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Interview: ‘We’re mourning a Republic we never had’ – Fintan O’Toole

Our system has made Irish people feel ashamed, the author and journalist tells TheJournal.ie ahead of a series of ‘state of the nation’ debates.

Fintan O'Toole
Fintan O'Toole
Image: Eamonn Farrell/Photocall Ireland

Ahead of his appearance in Four Angry Men, Fintan O’Toole spoke to TheJournal.ie’s Christina Finn on how Ireland has never really acted like a Republic and why we need to focus on one problem at a time.

THE GOVERNMENT HAS a ridiculous sense of reputation, but they misunderstand what reputation is actually all about. There is far more to be said for a reputation of making a stand and standing up for our own destiny, than being passive – which is the best way to describe them.

Why aren’t we standing up more? For people as a whole, the system has made people feel ashamed of themselves: that we all partied too much, we crossed the line and now we have to suck it up and take the medicine. Of course it is completely untrue. It is due to the beneficiaries of the property bubble, this small, elite group of people; but they have managed to convince people that they should all feel guilty and don’t have a right to do anything about it. Another factor is that we had civil conflict on the island for some time before and people are wary of social unrest, for good reasons.

We are being exploited and being made to feel like we have no right to say anything about it, we should just put up and shut up.

The Republic

One of the reasons that we are all feeling despondent is because there is a certain type of mourning going on – ‘we had a Republic and now it’s gone’. But actually, we never had a republic. There isn’t any evidence that says Ireland has ever really acted as a republic would. One might think it is because we are a relatively newly-declared republic, historically. However, it is often the new societies that set up new institutions and are full of energy and actually do try and create something good out of a crisis.

Perhaps due to the Civil War, which followed our declaration, the national movement was very divided at the beginning. It had a particularly tough birth and then we basically adopted British institutions and never really went through the process of thinking for ourselves and about what way we wanted to govern ourselves.

The political system here pre-dates the state, so we are unusual in that regard. What happened was we had different people, but we were operating under the same system. The machine is very out-dated and very anti-republican. The whole basis is we as a people, are not entitled to anything. We are told – you are a client for me, the middle man and I will get stuff for you in return for your vote. Irish politics still works that way, making it very powerful. Once we have that attitude, then we won’t be operating like a republic.

The whole sense of public life, of how people relate to the state, is seen as ‘you are dependent on the middle men’ – who are in fact, pretending that they are getting stuff for you when they are not. We don’t operate under a proper parliament in that way, because parliamentarians are still pandering for votes.

‘We need a win’

If I could do something tomorrow, then I would think about focusing on one thing. We need to win one: the public need a win, even just to know that they have power. It would make it easier for us to start moving in the  direction of a Republic; as in, if we win one, then we can actually achieve something. I think we should look at what is the biggest outrage at the moment – which in my opinion is the promissory note for Anglo Irish Bank.

People find it hard to believe that we are doing this. We are going to take €3.5 billion out of the budget. We are going to have more tax rises and cuts and then we are going to put €3.1 billion into a black hole in March for the promissory note. We were told we had to keep the bank alive as it might damage our reputation, but the bank is dead. This is the single biggest absurdity and obscenity.

I hope we can focus on one issue, like this, and we need to do this before March. We need to make a declaration as citizens that we are not going to pay it. We only hear about the payment the week it is due to be paid, and then it is too late, we need to move on this now. I think if we concentrate on that and we get enough people to say that they are instructing the government not to pay it, then I think it would have a huge effect and force the government to respond.

Fintan O’Toole is an author and assistant editor of The Irish Times. He will be taking part in Four Angry Men - Debate the State of the Nation, which will examine the current crisis and debate where we should go from here. David McWilliams, Fintan O’Toole, Shane Ross and Nick Webb will debate the issues with Olivia O’Leary. The debates will take place at Cork Opera House, Sunday 25 November, 7.30pm; Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin, Tuesday 27 November, 7.30pm and the Radisson Hotel, Galway, Sunday 2 December, 7.30pm.

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