Maybe it’s an unjustifiable optimism on my part, but I am loathe to accept the idea, floated by a fair few commentators in recent days, that Ireland is a passive, timid, and conservative country. On the face of it, the proof of the truth of this statement can be found in electoral voting since whenever. But in the rush to find an all-encompassing account of why things are the way they are in Ireland, I think the danger is that we make assumptions about why it is that people, from our own point of view, vote conservatively. Not least on account of the risk of creating self-fulfilling prophecies.
Radical Irish republican socialist Oscar Wilde observed in the Soul of Man under Socialism that there is only one group that worries more about money than the rich, and that is the poor. What Wilde shows us here is that you can have two groups of people who share the same concern, but for rather different reasons. Poor people worry all the time about money because they need it to meet their animal needs, whereas rich people worry about money because they believe they need it to meet their human needs.
So when you see a bloc of voters, whom you might expect to move left in the wake of the disaster wrought by neo-liberal policies and no small amount of corruption, switch instead to another right-wing party whose only difference from the other right-wing party is a more convincing claim to moral hygiene, you can’t just explain it away in terms of, oh, this is an innate conservatism, or they are a timid people, because it ignores the fact that people vote for right-wing parties for a variety of reasons, and one person’s reason for voting for Fine Gael may well contradict the reasons of another person for so doing.
Let me give a very crude example. Peter Sutherland will probably vote Fine Gael, assuming he lives in Ireland, because he knows it will assist in fashioning the economy to meet the needs and vision of the class of people he represents: his clientele at Goldman Sachs, his friends at the IMF and so on. And then there was a pregnant woman I was speaking to last week, who worked for an SME and who had had her wages cut, only 18 months after being made redundant from a previous job. We were talking about maternity leave and she was saying that she was afraid of taking no more than three months in case she began to appear a burden to her employer. When I suggested that there ought to be more substantial provisions for maternity and paternity leave, she didn’t disagree, but when I suggested that firms who claimed that they couldn’t pay for it could, in fact, pay for it, she didn’t accept this, saying that she found it highly unlikely that her employer could afford it, under present circumstances at least. Now in so far as you have people like this, who work for small and medium enterprises and as such are very fearful to any sort of measure that might affect their future employment prospects, they are likely to identify very much with people who claim to be on the side of business. So I reckon she might vote Fine Gael.
I don’t think you can describe such people as conservative. I don’t think you can say that she and Peter Sutherland share a common political philosophy. You might venture, as Fintan O’Toole does, that such people are timid, but if so you need to ask: who is doing the intimidating?