Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Poland and Ireland - political parallels

Two main parties differing little in terms of policy; the divide between them is how they account for the legacy of their country's return to independence. A divide not between a party of the 'haves' and a party of the 'have nots' (as we see in Britain and America), but one determined by memory.

After the country regained sovereignty, one of the parties was content with the outcome, the other believed that the settlement was a betrayal. One party tending to be more traditionalist, more nationalist, more populist, more religious, than the other.

PO and PiS in Poland? Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil in Ireland? Both. I wrote recently about the parallels between Poland and Spain; Ireland and Poland - Catholic countries that have thrown off the shackles of their eastern, imperial neighbours - display interesting similarities too.

A useful text for studying the parallels is Luck and the Irish, by Oxford history professor R.F. Foster*. I pluck out phrases from the book that I have used myself in the context of Poland; a lack of differentiation between 'policy' and 'politics'; political and cultural discourse being 'little more than the old binary oppositions and ad hominem attacks'; the use of the word 'liberal' as a term of abuse ('anti-Irish').

Looking back at 90 years of an independent Irish state, there are many lessons that Poland can learn from its development. It's very much to Poland's credit (and indeed Germany's) that there are no border disputes to worry about. No 'Polish Republican Army' wishing to seize Wilno and Lwów back 'by the ballot-paper in one hand and the Armalite in the other'; (and indeed no German Republican Army with its eyes on Breslau, Stettin or Allenstein). In this respect, Ireland is catching up with Poland, not the other way round. Thankfully, Poland did not have a civil war. Ireland and Spain ultimately only got over the pain of 1922-23 and 1936-39 after joining the EU; Ireland has been in Europe for 40 years, Spain for 26, Poland for eight.

Poland may not have had a civil war, but the Smoleńsk tragedy of 10 April 2010 has taken one's place, sharply polarising society between those who consider the crash of the presidential Tupolev to have been willful murder, and those who consider it to be an accident caused by a lethal cocktail of derring-do and sloppy procedures.

EU structural funds have proved immensely helpful in bridging the developmental gap between the rich countries of north-west Europe. Compared to Greece, Bulgaria or Romania, Ireland, Spain and Poland have absorbed Brussels money well. But Spain - and Ireland (in a big way) both went wrong with unrestrained bank lending to the construction sector. Here, Polish banks, cautious and traditional, did not open floodgates to speculative developers.

Rapidly increasing material wealth and weakening of traditional Catholicism blurred old distinctions. But nevertheless, in Irish politics today - "where was your grandfather in 1922?" is still a potent question. "Where was your grandfather in 1989?" could still function as a similar litmus test in Polish politics into the middle of this century.

* A big thanks to Peter Flanagan for the copy!


adthelad said...

"I wrote recently about the parallels between Poland and Spain"

er... you did no such thing. What you actually did was write about Franco's Spain and left it to the reader to infer the 'parallels' you were allegedly making/ insinuating. In fact when challenged and asked to actually spell them out, the silence was deafening.

p.s. seen this about speed limits for cyclists http://prawo.rp.pl/artykul/793784,928832-Ograniczanie-predkosci-rowerzystow-do-10-km-h.html

AndrzejK said...

The interesting parralel is whether the Polish Catholic church will have learnt the Irish lesson. At one stage all parcels from the UK were intercepted by the Irish customs, at the instigation of the Mother Church, to check not for drugs but for illicit condoms and sex toys. The churches are now empty!!

White Horse Pilgrim said...

Compared to Ireland, Poland has the advantage of industry and natural resouces (other than peat bogs to burn for fuel!) and neighbours all around to trade with. Poland has the capability to become a powerful, prosperous nation. Ireland's only prospect, long term, is to become a cheap place to make things - competing with the Chinese to work for low wages. I'd choose Poland over Ireland any day.

Decoy said...

"I'd choose Poland over Ireland any day."

I did choose Poland over Ireland, so I suppose I'm in an interesting position to comment. Where I believe Ireland 'failed' after the Irish Civil War from 1922-23 was that it became quite isolationist and mostly inward looking. The love/hate relationship with England was our only real 'foreign' relations (hate is easy to follow, for love - about 70% of our economy relied on imports and exports to the UK). However, the shared culture, language etc. meant it was not really foreign. This meant too much time focussing on "where was your grandfather in 1922?" or "why weren't you at confession/holy communion last Thursday?" It took the entry to the EU to open some of those thought processes to others, and not follow the same old.

My hope with Poland is that it can't end up being so inward-looking, both because of geographical reasons, but also modern times meaning that (unless you are North Korea), you cannot be living in your own little world. Poland will still have many parallels with Ireland - but at this stage I see the potentials rather than historical significance.