Notes from the grimpen mire, part 1


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.


  1. Wednesday said,

    June 1, 2007 at 7:21 pm

    Great post.

    I think it’s much worse in the South than it is up there – or at least it’s worse in my area (Dublin Central). The constituency secretary for a certain well-known Six County politician told me they didn’t understand why we thought it so important for Mary Lou to spend as much time as possible on the ground – couldn’t we just let her staff handle constituency issues (after all, they said, “That’s the way we do it!”).

    I’ve always kind of assumed that clientelism suited the type of politician who was in it mainly for the money and the privilege, and that the ideologists would find it as depressing as I do. But recently one of the left TDs told me that he enjoys doing it because it’s just about the only time he feels he’s accomplishing anything in his job. Which makes it all the more depressing, I think.

  2. WorldbyStorm said,

    June 1, 2007 at 11:04 pm

    I really don’t think it’s so awful. Having had a little experience of handling phone calls for a TD the thing that struck me most was the alienation of people from the state and its services such as say Dublin City Council, and the necessity for there to be a mediation by TDs or their staff. In some respects that’s an issue of education, but not exclusively. People feel more comfortable tackling monolithic organisations if they think someone – a third party – is on their side. Sometimes that help can be basic, sorting out times for say a flat to be opened up to remove furniture – sometimes it can be more important still.

    I can understand a left TD seeing it as a necessary link into those s/he represents. After all, it’s not about meetings, it’s about people and enabling them. If they think the TD is on their side that gives them at least a little more confidence to tackle those who try to shape their lives.

  3. Wednesday said,

    June 2, 2007 at 5:49 am

    WBS, the point is that this shouldn’t be the role of a “national” parliamentarian. They’re supposed to be legislators and their job is to legislate. They don’t have time to do that properly because of all the constituency stuff – most of which involves trying to help people get things that should be theirs as of right. It also means that Fianna Fáil have free reign to keep implementing awful policies that wind up hurting people in the long run, because the electorate isn’t basing their vote on policies.

  4. Wednesday said,

    June 2, 2007 at 6:03 am

    This kind of sums it up, I think. Not even a mention of who the party is, or what sort of political outlook the person will need to promote. I wouldn’t think that would be a minor detail.

  5. WorldbyStorm said,

    June 2, 2007 at 8:28 am

    I appreciate the legislative role of parliamentarians is crucual as you say Wednesday. But… I’d have thought the one way to guarantee their losing touch with their base would be to detach it from their constituency work. It’s the kind of FG technocratic approach to politics. And while I also take the point about people getting things that are theirs by right we’re all long enough in this business to know that individuals and institutions will always, however ideal the set up, have at the minimum a degree of friction between them. I also look at the FF example a slightly different way. It’s precisely because FF is linked into consituencies and clientalism that the left has never been able to develop further because FF itself is constrained in how rightward it can go when it’s base remains – as ever – the urban and rural working and middle class. That doesn’t prevent it from doing as you say, implmenting awful policies, but at all times it has to keep an eye over it’s shoulder simply because if it doesn’t…

    Incidentally if you look at the PDs isn’t it telling that at least some of those who lost their seats were in constituencies where a lower premium would be put on just such clientalist relations such as O’Malley’s and O’Donnells constituencies whereas Harney, against the odds came back representing a very diverse constituency.

    I’m still trying to work out where Parlon sits on that spectrum. 🙂

  6. splinteredsunrise said,

    June 2, 2007 at 10:04 am

    I think there’s a further element in that if you’re a TD and you aren’t a minister, your chances of influencing things are fairly slim. Besides, the way legislation is handled by TDs is a total scandal.

    Somebody who’s exceptional in this is Shatter with his whole raft of Private Members Bills. But Shatter is exceptional not just in his legal expertise but also because at some point he decided he wasn’t going to do that clientelist stuff. And a prosperous constituency meant he didn’t have to.

    So yeah, often helping out your constituents is the only real thing you can achieve. And the STV system means that if you don’t, your constituency rivals will.

  7. ejh said,

    June 2, 2007 at 2:51 pm

    So the German CDU are “Tories”

    Isn’t the term used simply because it’s the easiest way of explaining that party to someone whose basic knowledge is only of British politics, when you’re writing a short article that has no space to go into the differences?

    If I wre briefly explaining Spanish politics (insofar as I understand them!) to somebody British I’d have no qualms about describing the Partido Popular as Tories, though in some ways they’re not the same at all. I’d even describe PSOE as equivalent to Labour, and that might be even less satisfactory.

  8. Wednesday said,

    June 2, 2007 at 4:02 pm

    WBS, to the extent that constituency work has to be done, it seems a lot more reasonable to me for councillors to be doing it. Leave parliamentarians to their parliamentary role. This would also allow the Dáil to sit more frequently and thus stop people whining about the long “holidays” TDs take (a complaint bitterly resented by most of them, for good reason).

    Incidentally I’ve heard it suggested that O’Donnell’s seat loss was partially due to her aversion to constituency work, so it seems the disease may have spread to South Dublin as well.

  9. Liam said,

    June 3, 2007 at 10:13 am

    I wouldn’t be so hard on the burger flippers in the Irish franchises. Many of their co-workers in the parent companies don’t have that much understanding of British politics either.

  10. Andy Newman said,

    June 3, 2007 at 10:58 pm

    Sunrise – you write: 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.

    Actually the problem is more fundamental that that in two ways. Firstly their understanding of socialist and progressive politics actually assumes that century old Russian politics are normative.

    Secondly, and really more importantly, they don’t understand the country they themselves operate. I don’t mean incorrect political perspectives, I mean they don’t undertand that the British national identity and its state is unravelling, and that there is an English and Scottish and Welsh politics separate from British politics.

    The tectonic plates have shifted, and the national question in Britain is becomming a much more fundamental one,. as the Scots who never lost their national identity are in the inevitable process towards reclaiming their own state, and the Welsh are engaged in rediscovering themselves at a slightly slower pace.

    But all we get from these “Brit-left” organisations is a dismissal of the break up of the British imperial project as “nationalism”

  11. Andy Newman said,

    June 3, 2007 at 10:59 pm

    Ok – that last comment of me doesn’t really make sense unless you realise I was referring to the mother ship parties in Britain, rather than their Irish fan clubs.

  12. ejh said,

    June 4, 2007 at 7:00 am

    Firstly their understanding of socialist and progressive politics actually assumes that century old Russian politics are normative

    Now this, I’d be more inclined to agree with. I think there’s a strong tendency in far-left politics to waste gigantic amounts of time, energy and intelligence trying and recreate political formulations which are (or were) themselves dependent on the specific circumstance of a given time and given place – and more than that, which are dependent on a specific reading of the historical events that followed. You can learn from history, of course, but do you really need to try and copy it?

    Understandable that people should do this, of course – since it’s true that early in the last century a group of emigrés met in a room in London, disagreed over a small question and the consequences of that disagreement had a dominating effect on the history of the world. It’s not stupid, not stupid at all (and note Hobsbawn’s recent comments about such organisations “punching well above their weight” – he isnt wrong). But it’s not really been a profitable project over the long period of time people have been trying it, has it?

    But all we get from these “Brit-left” organisations is a dismissal of the break up of the British imperial project as “nationalism”

    Is that true?

  13. Andy Newman said,

    June 4, 2007 at 5:37 pm

    Largely I would say that is true ejh

    Or rather it is in my view the way those on the left who actually advocate such a break up are polemicised against.

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