Rethinking the Republic: Fintan O’Toole and the Irish Crisis


Daniel Finn in the New Left Review:

It seems clear that the Eurozone crisis has been stabilized, for the time being, on terms dictated by Brussels, Frankfurt and Berlin. The price that has been paid to preserve the single currency and sustain a dysfunctional banking system hardly needs recounting here: from Athens to Dublin, mass unemployment remains a crippling burden. Yet, to paraphrase Tolstoy, all bail-out countries are unhappy in different ways. Greece has witnessed the stormiest opposition, with the emergence of Syriza as a potential, if fragile, counter-hegemonic force. In Spain, years of street protest have begun to leave their mark on the political system, and there is a gathering storm over Catalan independence. Rolling strikes in Portugal have seen public-sector wage and pension cuts blocked by the constitutional court. In Ireland, however, where the economy has been bled dry to reimburse the bad loans of British, French and German banks, resistance has been muted. Cabinet ministers have boasted of their ability to impose ‘remarkable’ cuts in public spending without provoking social unrest. For their part, European officials have repeatedly held Ireland up as an example of good citizenship to its unruly counterparts on the Eurozone periphery, much to the delight of local media outlets.

But if mass protests have been comparatively few in Ireland, it is not for lack of spirited polemical broadsides against its ruling elites by native writers. Pre-eminent here, in terms of impact and visibility, has been Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole, the country’s leading public intellectual. Published in the immediate wake of the crash, O’Toole’s Ship of Fools (2009) was a coruscating attack on the crony culture and bubble economy fostered by Ireland’s political leaders, soon followed by Enough Is Enough (2010), another onslaught on the myths of the Republic, which proposed a comprehensive reform programme with fifty action points. Is there any writer in another EU—or OECD—country who has produced such a comprehensive indictment of the ruling establishment’s record, in such damning detail and in such sparkling prose? O’Toole’s latest works form part of a cycle dating back to the 1980s that testifies to his formidable range as a social commentator. In seeking to explain the ‘Irish exception’, it may thus be helpful to explore O’Toole’s writing in more depth: what distinguishes the critical character of his work, what causal explanation does it offer of his country’s predicament, and what light can it shed on Ireland’s post-crisis trajectory?

More here.