance, it has to be admitted that, in general, Irish people do not know what a republic means. This is not because they are ignorant. It is because ‘republican’ has become, in their public culture, a word that deserves either revulsion or contempt. It calls to mind either the kleptocracy of Fianna Fáil The Republican Party or the viciousness of a self-appointed ethnic militia.
He said something very similar in his 2010 book Enough is Enough, in the opening of part one, “Five Myths.” The rest of Up The Republic!, though, is basically given over to explaining exactly what “a republic” does mean, in terms of civic participation, the equality of citizens before the law, ethnic and religious neutrality, and so on. O’Toole’s real desire here is to build an actual Republic of Ireland, one that embodies these values and is born of an explicit statement in favour of them. “The vague, incomplete half-republic that existed between 1922 and 2008 is gone for good,” he writes. “It survives, vestigially, as a puppet show.” Fred Powell, in his contribution to Up the Republic! “Citizen or Subjects?,” echoes this when he writes of calls for an Irish constitutional convention that “if it is to produce a republican constitution there must be a separation between Church and state. Otherwise there will be no ‘Second Republic’ as there was no ‘First Republic.’”
Ah yes, the Second Republic. This refers, loosely, to a desire for a top-to-bottom constitutional revision, along the lines of what has defined the history of post-Revolutionary France (whose present-day state is properly called the Fifth Republic). Although the anthology O’Toole edited is a kind of political and philosophical symposium on republicanism generally (although with special emphasis on the Irish context), the first two of these books serve as his manifesto for a Second Republic. Ship of Fools’ last chapter is called “The Second Republic,” and Enough is Enough concludes with a list of “Fifty Key Actions” which he sees as indispensable parts of a genuinely democratic state, number 50 of which is simply “Declare a republic.” This is all good stuff, and on the surface it’s hard to find fault with a writer whose sense of outrage at the quasi-failed-state that is Éire is so intense, whose democratic ambitions seem so noble. But find fault I do, along two main lines. The first is that we have heard a great deal of this before, and in a more clearly thought-out way. The second is that O’Toole is carrying some political assumptions that are vastly more arguable than the “I simply want a more just society” tone of his proposals.
Calls for a new vision of republicanism have been part of Irish political discourse for quite a while, and I would have expected to hear more about them, especially in contexts like Up The Republic!, devoted to the concept of republicanism as it is. It is very odd indeed that the name “Richard Kearney” does not appear in that book’s index. Kearney (b.1954) is the major Irish political philosopher of his generation. In addition to a whack of prestigious academic posts, Kearney spent the 1990s being a frequent intervener on the matter of Northern Ireland’s future in forums in both Dublin and Brussels and helping write speeches for Irish President Mary Robinson. His 1997 book Postnationalist Ireland (which built on some of those submissions to Dublin and Brussels) is a seminal contribution, and no small part of it was in no small part due to its attempt to reclaim and re-explain, to evoke the titles of chapters 2 and 3, “The ideas of a republic” and “Genealogy of the republic.” Kearney writes in that book of how
there is, I believe, a great need for a novel appreciation of the universalist dimension of republicanism, as we move towards a greater integration with the common house of Europe and the wider world.
That’s very close indeed to O’Toole’s basic position on republicanism, a kind of précis of what’s being outlined by contributors to Up the Republic!.
“Come on,” I can hear the objections: “O’Toole is a journalist, not an academic.” I’d reject that excuse, for two reasons. The first is the (entirely laudable) aspiration of Up the Republic! to bridge the gap between academia and journalism; five of its eight contributors are academics of some kind. The second reason is that O’Toole is also ignoring the older but still quite relevant neo-republicanism of his journalistic colleague Desmond Fennell. Fennell’s most comprehensive discussion of a new republicanism was contained in a short book published in 1984 called Bring Forth the Third Revolution: A Humanist Essay (adapted from a magazine article he wrote in 1965). It sought to retrace the republican heritage back to the beginning of the twentieth century Ireland, keeping a keen eye on the European context as it argued that while Ireland had seen revolutions in the form of the 1916 rising and the revolution in consumer materialism, it was due for another one.
In one way, Fennell’s not far off from O’Toole. But to paraphrase The Simpsons, in another, more accurate way, he’s totally opposed to O’Toole. For one thing, Fennell’s book isn’t actually called Bring Forth the Third Revolution, it’s called Cuireadh chun na Tríú Réabhlóide: Aiste Dhaonnachtach, and it’s written entirely in Irish Gaelic. I can see why O’Toole might ignore this kind of work, especially given that he writes in Ship of Fools:
Linguistically, for example, Ireland remained a relentlessly monoglot subset of the English-speaking world. For all the talk of globalization and cultural complexity, the Irish were stubbornly attached to English as their sole means of communication. In fact the Irish were more loyal to English than the English: 66 per cent of the Irish population speaks only English, compared to 62 percent of Brits.”
That figure can’t possibly be correct if you count Irish Gaelic, which in the 2011 census around 40% of the population claimed to be able to speak (about 1.75 million out of a population of about 4.3 million). But nobody cares about Irish Gaelic, right? Old fashioned, conservative, folkloric claptrap, right? Except, um, for the nearly 2 million Irish people who care enough to tell census enumerators that they can speak it. There’s no doubt that as a whole the Irish people over-report their competence in the language, but it is a compulsory subject in the national school system, and there are plenty of folks who can speak it at a decent level. O’Toole must know these people exist. In Ship of Fools he uses the language to poke fun at the romanticism attached to Sinn Féin, Irish for “we ourselves,” writing that “There was a time in Ireland was it was a political asset to have served time behind bars for Sinn Féin. In the Celtic Tiger era, it was an asset to have been behind bars for Mé Féin,” which, O’Toole does not feel he needs to say, is Irish for “I myself.”
The real problem here, I suspect, is that Desmond Fennell made his reputation as a columnist for the Irish Press, a daily newspaper founded by Fianna Fáil people that remained a kind of party organ until its demise in 1995. During his career Fennell acted as an informal advisor to both Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil. Reading him as he unabashedly mixes cultural conservatism and socialism makes you think that Christopher Lasch has been reincarnated as an Irish Catholic journalist. He embodies, in short, everything that O’Toole’s form of liberal neo-republicanism is seeking to supplant.
And thus we come to the heart of the matter. For all the motherhood and apple pie stuff about wanting to create a more just society that is deeply committed to pluralism and diversity and so on, O’Toole is not much for acknowledging his own assumptions. His most central assumption has to do with the general desirability of a technology-led form of liberal modernity. Ship of Fools, for example, has an entire chapter called “Off Line Ireland,” devoted to excoriating the Irish educational system for awarding too much prestige to law and medicine but not enough to engineering and computer science. I spent 15 years in Alberta, a place with a desperate shortage of doctors and a deep and abiding love for engineers, and I’ve got to say it’s not exactly a beacon of civic engagement or political pluralism. The place is by far the wealthiest part of Canada, and probably the most technologically sophisticated (both are a direct result of its massive oil industry). It is also basically a single-party state. Although they are presently experiencing a bit of pressure from an upstart right-wing party, Alberta’s relentlessly materialist Progressive Conservatives have been in power there without interruption since 1971. They rule the province like kings, to a degree about which Fianna Fáil can only dream. Up the Republic! doesn’t work this technophile strand quite as hard, but it does present the Republic’s property-market-led economic collapse as the inevitable harbinger of radical change. That’s not inevitable, and it’s not really even logical. It might seem that way if you are a relentlessly liberal materialist, as O’Toole seems to be. But not only is that not the only way to move through the world, it seems to me fairly clear that a cynical kind of materialism is responsible for a fair bit of the mess in which Ireland presently finds itself.
Up the Republic!’s Iseult Honohan writes that “we should think twice before assuming that the French model of the republic, which is strictly neutralist and secularist (in, for example, banning women from covering their faces in public), is the only or necessarily best way to go.” She’s right to be cautious there, although for reasons that have nothing to do with face coverings. Rather, the problem with the French analogy is that they gave birth to new republics because of really earthshaking events. France’s Third Republic began during the Franco-Prussian war and ended when the Nazis occupied the country; the Fourth Republic began when they were defeated. The current Fifth Republic began when Charles de Gaulle basically prevented France from becoming a pied-noir-led military junta along the lines of Portugal and Spain, and he managed to do that by becoming president without actually being elected. This is the sort of thing that produces constitutional revolutions, not a really severe collapse of the housing market, or a lot of widespread anger at the corruption of a long-ruling political party. These are affronts to important aspects of the national well being, for sure, and Irish people, like O’Toole, are right to be outraged by them. But outrage is not synonymous with revolution. Wholesale revisions of the state generally require something less materialist than real estate as their catalyst. They generally require something existential.
If there is a genuinely existential quality to the argument that O’Toole is unfolding across these three books, I have missed it. That’s not because Ireland has lacked for existential crises of late; indeed, by European standards, they have proliferated. O’Toole often seems curiously dismissive of their importance. One such existential crisis has to do with the future of Irish Gaelic, a language whose fortunes have been in great flux not only because of the growth of Irish-medium schooling but also because of the rise of a fairly successful Irish-language television station, TG4. Does Ireland need its own language to sustain its own national identity? Is Irish just for folklorists and nationalists? These are not piddling issues when it comes to forging a forward-looking national identity, but O’Toole obviously doesn’t care; for him Ireland is “a relentlessly monoglot subset of the English-speaking world” and that’s that.
But the more pressing of these existential crises is the ongoing conflict in Northern Ireland and the heroic efforts to reconcile it. O’Toole has written frequently and with a great, hard-headed rationality on this, and in 1998 he sparred with Tom Hayden in the pages of the New York Review of Books, offering vigorous and principled statements about the folly of romanticising the present-day IRA. Thus I find it genuinely strange to come across statements like the one where in Ship of Fools he summarises the Irish milieu of the late 1990s, the height of the “Celtic Tiger” economic boom:
All of this was great, and it was also a lot of fun. Coinciding with the gradual establishment of peace in Northern Ireland after the Good Friday agreements of 1998, it made Irish people feel a lot better about themselves.
That’s his sense of the importance of the Good Friday moment, that it was part of people feeling better about themselves? Now there was an example of the Irish constitution actually being opened up, with the second and third articles of de Valera’s beloved 1937 constitution being utterly re-written. Article 2 used to read in its entirety “The national territory consists of the whole island of Ireland, its islands and the territorial seas,” and Article 3 used to open “Pending the re-integration of the national territory…..” They now say nothing nearly as provocatively to northern Unionists. The adaptation of the Good Friday Agreement was the first time since before the War of Independence that the entire island of Ireland had expressed itself electorally (it had to be approved via referenda by majorities in both the Republic and Northern Ireland), and that entire island expressed itself in favour of adopting a very complex, very 21st-century sense of sovereignty and national belonging (and Kearney’s work in Postnationalist Ireland, published a year earlier, was prescient there). It was a big moment for “The Irish,” however you want to define that so slippery of national identifiers. To see this reduced to being a kind of interesting part of the wild fun of the Celtic Tiger days, a part that can be mentioned in passing, gives a sense of how totally overtaken by outrage at the moneylenders and their allies O’Toole has allowed himself to become. It also gives a sense of how uninterested he is in matters that don’t directly affect the finances of the Irish middle class.
I’m sure it seems churlish to criticise O’Toole’s argument because it strikes me, in essence, as a bit overly-virtuous, a bit too angry at people who obviously behaved very badly for a very long time. I actually agree with a fair bit of what he’s arguing here; beyond the economic stuff, O’Toole rightly slams the degree to which the Catholic Church continues to control primary and secondary education in the Republic. I (a practicing Catholic, by the by) am in full agreement about the absurdity of that. But behind this virtue lies a myopia this is, almost without fail, the bedfellow of outrage. There is some talk in these books about civic morality and ethical frameworks, but O’Toole does not seem substantially interested in much beyond the financial and material well-being of his fellow citizens. That well-being is obviously of great importance, but it’s not the sort of thing that by itself is likely to form the basis of a renewed (or new) republic. That doesn’t mean that I think the huge numbers of Irish that have been genuinely and shockingly screwed by the collapse of the Celtic Tiger should just eat cake, or the Irish language, or a renewed concept of sovereignty. I was as glad as anyone to see the collapse of Fianna Fáil’s electoral support, as unable as O’Toole to think of a set of politicians more deserving of being consigned to the wilderness.
But it does not follow that the collapse of the Celtic Tiger will bring about a Second Irish Republic, or a First Republic, or whatever you want to call it. I think Ireland is due for some radical changes. Like O’Toole, I see its chronic inability to fairly distribute wealth, like its ridiculously over-centralised and generally dysfunctional governmental layout, as a big part of that. Its inability to finally and genuinely close the books on the northern conflict is just as important a part of that, despite the passing reference it receives here. So is Ireland’s future as a neutral power (something left unexplored by these books, even though O’Toole has elsewhere been sharply critical of the US’s use of Shannon Airport as a stopover on rendition flights). So is its inability to really deal with the place of the Irish language. And so is its painfully fluid sense of who should be an Irish citizen (following the aforementioned Article 2 that used to be anyone born on the island; because of recent upturns in immigration, now such a person has to have at least one Irish parent to be considered a citizen, and a greater betrayal of classical republicanism I cannot readily call to mind). O’Toole’s trilogy is the beginning of a conversation that the entire island of Ireland desperately needs to have. The fact that after writing two books and editing a third he can’t quite get past the preliminaries should give some sense of how impoverished that place’s political culture has become.
Jerry White is Canada Research Chair in European Studies at Dalhousie University, and the former editor of the Canadian Journal of Irish Studies. His book on Jean-Luc Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville is out this fall.