Recent years have been a time of great upheaval for the Irish people. The greatest change has been that the cultural and political differences that once revolved around religious and national affiliations have now been realigned along the conservative/liberal fault line, in common with the rest of Western society. The older culture wars, in contrast, centring on the ‘national question,’ were quieted with the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, allowing a more normal politics to resume, both North and South.
This normality, however, has not taken the form that most would have predicted. The removal of constitutional disputes about nationality and territory, revealed a surprising feebleness within the body politic; that without the overlay of nationalism, had little purpose and less principle.
Released from the urgent imperative of dealing with armed conflict on this island, legislators have drifted aimlessly from one issue to another, without strong convictions on any of them. Presented with this vacuum, those with more doctrinaire views have rushed in to take advantage of the opportunity, providing a new, post-nationalist ideology for parties that had lost their raison d’etre.
By effectively relinquishing policy formation to others, the political parties and parliament have become willing playthings of the most dominant movements in contemporary Western society, especially those promoted by the New Left. The traditional ‘bread-and-butter’ concerns of the electorate have had to take second place to the demands of activists and NGOs, most often expressed in the language of vengefulness and denunciation for supposed historical wrongs.
Foreign observers watch in amazement as a country once famous for its conservatism veers ever more wildly towards the radical left. Indeed, the Progressive control of the agenda has seen a conveyor belt of laws and constitutional amendments put in place, recasting Ireland as one of the most feverishly liberalising states on Earth.
There is no disputing the strength and extent of the progressive-left narrative throughout the West. To say there is not an eagerness for such a programme among many in the country would be a denial of reality, as the most recent referendum vote has shown. However, recognising substantial support for societal change is not the same as agreeing with it or submitting to it. Nor should it be.
What is lacking in Ireland, so far, is the counter-narrative: the ideas and arguments that will provide an attractive, conservative alternative to the ideological monoculture that is rapidly developing.
In searching for these arguments we could do worse than turn to the thoughts of Edmund Burke. His conviction that people are not solely self-interested individuals, but rather members of a community who act out of deep-seated feelings of love and loyalty, beginning with the family and the neighbourhood, and spreading out to the country and the nation, is something we instinctively know to be true.
The progressive-leftist take on what drives us is almost the polar opposite: dismissing the family as a patriarchal anachronism; scorning the local as backward and bourgeois; shaming the very mention of the word ‘patriotism’ as a possible gateway to xenophobia and racism. These are the notions that now appear to hold sway in society. Perhaps because they are mostly unchallenged.
We should be under no illusion that these views are anything but pernicious, in as much as they are aimed at undermining the most fundamental bonds that bind us together as a community with many freely-chosen associations – the ‘little platoons’ that Burke mentioned. However, these efforts are taken to a far greater level with the weakening of the nation-state that the EU pursues as a project, further divorcing citizenship from the sentimental attachment to a place and a kindred people.
The answer to all this, of course, is to hold fast to the enduring institutions and societal mores that have traditionally supported us: to look again at the founding values of our nation, our constitution, even our civilisation, and to see the wisdom contained there; the product of many generations of thought and trial.
As a liberal democracy, Ireland guarantees the rights of the individual in its constitution. But those rights are placed within the cultural framework of the nation’s distinctive nature and heritage, including its Christian heritage. This is unsatisfactory to those who want the legal supremacy of individual will over every collective good or cultural value. To this end, changes are demanded. But, like playing with a Jenga set, how many of these founding principles can be pulled from the national edifice before the whole thing comes crashing down in confusion?
Burke himself said a constitution’s ‘sole authority is that it has existed time out of mind.’ He expanded on the point by observing: ‘The individual is foolish; the multitude, for the moment, is foolish, when they act without deliberation; but the species is wise, and, when time is given to it, as a species it always acts right.’
It seems then, that it is in protecting the well-flagged targets of progressivism: the family, national identity; our age-old spiritual and cultural heritage and the freedom to celebrate it, that we have the formula for what our own counter-narrative should be. There is nothing new in that. Conservatism has always been defined by what it has loved enough to defend, in the face of nihilistic, revolutionary attack.