Americans may find this hard to believe, but in Ireland our two major political parties are ideologically indistinguishable. Both inhabit the mushy center ground of the political spectrum, yet the two parties have slugged it out for decades in an often-bitter rivalry.
Generations of families vote for one party or the other. "Are you Fine Gael or Fianna Fail?" people ask, as though it were your nationality or your religion. For many, it is their religion. If you ask someone how they might vote in an election, they'll tell you, "Well I'm from a long Fianna Fail background." No consideration as to the party's policies, just loyalty to the tribe.
Therefore, in choosing candidates, the parties like to put forward a senior member of the tribe: preferably a Prince, carrying on an old King's family name. In the ancient and ignoble tradition of nepotism, they do not seek out the best, most eloquent, most honest, or most qualified candidate. Instead, they promote people mired in to the cozy cartels of Irish politics, fond of schmoozing with their cronies and prone to accepting cash for political favors. Thankfully, overt corruption has now largely been cleared up, and Transparency International rates Ireland as one of the least corrupt countries in the world. But in a small country, there is no escaping nods and winks between political and business insiders.
The Irish people are long accustomed to being governed by "Gombeen Men" (Gombeen: n. a pejorative Hiberno-English term used for a shady, small-time "wheeler-dealer" who is always looking to make a quick profit, often at someone else's expense). We are so accustomed to the rule of the Gombeen that people are suspicious of a politician who seems to tell the truth and who takes on the cozy political consensus. We are not short of brilliant individuals in Ireland. We have amazing thinkers, writers, economists, scientists and businessmen, all eminently suited to running the country. But they are shut out of politics. The grip of the Gombeen Men on the Irish Parliament is too strong.
The two parties emerged after Ireland's Civil War in the early 1920s. This division arose because, after a bloody War of Independence, one side wanted to accept the terms of a treaty with the British, while the other wanted to fight unto destruction for the sake of a full Republic. Almost a century later, we are still lumbering along with a politics not divided on the basis of ideas, but along the lines of outdated addictions to the bitterness of a sordid little civil war.
The severity of the economic crisis that Ireland is now experiencing means that there is a massive popular desire for a new type of politics. During the boom, we came to give up the old begrudgery and to admire, rather than knock down, the talented and the successful. For the first time, we were ready to vote for people with real talent. The one party that seemed to have its finger on the pulse was Fine Gael. It began to run candidates that are actually well educated, articulate, honest and suited to real politics. Apart from the odd exception, this was a truly novel development in Ireland.
Fine Gael's biggest catch was George Lee. He is a brilliant economist and journalist. He was familiar to all as the national television station's Economics Editor. He called the property bubble when the country was in thrall to glossy property supplements and ever increasing real estate values. He was a lone voice shouting that the Emperor had no clothes, and that we were going to face a massive economic correction and a property crash. Real estate values are now down 50% since 2007. George was right.
So, Fine Gael took him on board 9 months ago when he was elected in a Dublin by-election. This week he stunned the country by quitting the party and politics. Why? Because the Gombeen Men of Irish politics sidelined this brilliant outsider and let him have no say in policy, even though he was best-qualified person they had on their team. You see, nothing threatens the Gombeen Men quite as much as an articulate, intelligent person. For if too many of them arrive on the scene they'll show up the Gombeen Men's incompetence: the reign of the Gombeens would end forever. For now, they clutch on to power by insidious means, determined to stay there, even if it brings the nation in to the abyss.
We urgently need a new political party in Ireland. Once that steps outside the Civil War politics of the Gombeens, and one that does not represent the Labour party's reflexive leftism. One that recruits the best and most competent people to run as candidates. One that will raise guillotines in every public square in Ireland and lead the Gombeen Men to them.
After a century of political tribalism, the electorate is now, at last, willing to vote in the best men and women for the job. We are crying out for a fresh start. The future of our country is at stake. A new party, free of all associations with the past, is the only way.
George Lee, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you.