Many years ago, I was chatting in the pub with Kieran Allen, when the Great White Chief insisted with considerable stridency that you shouldn’t ever vote for an independent candidate. I’m paraphrasing here, but the gist was that a party candidate, however bad the party was, was under some kind of discipline and accountability, while if you voted independent you got Tony Gregory.
This was of course a reference to Tony’s famous deal with Charlie back in 1982, as a result of which most of the left solemnly excommunicated him with bell, book and candle. Yet now it must be said that Tony’s left credentials are no worse than most of what passes for a left in Ireland. His decent record on the national question puts him one up on most of the Irish left, and he can plausibly claim to have achieved some things for his constituents.
One of the frustrating things about the Irish left, especially the two Sasanach franchises, is their inability to understand the country they operate in. When I’ve argued for a basic continuity between the majority of the Irish left and the D4 neo-democrats, this wasn’t simply meant as an insult. It was just a case of pointing out that they work to a schema whereby British (or rather English) politics is seen as normative, and Irish backwardness is a question of catching up with England.
Go and look at the British Socialist Worker. You will be struck by the way that every country in the world is interpreted in terms of Britlandia. So the German CDU are “Tories”, even though their combination of interventionist economics and Catholic social theory equates to no British Toryism I know. To take a parallel from linguistics: when the Spanish Jesuits went out to Mexico after the conquistadors, they had to try and communicate with the Aztecs. This was made more difficult by trying to shoehorn the Nahuatl language into a Latinate grammatical model. Eventually the Jesuits discovered that they had to forget Latin and describe Nahuatl in its own terms.
It pains one to say this, but those sixteenth-century Jesuits were more advanced thinkers that our modern historical materialists. You can’t describe the phenomenon of Fianna Fáil by reference to British politics: Irish politics has its own grammar. This is why I’m constantly amazed that the SWP and Militant can get any votes at all. They may be based in Ireland, most of their members are Irish born and bred, they have lots of facts about Ireland at their fingertips, but their understanding of the dynamics of Irish politics is briefer than a Methody girl’s skirt.
The first basic point to make about Irish politics is that all politics is local, and the parish pump is supreme. Joe Higgins and Richard Boyd Barrett recognise this on an empirical level, even if they reject it in theory. This is the lesson taught by Tony Gregory and countless other Irish politicians, and it is the main reason why you can never trust national polls or the maunderings of the South Dublin tofu-eaters.
So, Martin Mansergh finally made it into the Dáil on his umpteenth attempt, pipping Séamus Healy by 59 votes. This ties in to a constant bellyache of the chattering classes, that a brilliant man like Martin should have to be appointed to the Senate by Bertie due to his multiple rejections in Tipperary South, all because our great intellectual was useless at getting some wee woman her medical card. Meanwhile, Jackie Healy Rae, whose main contribution on the national level has been to the public gaiety, can stroll back to Leinster House because he does great work for people in South Kerry.
If you follow Donegal politics, you’ll often hear people who are by no means hardline republicans sing the praises of Joe O’Neill. Joe is a great man for getting things done, which is how RSF held that council seat for so long.
The converse of that is the late Seán MacBride, unquestionably a brilliant man, but rejected by the voters mainly because he didn’t want to dirty his hands with all that clientelist stuff.
This even applies to the North, although filtered through the sectarian structures here. That was how Gerry Fitt built his machine. In more recent years, there is a story I’ve heard many times about former Ardoyne councillor Bobby Lavery. On knocking the door of a pensioner with a slate loose, Bobby did not phone the Housing Executive; he shinned up a ladder and fixed it himself. That story may be apocryphal, but it says a lot about the kind of politician Bobby was, and why the working-class people of Ardoyne took him to their hearts.
Clientelism is built into the DNA of Irish politics, and reinforced by the PRSTV voting system. It is in fact the flip side of gaimbín politics. The working class does not reject clientelism, because clientelism holds out the prospect that you might get something. And that’s a perfectly reasonable, pragmatic position to take.