The British political classes seem to pay far less attention to the politics of the Republic of Ireland than it deserves. I was reminded of this when reflecting on the resignation of Bertie Ahern last week.
There seems to be a level of ignorance of, and in large part an indifference to, the politics of Ireland amongst MP’s, commentators, and journalists. You only need to contrast the acres of coverage given to US politics, or indeed the attention paid to the ups and downs of French president Sarkosy, in the British media with the limited attention given to significant developments in Dublin. I remember at the time of the last Irish General Election trying to get hold of detailed information about the results. I say detailed, what I was after was simply the number of seats won by each party. I found that it was impossible to find this information from the mainstream British media and had to get my answers from Irish websites.
If you talk to people who have an interest in politics you will be aware that each of them will an opinion on Clinton and Obama. But how many of them will have an opinion on the likely consequences of Cowen taking over from Ahern as Taoiseach? How many of them will have even noticed this change?
I find it very curious that the politics of the UK’s nearest neighbour is so little discussed.
I have no doubt that part of the reason for this is deeply rooted in historical attitudes. The common English perception of Ireland, developed over centuries, of a rural backwater which, while occasionally troublesome, can safely be discounted I suspect still lingers in many places. The English, in particular, have tendency to let ancient prejudices blind them to current global realities.
Our more recent history also doesn’t help. For the British the phrase “Irish politics” will instantly bring to mind Paisley and Adams, Belfast, and Stormont. Seemingly to forget that the Republic exists at all.
Yet these factors can’t wholly explain why we ignore the politics of the Republic of Ireland so much. I find this ignorance even more curious amongst Liberal Democrats.
Let us remember that Ireland is a country that successfully operates an electoral system that uses a form of STV. That it has in recent years been governed by stable coalition governments. That the Irish equivalent of the Liberal Democrats, the Progressive Democrats, have featured prominently within those coalition governments holding significant ministerial posts. And that the policy programmes of those governments has been significantly influenced by the PDs.
This alone should make a study of Irish politics of interest to Liberal Democrats. I would of thought that particular lessons could be learnt by Scottish and Welsh colleagues who have their own experiences of coalition politics. I am sure there are other things we could learn. For instance, the policy agenda of the PDs over the last 10 years has prominently featured the push for the liberalisation of the Irish economy. So why aren’t the so called “Orange Book” liberals regularly quoting the Irish experience in debates?
This goes beyond policy. There are, quite naturally, strong links between the Liberal Democrats and the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland. I have seen, and met, Alliance party members and politicians attending party conferences. Yet in my long history of attending these things I can’t ever recall coming across a member of the Progressive Democrats or, with one exception, seeing a politician from the Republic talking at a conference event.
Amongst others, Nick Clegg is keen to hold up Dutch and Scandinavian models of public service delivery as examples of better ways of doing things. Yet where is the discussion of what lessons we can learn from the huge change in Irish society towards a more ‘liberal’ country?
Isn’t it time we started to look West more often?
This content was originally posted on my old Process Guy blog.