Is there a Right in Ireland? Sean Gabb, 18th November 2002

Free Life Commentary,
an independent journal of comment
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Issue Number 78
18th November 2002

Is There a Right in Ireland?
Sean Gabb

Earlier today, I took part in a discussion broadcast by a Dublin radio station. Speaking by telephone from London, I explained why foreign aid is a bad idea. It is the negation of charity for a government to take money from people and to give this to other people, no matter how hungry they are. Charity is by definition an act of choice: interpose the tax gatherer between doner and recipient, and there is no charity. Regardless of its moral status, it is also an unwise transfer of funds. As Peter Bauer once said, foreign aid is the process by which money is taken from poor people in rich countries and given to rich people in poor countries. Very little of the aid ever reaches the advertised recipients. At best, most of it is stolen by those in charge of distributing it. At worst, it becomes a cushion for corrupt and oppressive ruling classes. They can insulate themselves from the effects of their policies. Directly or indirectly, they can get the money to pay the security services on which their power rests. Much better than aid, I said, was free trade with poor countries. That does raise incomes. I would have gone on to claim that two people every minute die of hunger because of the European Union’s agricultural tariff and subsidy policies—but half an hour was not long enough to get round to that.

I made these rather basic points, and made sure to do so politely and with citation of evidence. They seem to have astonished the presenter and almost outraged the charity worker who was on to put the other side. The response surprised me. In England, what I said is effectively the received wisdom—so much so that Mr Blair is able to use similar arguments in his attack on the Common Agricultural Policy. Yet these points seem to be unknown in Ireland—undoubtedly, the radio station researchers had to find an Englishman to make them on air. What a strange country Ireland must be—sandwiched between England and America, speaking the same language, and yet so apparently cut off from the mainstream of political debate.

This is what I want here to discuss. Though I wrote a short book about the subject last summer, third world poverty does not greatly interest me, but Ireland does at the moment. Looking through my various libertarian and conservative mailing lists, I have over ten thousand e-mail addresses. Most are from America, followed by the United Kingdom, followed by continental Europe, followed by the white dominions. I have a sprinkling of Africans and Asians. But I cannot find anyone from the Irish Republic. I have never so far bothered to notice this fact. I have now, and it surprises me. What is happening in that country? Is there a libertarian movement? Are there any conservatives there who stand in the tradition of Edmund Burke and David Hume?

Of course, there are libertarians in Ireland. Libertarianism is a universal ideology, and can be and is embraced by people regardless of place and perhaps also of time. I have found libertarians among my Chinese and Japanese students. There must be plenty in Ireland. But what about conservatives? The answer here is possibly not. My problem is that, despite having an Irish name and Irish friends, I know almost nothing about the country. I know much about Ireland before 1922. Its history then was intimately connected with that of England, and a knowledge of the Irish Question in all its depressing complexity is essential to understanding English politics and foreign policy. I know more about the modern Ulster dispute than I wish to. But the Irish Republic since partition—I know almost nothing about that, and so I cannot answer my question. As said, though, I suspect the answer is no.

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My understanding is that the country is in the political sense often self-consciously foreign. It mostly lacks the class-based politics that have divided opinion in England since the 1880s. This means that is has avoided both socialism and anti-socialism during the past century, and has instead had a political scene as corrupt and boring as our own is becoming under New Labour. Also, the Irish appear to define themselves very largely as not English. They have not escaped the death of their language since they achieved home rule, or a cultural subjection to England that has their newspapers giving equal prominence with Irish to British television and radio stations. Nor have they much changed their legal system. But they have played up their spiritual allegiance to the Church of Rome, even giving it some kind of established status. This gave a European tone to their public life for many years. If that religious allegiance is now in rapid decline, the new secular tone is perhaps even less English, being a reaction similar in nature and effects to those in the Roman Catholic countries of southern Europe. And, of course, they are much more positive about European integration. What reservations I have noticed among the Irish about the European Union are not concerned about the fundamental issues of national independence, but with how much money can be extracted from Brussels, and on what terms, and how enlargement might alter the balance of financial advantage.

Perhaps this means that there are plenty of Celtic nationalists in Ireland, and mystical national socialists, and christian democrats, and ultramontane reactionaries; and there may be any number of the pro-business technocrats who have dominated the English and American conservative movement since the 1960s—but no conservatives of the sort that I might recognise. If so, the absence of Irish addresses from my mailing lists should not be surprising. Perhaps I should go back to paying Ireland no attention whatever, except so far as it may come into any plans I devise for settling the Ulster problem.

But surely I am wrong. Surely there are Irish people who regret the loss of old institutions and landmarks—erased by the downward homogenising forces of the European Union and the New World Order. Granted, most of what they are losing is not indigenous to them. Perhaps they do not feel the same outrage as most English people at the imposition by law of the metric system and the replacement of the pound by the euro. Perhaps they are indifferent to the county and the jury and to the stealthy introduction of the Corpus Iuris, and are not much bothered about whatever else is under threat. After all, they are only losing things that were themselves imposed on them after a somewhat less gentle conquest than the present one. On the other hand, what they have from England may not be an indigenous heritage, but it is their heritage nevertheless. Four hundred years is a very long time. Things that in the reign of James I might have been frighteningly strange, and in the reign of William III fringed with hatred, had become part of the unconsciously accepted cultural landscape of Ireland by the Reign of Queen Victoria. Perhaps they are so still.

Does this count for nothing in modern Irish life? Is there no time since before the Elizabethan conquest on which the modern Irish can look back with nostalgia? Can they find nothing in their long relationship with England that can let them make common cause against a common enemy? Do they not in any sense still see Trafalgar and Waterloo as also their victories? Do they not even vaguely see Newton and Darwin—or Hume and Adam Smith – as their fellow countrymen? Are they not proud of Edmund Burke and William Lecky? If so, this is the effect of recent propaganda. Without a hint of conscription, large number of Irishmen from the south joined up for King and Country in the Great War. Without even a declaration of war from their own government, large numbers again joined the forces after 1939. Is all this gone, replaced by mingled hostility and incomprehension? Does the Irish mind now function wholly within the bounds set by Wolfe Tone and Roger Casement—willing to accept any ideology or European alliance that is at odds with England?

Again, these are questions that I cannot answer. Here I am – with my Irish name and Irish friends, just a couple of hours away from Dublin. I need neither a foreign language nor a passport to go and stay there. Nor would a journey be particularly expensive. Yet I know next to nothing about the place. Ask me who are the Czech and Slovak ministers of the interior, and I can give the names. Ask me for a list of the prime ministers and their biographies in those countries since 1990, and I can readily oblige. I do not even know the titles of Irish cabinet minsters – have they a Home Secretary? Their current Prime Minster is just a name to me. I do not know what he looks like or what he claims to believe. I do not know who was there before him, and am only aware that the Irish have a President because their last one has obtained some position at the United Nations that gets her fashionably stupid opinions occasionally into the English newspapers.

How strange. But how much stranger that, until this morning, I had never even noticed my defect of knowledge.

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