Denis Bradley is a nice man. Any time I’ve met him he’s been pleasant, anyone who knows him speaks highly of his integrity. So it’s with some reluctance that I say he was talking tripe in the VO this morning.
The subject of his column was political selflessness. Only twice in his life, he said, had he seen political selflessness, where a politician or a political party acted not in their own interests but in the national interest. The first, he said, was John Hume, who engaged in talks with the IRA and was subjected to brickbats from every direction for nine months, until the IRA called a ceasefire, at which point he was declared a hero. The second, he said, was in recent months, when Fianna Fail took actions in the interests of the state but which added to their unpopularity with the electorate.
The major weakness in Denis Bradley’s argument is that it presents human beings as two-dimensional. That is, they say and do things that are simple and uncomplicated. If someone makes a decision, it’s either wise or foolish. If someone makes a statement, it’s either dumb or brilliant. If someone performs an action, it’s either selfish or selfless.
Oh that life were that simple. If it were, moral judgements would have cleaner, sharper edges than they have. When John Hume decided to talk to the IRA, as a life-long pacifist you may be sure he had in mind the saving of human life. But the John Hume who made the decision was also a life-long politician, so you may be sure he had in mind the implications for himself and his party. At first those implications appeared to be disastrous; nine months later, as Bradley indicates, he was proved right. Since then Hume has been showered with honours throughout the world, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, was even made a guest of honour at the launch last September of my book Tales Out of School: St Columb’s College Derry in the 1950s. (Sorry – couldn’t resist that.) For him and for peace, his dialogue with republicanism in the long run proved wholly beneficial. For his party, his dialogue in the long run proved negative and contributed to the SDLP’s slow terminal decline. Just as Hume’s motivation in talking to republicans was probably mixed, the consequences were mixed.
Likewise with Fianna Fail. Yes, the tough measures the coalition in the south took will probably help the state drag itself from the pit of financial horror in which it presently languishes. But it wasn’t just a question of Fianna Fail sacrificing itself for the good of the twenty-six counties. Had it not acted, that political party would probably be even lower in the polls than it is. By acting, Fianna Fail are hoping against hope that the electorate will give them credit for having a firm plan and that the first green shoots from that plan will start to show before the election at the end of March.
None of us, even the most saintly, makes decisions for one reason only. They’re a mixture of motivations, just as the results of those decisions are invariably a mixture of elements, some good, some bad. As a former priest and a thoughtful commentator, Denis Bradley must know that. So here’s the question: if southern voters accept his analysis that Fianna Fail budget decisions were in the public interest, which political party might benefit in the March general election? And which political party might suffer? I’d say Fianna Fail and Sinn Féin respectively. Mmm. Food for thought there, eh?