herald

Tuesday 30 September 2014

De Valera's dream is long dead, so why do we keep peddling it?

Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Photo: Tom Burke

NEXT Monday this land of ours celebrates its national day. Most countries mark the occasion with commemorations linking the achievements of past generations with the challenges for those who carry the torch for the future.

This year, just like every other, Ireland will be different. The Taoiseach and most of the Cabinet will mark the day at events in every part of the globe.

No other country celebrates its day in the sun by sending its government abroad and leaving its people to party. But that's what we do.

Some good will come from the presence of the Cabinet at gatherings where the diaspora has the clout to make offers that can't be refused.

Deals will be done. Promises will be made. Some may even be honoured down the line. Jobs may come our way as a result of all those ministerial air miles.

Traditionally, St Patrick's Day marks a moment when we reflect on who we, the Irish, are.

It's a milestone to ponder on where we've come from and where we're going.

HORRORS

Seventy years ago, when the fate of Europe hung in the balance, Eamon De Valera made a famous broadcast to a country on the edge of a world at war.

A month after more than a million men perished in the titanic battle for Stalingrad, the man who dominated 20th century Ireland spoke to a nation barely conscious of the horrors unfolding on the continent.

His vision of the Ireland he fought for and hoped to see was a fantastic description of a land and a people that never existed and whose like will never be seen.

"The Ireland that we dreamed of would be . . . a land whose countryside would be bright with cosy homesteads, whose fields and villages would be joyous with the sounds of industry, with the romping of sturdy children, the contests of athletic youths and the laughter of happy maidens, whose homes would be forums for the wisdom of serene old age."

Enda Kenny will march down New York's Fifth Avenue with men who still see Ireland through this prism of piety and patriotism. Kenny's vision of the "ould sod" is his gombeen pitch that we are the "best little country in the world to do business in".

No doubt the Apple Corporation agrees. When it comes to paying the least amount of tax on billions of profits, there's no place like Ireland.

For years we boasted our Taoiseach was uniquely granted annual "face time" with the president in Washington during the St Patrick's festivities. This reflected the real political power of our brethren in America and the esteem our country was held in by the great and the good in Washington.

Then along came Barack Obama. The man from Offaly talks the talk but seems to be going through the motions. Irish America is no longer a constituency that has to be taken too seriously.

The people who matter electorally for him and the Democratic Party are Latinos, Asians and African-Americans. The Irish, just like the Italians and the Jews, are of declining relevance.

Since his re-election in 2012, Obama hasn't even bothered to appoint a new ambassador to Ireland.

Until he entered the White House, the president of the United States of America was regarded as the most powerful person on the planet.

Obama gave up the title when he declared that America was "not exceptional", but just another country with its own national interests.

In his actions over Syria and Ukraine, the man who proclaimed "Yes we can" has shown he meant "No we can't".

This is a man who has little interest in, and no real need for, a crystal bowl full of shamrock.

This takes us back to 1943, to De Valera and that speech. Ireland was an oasis of tranquillity back then while Europe was going up in flames. We defined ourselves by one religion only, by our attachment to the land, and through our belief that, in some way, God was looking after us.

STRUGGLING

National identity is all about agreeing on who "we" are. In 2014, the Irish are struggling on that. We are no longer automatically Catholic. We are also Protestants, Dissenters, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and atheists.

We live in cities. We work in offices. We look to the Government and not to God to give us our "entitlements". And we no longer believe that unity is our divine destiny.

We have even discovered there are gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender citizens in our ranks. That Ireland will not be on parade abroad, of course. The old stereotypes will be out in force.

But the world is a dangerous place again. Europe is facing a frightening crisis that could end in disaster. We will require character, courage and civic spirit if we have to face the worst.

It would help if we agreed on who "we" are. But there is strength in diversity. Everywhere Enda Kenny goes in Washington today, he will see the words "E pluribus unum" – "From many, one".

That insight once made America great. It's a sentiment that could make Ireland a better place too.

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