The strange dearth of Irish conservatism

Shortly before Christmas, The Economist published an article titled ‘The liberalisation of Ireland: How Ireland stopped being one of the most devout, socially conservative places in Europe.’ The piece provided a brief overview of recent social milestones such as the landslide vote to legalise abortion in 2018, followed by a description of how revelations of physical and sexual abuse by Catholic clergy changed this country forever.

Although some conservative voices were quoted, the article presented a narrative which is endemic in modern Ireland: the theocracy of yesteryear has been destroyed, and Ireland has been born anew. “In an angrier world Ireland has a lot to teach people,” one of the leading liberal activists was quoted as saying.

This liberalism extends far beyond issues of religion or social policy. The collapse of Irish Catholicism has gone hand-in-hand with a major leftwards shift in Irish politics.

Consider this week’s Irish General Election. Of the half-dozen or so parties who are contesting it, not one of them is presenting itself as a centre-right alternative. Uniquely among European countries, ‘conservatism’ in Ireland is a dirty word. Not one political party has embraced an identity focused on responsible fiscal policy, social conservatism and a respect for national sovereignty.

How did this happen? Without doubt, a large part of the reason why a successful conservative movement has not developed in Ireland is, essentially, a religious one. Over the last few decades, the prominence of the Catholic Church in Ireland has changed beyond recognition; Mass attendance has plummeted, and its teaching authority has been rejected by most of the population.

This loss of authority has led to liberal victories in redefining marriage and stripping legal protection from the unborn. The next liberal campaigns are now focusing on efforts on removing any religious influence from the education sector and public life.

In an ideal world, this decline of Christianity would not have many negative implications for those of a conservative worldview. After all, religion is not politics. The United States and the United Kingdom each have thriving conservative movements, despite both societies becoming increasingly secular, with lower church attendance rates than in Ireland.

So why can’t an Irish conservatism – one which transcends social conservatism – develop and prosper politically? The answer is a historical one.

Ireland’s recent rapid separation from Rome is partly caused by the revelations of large-scale clerical abuse of children, particularly within church-run institutions in the 20th century. Past mistreatment of vulnerable women – especially those who became pregnant out-of-wedlock – left deep psychological scars on the Irish nation.

That similar abuses have occurred in all societies, throughout human history, means little to a political, media and cultural elite who have long ago come to a belief that Irish history is uniquely repressive, backward and awful. The younger the Irish citizen, the more likely they are to hold a negative view about everything that has gone before them. The consequences of this for conservatives are obvious.

Nations are built on shared memories, values and affections. Conservatism is motivated by a desire to cherish and preserve the institutions and practices which have been passed down to us. As the founder of philosophical conservatism (and proud Irishman) Edmund Burke put it, society is a contract between the dead, the living and those yet to be born. A society which hates its past will never be conservative about its future.

Burke is not remembered here though, and his way of looking at the world is antithetical to the popular zeitgeist. If Ireland continues to look upon its past with scorn, there is no hope for a conservative resurgence.

A cursory glance at the parties in this General Election demonstrates that there will be no change after this election. The two main political parties in Ireland, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, are nominally centrist, but in practice they lean to the left.

Public spending grows massively each year, and personal taxation remains high. In the face of a worsening housing shortage and ever-increasing prices, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have both embraced the failed socialist policy of rent control.

Elsewhere, the socialist, anti-business Sinn Féin party is surging in the polls, while a plethora of smaller left-wing parties such as the Greens will also win many seats. On issues such as abortion-on-demand and the need to secularise our education system, virtually nothing separates any of these parties. The real choice facing Irish voters is between centre-left policies which will slowly ruin our country, or the full-blown socialist madness of Sinn Féin.

Forgive those of us who will not be voting.

For beleaguered Irish conservatives – and for the increasingly marginalised Christian community struggling to comprehend this new Ireland – there is little hope of the situation changing in the short term. One day, the country that produced Edmund Burke will hopefully remember its own history, and wake from its slumber and open its eyes to what is happening here and across the world.

But that day will not come soon.

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