As part of the historic Oxford Romanes lecture series, the current Irish Taoiseach – head of government – Micheál Martin spoke on the issue ‘The Center Will Hold: Liberal Democracy and the Populist Threat’. While notable speakers on this lecture series include the famed Theodore Roosevelt, no leader of another country has ever given the lecture while they are currently in power.
The predominant reason for my attendance to this lecture was to go with my Irish dad. He lived in Ireland for much of his life and after graduating university, moved over to England, and has pretty much lived here ever since. I, myself, have been raised in the UK my entire life but cannot deny I have a strong cultural link to Ireland. Family holidays, my very Irish family, as well as a constant stream of Father Ted quotes have created a slightly faux Irish link in my upbringing. Bizarrely though, given I am a student of politics, I have never taken a keen interest in Irish history or politics until recently (I’m not blaming this on the absence of Irish history from the English teaching curriculum…but I actually kind of am…I mean we literally colonised them so like it could feature a bit you know).
But I am interested now! I am in no way suggesting I am an expert through writing this article, but Irish history and politics are completely fascinating. And as a Brit – completely and utterly relevant. The absence of understanding of the complexity of Anglo-Irish relations was an essential sticking point for much of the Brexit discussion and without the context, I think many British people fundamentally misunderstood the issue at hand. The Good Friday Agreement, an agreement intended to end the Troubles, the long-term political violence and conflict in Northern Ireland, was signed as recently as 1999 and the positive effects of this cannot be denied. But the tense relationship between Ireland, Northern Ireland, and the remainder of the UK are based on hundreds of years of conflict and are not easily ‘solved’.
But I am not here to give an extremely abridged and angry rant on the issues surrounding Anglo-Irish relations. I want to talk about the ‘right now’. Micheál Martin has served as head of his party, Fianna Fáil, since 2011 and has been serving as Taoiseach since June 2020. Just to reiterate this: Micheál Martin has been head of his party since 2011 – a whole 11 years! In Britain nowadays this is an unthinkable achievement. I’m sure no more needs to be said on the whole Liz Truss-Lettuce fiasco (though I am absolutely desperate to make a Romanes lettuce pun which I am holding myself back from). Putting Liz Truss aside for the moment (just like the Tory Party did! Boom! Okay that one I couldn’t control), there have been five leaders of the Conservative Party since 2011 (David Cameron, Theresa May, Boris Johnson, Liz Truss, and currently, Rishi Sunak). And, regardless of your personal left-right lean, these individuals have struggled to behave in a way that inspires either confidence or trust.
Some of the core points of Micheál Martin’s talk revolved around the criticality of liberal democracy and as a result, cooperation. He highlights the importance of communication amongst the citizenry, and for politicians and political powers, the significance of identifying policies that individuals and groups can unite around. His example of environmental policies and transitioning to a carbon-neutral society is one which he argues could unite populations during a time of divisiveness.
Part of his discussion of unity revolves around being able to talk through differences with others. Attending this talk with my dad and discussing it afterwards was a suitably ironic example of putting this into action. My dad and I are from different countries, different classes, and different generations. Yet there was unity in our connection to the ideas mentioned in the lecture. The idea of acceptance, free discussion and openness resonated with both of us in a way that generated a free and open conversation between us. The importance of being able to have meaningful discussions with people from different generations or contexts from us is so important.
These ideas sit in stark contrast to the disillusionment felt about the politics in Britain currently. The lack of enthusiasm and optimism felt for our leaders and the almost laughable lack of confidence we had for their success levels is possibly at an all-time high. The cooperation and connections across divides that the Taoiseach speaks about are facets of discussion and learning that I feel are so important in tackling any of the huge and very current crises we face as a global population; we can learn from Ireland. Even so, it is jarring to see the glaring weaknesses in our own political system, the lack of trust the public have in the government, and the fear that sits beneath the surface.
Martin concluded that “the centre can hold, and it will hold” as liberal democracy is the only system that “respects the ties that bind us”. This respect is clearly not perfected anywhere, but all we can do is endeavour to improve this. Looking to our neighbours across the Irish sea for a lesson could be a step forward in the right direction.
Image credit: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0