C: D Storan

The peril of Government by good vibes

News of the climbdown that isn’t really a climbdown, you understand, came via the Irish Examiner yesterday lunchtime:

Ireland will remain open to people fleeing the war in Ukraine but there is no longer a guarantee of immediate accommodation, the Minister for Public Expediture has said.

Michael McGrath said the Irish system is clearly under strain and the Government has to be honest with those arriving here seeking safety and sanctuary that there is a shortage of suitable accommodation.

Translation: Stay away, Ukrainians, if you know what’s good for you. But officially, of course, everyone’s welcome. Come on in, we say, hoping against hope that the answer will be “you are so good to offer, but actually we’re just heading down to Spain”.

I have written before on this platform that one of the dominant ideas in Irish politics is the idea of Irish exceptionalism. Lots of countries have a founding mythos – the Americans, for example, are obsessed with the idea, some of them, that their country is uniquely “the home of the free”, as if no other country had ever come up with the notion of human liberty before them. The British see themselves similarly – a bulwark against tyranny, usually tyranny emanating from the continent. They stood against Napoleon and the Kaiser, and Hitler, and now Putin. The French, as we all know, have long seen themselves as basically the world’s guardians of culture, language, and food. And the Russians, as we are all learning, see themselves as one of the world’s greatest powers, regardless of circumstance. Don’t poke the bear, and all that.

What of Ireland? Well, our foundational myth is that we’re just nicer and kinder than everyone else. Not just a land of welcomes, but a land of a hundred thousand welcomes. It’s just that this time, we’ve sort of gotten stuck at 58,000 welcomes. Caoga a hocht míle fáilte.

This is not just a political thing – it is deeply embedded in the cultural image that Irish elites have of the country. There’s a reason every semi-famous guest on the Late Late Show who comes from out foreign gets asked if they have any Irish connections: It’s not actually so they can tell you that their great-granny came from Cavan. It’s so they can say how much they love Ireland, and the Irish, and the deep connection they feel to us, and what a welcoming country we are. It’s an invitation to be plamásed.

It’s one of the reasons, I think, why “anti-immigration” parties do so badly here and have done for years: Being welcoming to migrants is not just a political view in Ireland, but something deeply engrained on our national self-image. Chaps who argue for setting limits and things like that are, at least in the beginning, viewed instinctively as something less than fully Irish. Even if they are proven right, they will not be rewarded at the polls: There’s nothing so unpopular in Ireland as the perceived outsider who criticises us, and is proven correct.

No, we are a welcoming people. That’s who we are. And that’s how the Government governs – based on vibes. It would say much good about us as a country if we could take more Ukrainians than anyone else, and therefore, we will pledge to take more Ukrainians than anyone else. The problem is that everybody in Ukraine was supposed to understand that this is just a thing we say to feel good about ourselves: We weren’t expecting them to actually take us up on the offer. Enter Michael McGrath: Well of course you’re welcome, but, eh, we’re sort of full now.

There has been much talk in the “serious” media in recent days about the failure of the Government to plan, and so on, and so forth. This entirely mistakes the national character: There was no plan because, well, this was not supposed to happen. What was supposed to happen was that twenty thousand people or so would come, stay for the summer, we would all deck our villages in blue and yellow, have street parties and Ukrainian culture nights, and celebrate being the bestest most welcoming country on earth. Then everyone would go home, and it would be another tale we could all tell ourselves about how Ireland is the goodest little country on earth. That is what was supposed to happen.

That’s why we are now angry at the Ukrainian Ambassador: She took us seriously. And now she’s saying, in a form of words, why would you tell people to come here if you can’t accommodate them? And lo’, even the most anti-Government, migration-sceptic, patriot dissenter on social media is now up in arms – how dare she criticise us, after all we have done?

It’s the national image, you see, that she’s wounded. And that will not stand, even when she is right. Because even those who wanted us to do nothing to help Ukrainian refugees cannot help themselves, apparently, but burst with patriotic pride at the fact that we did anything at all.

This addiction to being told how great we are explains far more of Irish politics than just the Ukrainian refugee crisis. Housing policy, these days, is about how compassionate we are. We’re going to stop evictions, even if it breaks the property market, because that’s the decent thing to do and Ireland is a decent country. Health is measured by how much we spend, not how good our outcomes are. On a United Ireland, most of us simply cannot conceive of the idea that there are people on this island who might not want to be one of us. You meet people who genuinely seem to think that Unionists are only pretending.

And this is how the country is governed: Not by cold-headed calculations, but by vibes. We are less concerned about whether a policy makes sense than we are about what the policy says about us, what kind of people we are. The left won two referenda in Ireland in the 2010s on controversial topics by using this playbook exclusively: What does your vote say about you.

At a political level, we have one other problem: This Government is no longer answerable to the voters, because it knows itself to be a beaten docket. It is answerable now, in its own mind, to history. What did Micheál do about global warming? What did he do about Ukraine? What did he do on, well, pick your topic. They care more about what progressive historians of the future will write, now, than they care about where you’ll mark your pen. And in that context, it’s more important to govern with good vibes than it is to govern with logic.

Don’t expect it to stop.

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