Rising (and falling) of hope: a changing political landscape

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Members of the Finglas 1916 commemoration group attend a Sinn Fein rally to save Moore Street in Dublin on 31 January. Ireland's political system emerged from the rubble of the anti-British 1916 Easter Rising, which is marking its centenary this year. Photo: CNS/Clodagh Kilcoyne, Reuters
Members of the Finglas 1916 commemoration group attend a Sinn Fein rally to save Moore Street in Dublin on 31 January. Ireland’s political system emerged from the rubble of the anti-British 1916 Easter Rising, which is marking its centenary this year. Photo: CNS/Clodagh Kilcoyne, Reuters

The recent general election in Ireland revealed a phenomenon now increasingly common in Western nations – and most conspicuously in the current Presidential race in America – namely, a deep disenchantment with established political parties and elites and a recourse to minority groupings and independents.

The mainstream Irish parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, attracted less than 50 per cent of the vote, and the political landscape is now increasingly fragmented and protest-based, filled with people who feel the prevailing political system no longer understands or serves them.

Despite the elements of conflict that are distinctively Irish, one senses that the spread of political frustration and fear of the future is part of a growing spiritual weariness and even exhaustion in many countries, including Australia. It is almost as though politics has become so pervasive that it is suffocating civil life, leading to the kind of despair that Evelyn Waugh lamented after a visit to Mexico in the 1930s:

“Politics, everywhere destructive, have here dried up the place, frozen it, cracked it and powdered it to dust. . . . In the sixteenth century human life was disordered and talent stultified by the obsession of theology; today we are plague-stricken by politics.” (Robbery Under Law, 1939)

By contrast, the character of political and cultural life at the time of the Easter Rising in 1916 was marked by a sense of hope even in the midst of conflict.

The rebellion itself was small and quickly suppressed, but its aftermath – in which most of the republican leaders were executed by the British military – had the effect of mobilising Irish opinion, which had previously been opposed to an uprising, against British rule.

The dramatic episodes that followed – a general election, a war of independence against Britain, the signing of a treaty, and a civil war – invested the Easter Rising with a special aura, so that it became what has been called “the foundational myth of the modern Irish state”.

The Rising has held an ambiguous importance in Irish history – captured by WB Yeats in his poem Easter 1916, when he repeated the haunting refrain: “A terrible beauty is born.”

Any reflection on that “terrible beauty” a century later is bound to take account of the values and concerns of the present day, and identify features that are of greater or lesser significance with the passage of time.

The value most readily associated with the 1916 Easter Rising is freedom – a yearning for independence. For a Catholic people, as Ireland largely comprised at that time, this value was religious as well as political. It entailed freedom of religion – after the long imposition of Protestant and penal power – as well as a range of other freedoms.

The Church had been a vital ally in Ireland, as in many other Catholic countries such as Poland, in expressing and reinforcing the aspirations for popular independence. As the journalist Eamonn McCann has pointed out, an important component of the concept of national freedom was the “freedom to be Catholic. . . . In the minds of many who took part in the [Easter] Rising, the fight was for faith as well as fatherland.” (Irish Times, 9 April, 2015)

McCann notes that, in the General Post Office in Dublin that was the epicentre of the rebellion, the Rosary was regularly recited; and two weeks before the event a key representative was despatched to Rome to seek the blessing of Pope Benedict XV on the enterprise.

Furthermore, the Irish bishops – despite some dissension, including from Daniel Mannix, who by that time had been appointed to the archdiocese of Melbourne – soon rallied behind the national movement. Ten per cent of delegates to the first Sinn Fein convention after the Rising were priests, and a priest was elected vice-president of the Sinn Fein party.

This blending of religious and political desires reflects an integrated understanding of freedom that prevailed at that time in Irish society. It might be called a patriotic orthodoxy, in which love of one’s country and people (which is the source of patriotism) was the mainspring of political action, in contrast to a spirit of boastful superiority (which tends to be at the root of nationalism). However misguided the Easter Rising was, the Irish experience a century ago illustrates a truth that is increasingly hard for the secularist West to appreciate – that political freedom needs spiritual roots. It requires a transcendental inspiration, a higher purpose that can lift human beings above self-interest and factional conflict in order to have any lasting meaning and impact.

A purely political freedom, detached – or worse, alienated – from a spiritual vision of human life and destiny, will inevitably collapse into a pit of self-centred, internecine disputes.

In the aftermath of World War II, the French Catholic novelist Georges Bernanos expressed his fear that the West was losing its appetite for freedom. It was no longer willing, he thought, to take the risks and make the sacrifices that the gift of freedom entails.

“The worst threat to freedom,” Bernanos wrote, “is not the fact that people allow it to be taken away – for someone who lets it be taken away can always win it back – it is that people forget how to love it, or no longer understand it.” (The Last Essays of George Bernanos, 1955)

The continuing hope of the past half-century has been that totalitarian aggression – whether it be Communism or Nazism or Islamic State – would be successfully resisted by the democracies of the West.

But various thinkers such as Bernanos, the historian Christopher Dawson and the poet TS Eliot believed that the loss of spiritual roots among the peoples of the West would make this less and less likely – and that it would, in fact, usher in political and cultural crises of various kinds. In their judgment, modern liberal democracies would make up for their inner emptiness by lapsing into a system of external intrusion and legal enforcement that would be totalitarian in character.

In TS Eliot’s words: “That Liberalism may be a tendency towards something very different from itself, is a possibility in its nature. For it is something which tends to release energy rather than accumulate it, to relax, rather than to fortify. . . .

“By destroying traditional social habits of the people, by dissolving their natural collective consciousness into individual constituents, by licensing the opinions of the most foolish, by substituting instruction for education, by encouraging cleverness rather than wisdom, the upstart rather than the qualified, by fostering a notion of getting on to which the alternative is a hopeless apathy, Liberalism can prepare the way for that which is its own negation: the artificial, mechanised or brutalised control which is a desperate remedy for its chaos.” (The Idea of a Christian Society, 1940)

As the appetite for liberty has faded in Western society, another passion has become ascendant, not least in Australia – the demand for equality.

Equality is now an entrenched sensitivity in our social and political culture, invoked at every turn and with every issue. It is commonly linked with two ideas – one of “discrimination”, the other of “tolerance”.

‘Discrimination’ has become a highly negative and selectively applied term. From being a vital intellectual quality, which enables us to distinguish truth from error, right from wrong, and stupidity from sense, it is now disparaged for making possible a range of objectionable ‘isms’ – such as racism and sexism.

‘Tolerance’ is also a pervasive word, selectively invoked. No longer confined to social tolerance, where it provides the basis of a peaceful social order, it now extends to intellectual and moral tolerance, and often clouds our understanding by obscuring fundamental differences that are rooted in reality and nature.

As GK Chesterton put it: “Supposing there is no difference between good and bad, or between false and true, what is the difference between up and down?” (Autobiography, 1936)

As we reflect on the energising ideas of the Easter Rising a century later, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the replacement of liberty with equality, and the general dimming of social and political hope, can be ascribed to a profound loss of conviction. There has been a massive hollowing out of belief, so that we now find less and less to believe in.

If this is the case, then the only pathway open is a revival of transcendental faith. For the Christian, faith is intrinsically linked with hope and love. And for those who believe in the Resurrection, Easter is always Rising.