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Even a country as stuck in the past as Ireland cannot remain impervious to the changes brought about by the end of the Cold War, reports Fiona Foster

Ireland comes in from the cold

Robert Kilroy-Silk's recent description of Ireland as a 'country peopled by peasants, priests and pixies' was less notable for its prejudice than for the four apologies it elicited from the Daily Express, where it appeared.

Britain's most odious chat show host is behind the times. There have been important changes in Irish society which make it less easy to caricature the Irish. The election of Mary Robinson as president in 1990 was the first major sign that things were changing. Robinson, a young, liberal lawyer who supported legalised divorce and opposed the constitutional ban on abortion, beat the candidates of the two main parties, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael. The winds of change had reached the land that time seemed to have forgotten.

Those who dismissed Robinson's election as a fluke were flummoxed when other familiar aspects of Irish society began to change-- such as the Catholic church. In contrast to the days when Catholic bishops told the politicians what to do, the hierarchy has recently kept quiet on key issues in Irish politics, and has even issued statements acknowledging the need for a change in the relationship between church and state in the new Ireland.

Confirmation of the church's self-imposed exile from political meddling came in its statement on the three referenda on abortion, which were held on the same day as the November 1992 general election. Much to the outrage of the anti-abortion lobby, the bishop's conference assured Ireland's Catholics that they could vote either Yes or No in good conscience.

No hiding place

Little in Ireland has remained immune to the wave of change sweeping the country. Fianna Fail, for 60 years the largest party in Ireland, is a case in point. It has long been seen as the most nationalist, most conservative party. Yet in recent years Fianna Fail has indicated a willingness to scrap the constitutional claim to a united Ireland, and has liberalised contraception laws and promised to legalise divorce and homosexuality. In the November election, Fianna Fail dropped its traditional title of 'The Republican Party', and employed the British-based Saatchi & Saatchi to run a slick advertising campaign.

The results of the election, in which Fianna Fail and Fine Gael both lost out in an unprecedented swing to the Irish Labour Party, confirmed the trend towards modernisation in Ireland. Commentators in Ireland and Britain described the vote as a historic rejection of 'civil war politics', a breaking of the mould of Irish politics.

Traditionally, many Irish people have voted along lines leading back to the Irish Civil War of 1922-23. Fine Gael represents the side that signed the partition treaty in 1921, which handed over the six northern counties of Ireland to the British state. Fianna Fail, despite its republican claims, represents those who held out a couple of years longer before participating in the Free State government established by Britain.

Broken loyalties

In the absence of any fundamental political difference between the two parties, even in their attitude to the partition of Ireland, Irish voters were left with little to motivate them but historic allegiances. Now it would seem that for the first time in the history of the truncated Irish state, substantial numbers of people have broken with these old loyalties and voted for change.

Albert Reynolds, the Taoiseach (prime minister), called the election in the confident expectation that he could win the overall majority he needed to abandon the ill-fated coalition between his Fianna Fail and the Progressive Democrats. In the event, Fianna Fail lost 10 seats and Reynolds confessed to being 'baffled' by the party's loss of support.

Just as surprised was the Irish Labour Party, which had expected so little from the election that it hadn't even put up enough candidates to use all the votes cast for them. If it had stood more candidates, Labour could conceivably have emerged as the largest party and certainly the second largest.

That Irish politicians were left bemused by the election results indicates that they are not the moving force behind the changes. In fact external forces created the dynamic for change in Ireland. Not even insular Ireland has managed to remain immune from the impact of the end of the Cold War and the changes it has wrought across the globe.

Old order crumbles

The weak middle classes who rule Ireland have always relied on the socially conservative influence of the Catholic church to guarantee stability, and on rhetorical nationalism to cohere popular support for their right to rule.

The changes brought about by the end of the Cold War have helped to accelerate the decline of these old influences on Irish life. Nationalism seems unnecessary at a time when Ireland's leaders feel less threatened by the increasingly isolated national struggle in the North; and the sway of Catholicism has increasingly become an embarrassment in a nation trying to present itself as an equal partner in Europe.

Mary Robinson's election in 1990 was the first sign that the old order was crumbling. The politicians were surprisingly quick to respond to the popular desire for change. Fianna Fail underwent a miraculous overnight conversion, and launched a crusade for a socially progressive Ireland.

Abortion trauma

The latest election results suggest that more major changes are in the offing. The rejection of the so-called Right to Life referendum, though claimed as a victory by both pro and anti-abortionists, effectively means that there is now a ruling legalising abortion in Ireland if the mother's life or health is threatened. Whether or not the new government legislates to limit this, some access to abortion in Ireland is now inevitable. This would have been unthinkable 10 years ago.

In terms of relations with Northern Ireland there is set to be change too. All three parties likely to be sharing power in Dublin are committed to scrapping Ireland's constitutional claim to the North. They share a desire to abandon nationalism as the defining philosophy of the Irish Republic.

Where little has changed in Ireland - except for the worse - is in the realities of life for the majority of people. One in five are out of work - the highest number since the creation of the state - and this despite whole regions being deserted by young people now emigrating in droves once again. An astonishing 30 per cent of Irish people live on or below the poverty line, and nearly half the population survive only with the help of welfare benefits.

None of Ireland's politicians has any answers to these chronic problems, Dick Spring included. The upsurge in support for Spring's Irish Labour Party does not reflect an upsurge in support for Labour's policies - which are hard to distinguish from those of the main parties. In fact, you would be hard pushed to find an Irish voter who could tell you what they are.

Spring is the Ross Perot of Irish politics. Like Perot he has no distinctive policies, and like Perot he could rise and fall just like that. The only thing that Spring has going for him is the contempt in which Irish voters hold every other mainstream politician. The idea that he has suddenly become Mr Charismatic says more about the media's inability to explain the sea change in Irish politics than about any sea change in dull Dick's personality.

Ireland's leaders have been caught up in a process of change over which they have no control. The problem they face is that while the old order is crumbling, there is nothing obvious to take its place. A society of mass unemployment and mass emigration is crying out for change. Dick Spring should enjoy his moment because when it becomes clear that he cannot deliver, Ireland's leaders will be in for a few more surprises.

The national question has been removed from the centre of politics in the South. In the short term the effect is to increase the isolation of republicans in the North of Ireland. On the other hand, Fianna Fail's brand of rhetorical nationalism was always a barrier to advancing the genuine cause of Irish unity. The end of the old era should be seen as an opportunity to fight for Irish unity with new politics that live up to people's aspirations for a new Ireland.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 51, January 1993

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