A week is a long time in politics, and one wonders some are pondering that thought a little more deeply than most of us. For reading the Irish Times I was struck by an analysis of the North West Constituency in the European Elections, and in particular the following…
It addresses the fact that social conservatism, and in particular abortion, have become a part of the campaign in North West.
Undoubtedly, the Libertas head has deliberately put himself at odds with the candidates from the major parties, thus emphasising his profile at every point. His campaign infuriates his opponents, who argue that they have no choice but to respond to unfounded allegations; even if this plays into his hands.
But it notes that:
Ganley, the only Galway-based candidate in the race, will, however, need more than the conservative Catholic vote enjoyed by the former Eurovision winner 10 years ago.
And continues crucially:
Indeed, Ganley’s emphasised links to the church may have downsides too, since the political landscape has changed in ways yet unknowable following the devastating report into institutional child abuse. As of now, it is far from clear if he has anything else other than a conservative vote, and his decision to row publicly last week with the Irish Farmers’ Association could alienate as many as it impresses.
The race is not short of conservative candidates, so he will find it difficult to prevent leakage from the socially conservative as polling day approaches.
It’s difficult to assess the Report in political terms, or not that it’s difficult but rather that it seems to almost demean it in some fashion. And yet the Report – and now the events that it has initiated – is already shaping the future of this state across a range of measures from social policy to political positioning. One might tentatively wonder would Fianna Fáil be most hit by the simple historical connection between its stewardship of this state and the fact that these crimes occurred on its watch. But, much the same charge could be leveled at any party in power in the post-War of Independence era and up until the 1990s. Or perhaps it is that the societal implications are so great in and of themselves that issues of political guilt are secondary or tertiary to that. One could also argue that because this is rooted in the past that gives a degree of political cover to the present and potential future incumbents of high office. And added to that is the simple reality that time has seen parties change. The idea that Fianna Fáil would one day seek entry to the European Liberal group is hardly one that troubled the conscience of any of its leaders or members during the past. Indeed the brand of social conservatism that might most readily be identified with that past has not been served particularly well in recent years (despite the obvious exceptions as regards social policy).
Which made the positioning of Libertas over the past month and a half as an overtly socially conservative grouping something of a surprise to me. Had you asked me prior to that what sort of profile they would take I’d have put money on it being focussed simply on the European issue with, perhaps a tilt towards economic conservatism in their policies. A sort of technocratic right wing approach. Maybe something not dissimilar to the PDs. It’s not that the socially conservative aspect to them was in any sense hidden, but rather that it didn’t seem that high up in the mix. Indeed quite recently Libertas was issuing press releases that sought to portray it as almost neutral on such matters.
But Ganley and Simons have run hard with social matters, supposedly under threat from the hegemon in Brussels, and in the former case very specifically against his rival Marian Harkin.
Outgoing Independent MEP Marian Harkin is Ganley’s main target, and he has frequently alleged that her MEP grouping in the parliament is “soft” on abortion. Harkin, a social conservative by her own description, has been stung by the charges and forced to deny them in a constituency where the conservative vote is strong.
Highly impressive as an MEP, Harkin has built a network based on care and community organisations throughout the constituency, which is coming out now to canvass for her.
That latter connection of Harkin’s with care and community organisations might just be the sort of thing to deflect the charges from Ganley.
As a tactical move running on a socially conservative platform was far from the worst idea. At least prior to the release of the Ryan Report. There is a constituency there which overlaps with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael but which is not quite represented, at least not now, by either of them. Its size is difficult to judge, but taking the North West constituency clearly it was sufficient in part to swing the vote towards Dana in the past.
I’ll hazard, and I may be utterly wrong and proven so next Saturday week, that that vote in Dublin is of rather smaller proportions, or perhaps it is that the field of battle is considerably more crowded.
In any event, in the immediate short term, I’d tend to think that the impacts will be relatively slight and were it otherwise one could argue that was somewhat unfair, not least because whether it is to my taste or not it remains an entirely legitimate viewpoint. Clearly one can hold socially conservative views, and profess a strong loyalty to Catholicism (or any other religion), and yet find the events catalogued by the Ryan report anathema. And in fairness to Declan Ganley his religious beliefs are clearly sincere and nor has he sought to hide them.
But, at the same time, he has been willing to raise issues that have been hugely divisive in the past. And he has very clearly identified with a strand of Catholicism which is avowedly ‘traditional’ in outlook.
Again, perfectly reasonable, but a difficult place from which to enunciate a clear and distinctive viewpoint that differentiates between the wrongs overseen by that Church in the past.
Not least due to the continuing inability of elements of the Church to deal with these issues with any alacrity. It is this secondary, and even somewhat indirect aftershock which is causing grievous and (let’s be clear) self-inflicted damage to the Church, which hourly undermines its authority and efforts to legitimate its stances not merely on issues relating to care health and education but, as we’ve seen with CORI, in other areas as well and perhaps further afield.
And yet, in a way what is the surprise that a political formation should appear in this guise? The last decade has seen a renewal of the conservative social right in this state (and further abroad as well). We’ve seen the ‘think-tanks’, the commentators in the press and even the occasional elected representative grace our newspapers, our television screens and the Seanad. It’s not that they ever went away, note the resistance within Fianna Fáil to civil unions legislation (and it’s not restricted to FF by any means), but in this newer more media savvy and apparently user-friendly incarnation it has managed to achieve a degree of respectability that it either didn’t have, or didn’t need. These aren’t people getting down and dirty, as it were with Youth Defence, but instead are a cohort who have a very clear, if occasionally diffusely projected, vision of the sort of society that they want to see in this state. And this vision is one which explicitly and fundamentally links into a certain aspect of what we can broadly term the Catholic ethos.
They’ve had some success. This Version 2.0 is mild-mannered, covers itself in some intellectual and even empirical trappings (they’re particularly fond of statistics), it talks a fuzzy language of emotion and empathy. Up to a point. But… it also is of the right and as such locks into a smorgasbord of ‘right’ concerns, be they home schooling, bioethics, reproductive rights and so forth. And economically, for all the soft focus they’re not seriously in conflict with the status quo.
But the events of the past week or so pose a problem, perhaps not to Ganley and Simons, but to the broader conservative social project.
The past which those who seek a more ‘traditional’ Church, supposedly true to its teachings, is to return to where these crimes took place, one where the power of that Church was all but untrammelled in the political and social spheres. This is a very real contradiction, because it entirely undermines an analysis which seeks to promote some sort of moral or ethical golden age which if we could only but institute [and here you can insert your social policy of choice] we would see anew.
There are means of squaring these circles, at least in part. But I would wonder how easily it will be from here on out to fashion a primarily socially conservative party that has a serious chance of making a mark on the polity.