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Proud Irish nation awaits a passionate call to arms

The turning of the year is always a slightly unsettling experience. As we sail away from the iron realities of the old year, we voyage with more hope than certainty into the new. This time round, in 2010, there is a growing feeling that we are nearing not just the end of a year, but the end of an era in Ireland.  As the crisis has deepened over the last two years, we have worked our agonized way through all the classic stages of loss. We tried denial for a while. We’ve done a lot of anger. Belatedly, we’ve tried bargaining. And when all else failed, we got depressed. At the beginning of December, the game was up.

Yet, somehow it feels better to know. We have reached an acceptance of sorts. But acceptance is a flat word. It does not capture the unstable dynamism of the moment. The public mood might be described as poised: ready for the next disaster – but also ready for renewal.

At an individual level, we are acutely conscious of the need to stay positive, ready for opportunity. Our natural disposition to be cheerful, to seek each other out for conviviality and consolation, is undiminished. We knock whatever fun we can out of things. We derive solace from our successes in whatever little corner of the world we control. More and more often people say ‘I’m just getting on with things’.  Civic society is stirring, getting ready for change. A businessman states confidently that the worst is over, counting out on his fingers the sectors of the economy that are flourishing or showing definite signs of recovery. Another says his business is booming and is impatient for the start of the New Year.  Great plays and music are still being produced. The sap is flowing and hopes of renewal are breaking ground.

We still know of course that our children must find jobs. Businesses must grow. Budgets must be balanced and institutions must be governed and reformed. And so, we have to turn our reluctant gaze back to politics and the public realm. When we do, we don’t much like what we see. We don’t see our private world reflected back to us, the way we see ourselves: thoughtful, innovative, nimble, getting on with things. .

We see many good people in politics, as well as some venal ones, all trapped in a calcified system that brings out the worst in them and in us. Politicians seem even more transfixed by the negative then the rest of us. We worry about being drawn into the raging emotions around the general election, or the next President, or the abortion debate. We feel our energy being drained by self-flagellating national self-preoccupation.

There is an unspoken assumption that we all have to reach some kind of emotional rock-bottom, before we can start the process of re-building. It is a deeply mistaken view which ignores a fundamental fact about human nature. The process of recovery and renewal, whether individually or collectively, never starts from rock-bottom. The seeds of recovery may be located in the experience of set-back and failure, but real renewal and growth only begins when we have found some hidden reserves in ourselves. A small spark of confidence. A desire not just to feel better, but to be better, to do better.

All round the country, outside politics, I see signs of optimism and resolution.  And this is not just among those who are doing well and simply want Ireland to do better.  There is also a real desire among those who have lost most in recent years to get back into their stride. But I hear no echo of that positivity in public or political discourse. In reality, we want politics and leadership at a national level to do for us what we do instinctively do for ourselves and for our families when things go wrong.

When we face disappointment or challenge in our personal lives, we try to muster our courage to go forward, to try again. We remind ourselves of past successes. We mentally rehearse our victories over adversity.  We list our personal strengths. If one of our children is going through a hard time, we remind them of their talents, how they turned previous setbacks around. We recommit whatever support or resources the family can offer. That is why I am so heartened by hearing so many people say about the present crisis: ‘I am just getting on with things’. It is not a statement of resignation. It is a declaration of stoic determination and glittering resilience.

But these millions of acts of daily courage would be exponentially amplified if they were marshalled and found national political expression. Our current political leaders might recall how the two arch-protagonists Winston Churchill and Eamonn De Valera, each did this instinctively. Faced with a looming catastrophe, immeasurably worse than any challenge we are now facing, Churchill entered the House of Commons as Britain’s new Prime Minister on May 13, 1940. He received only a muted reception but made what has been called one of the finest ever call-to-arms. He told the British people “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering…. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: victory; victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival‘.  It was a profoundly affecting and inspirational speech.

Almost exactly five years later, on May 161945, on the eve of the British and Allied victory in the war, De Valera made an equally affecting speech in response to a stinging attack by Churchill on Ireland’s wartime neutrality. It was a uniquely weak moment for DeValera personally and for Ireland generally. As the Allies celebrated their great victory, Ireland was marginalized, isolated on the wrong side of history, and still enduring the hardship and austerity of the Emergencey. But DeValera seized the opportunity provided by Churchill’s unworthy attack on Irish sovereignty to not just justify our neutrality but to re-position Ireland on the world stage. He asserted a dignified and stirring vision of Ireland’s autonomy and resilience, which 65 years later has the power to unite political friends and foes in admiration.

Central to DeValera’s achievement, his departure from conventional rhetoric and his use of a more personal style. He praised Churchill’s restraint, using language that would not be out of place in a speech by Obama: ‘It is indeed very hard for the strong to be just to the weak’. But he reminded both Churchill and the nation itself of Irish people’s reserves of character and of their long history of political doggedness and determination. And he made it clear that Irish people could call again on those reserves in the future if necessary. Most important, he reminded people of what they were fighting for, for all that they held dear.  He signalled to the Irish diaspora and the wider world our competence and national unity. We were not to be trifled with.

We await a similar call-to-arms now, although our struggle may be of a different order and in a different domain. If such leadership is not forthcoming in the coming months, we will, or course, still elect a new government. But we will withhold some crucial emotional assent. We will see the newly elected as being in a caretaker mode, a kind of Regency. Meanwhile, as individuals and families, we will continue to inch our way forward, trying to solve our problems as best we can. Hope, not boldness, will have to do.

There is still time – just about – for the political parties to dig deeper and find a way to emotionally connect to our hearts, and not just our minds. National renewal can only happen when we have an answer for the bright and thoughtful seventeen year old Leaving Cert student who this week told me earnestly: “Things look so bad now. I know they will come right but I don’t know how”. The answer she wants is not just technical and procedural, not just the details of policy, although that is important. She also wants an answer which resonates at the feeling level, which makes a direct connection to the heart.

An answer that frames current circumstances as the beginning of the fight-back, not the end of our hopes. An imagined vantage point where the painful present is already consigned to the past.  Whoever can do this will win a big political prize. So to each of our political leaders: will I hear a positive echo?

Originally published in The Irish Times. 

Posted: 28 December 2010