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Sean Quinn, parish pump politics, and the Irish way of getting things done

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The rally in honor of disgraced businessman Sean Quinn last weekend horrified many Dublin based commentators.

It was held in the small County Cavan village of Ballyconnell, the site of a Quinn packaging plant that has brought some employment to the otherwise depressed blackspot.

In response there was open sneering in the Dublin press that a man who has allegedly hidden away at least a half a billion euros of Irish taxpayers money could still be considered a hero beyond the pale. But knowing Ireland I'm not sure how they can claim to be surprised. They live there too after all. They should really get out more.

Growing up in Donegal I use to marvel at the monthly political clinics held by well-fed local politicians in our local hotels and bars. People, often quite anxious people, would come to them from every village and town land to lay out their problems and sometimes even bare their souls a little hoping for some relief.

They often found it too, because our local ministers were masters at resolving the kind of everyday disputes that could arise in our county. Planning permission, rates, investment, health charges, medical cards, grants, social welfare and on and on. These were and still are consequential matters in Donegal. Local bigwigs were wheeler-dealers, they knew which strings to pull.

There was often something in the atmosphere at these events that I found very striking. The public would arrive on buses, cars, taxis, on foot and sometime on tractors. The atmosphere at these events could start to feel like a spiritual revival meeting more than a chance to - say - get planning permission to erect a shed.

These were people who in the main were used to being ignored, not listened to. They lived ten leagues beyond Dublin's reach. Suddenly they were given a voice, given an opportunity to unburden themselves before the authority of the state, and given that opportunity they often held little back. 

One of the important things I learned at these events is that the Irish strongly believe in the rule of law, for other people. They believe in loopholes and capacious escape clauses for themselves. It's the most interesting contrast, biting laws for you and ambiguity for me. Laws should only ever apply to the other man. That makes sense to the Irish. That's how the law is conceptualized in Ireland. Just look at Sean Quinn's Othello like contradictions lately. He has done the state some service and he knows it, so why are they turning on him now? We like a bit of contradiction in our home grown success stories. It's a centuries long tradition.

Recall how in Donegal for example the partition of the island had cut us off economically and administratively from the rest of the Republic, ensuring our difficulties. Carlow and Leitrim and Sligo weren't that far behind.

In Donegal, in response to this longstanding political isolation, the locals did what they were forced to do, they found local solutions to local problems. But in the process the political establishment in Dublin and the locals of Donegal were complicit in conducting a damaging waltz of isolation and indifference.

Anyone who could actually get things done up there was a godsend, whether you were a politician or a businessman on the make. That's why in election after election, regardless of whatever crisis gripped the nation, our local political leaders were comfortably returned again and again, walking between all the political raindrops. And that's why people lined up in the rain to support Sean Quinn last weekend, even though it has become apparent to most that supporting Sean Quinn is really his own most pressing concern.

Since the foundation of the state politics in Donegal has been a family affair. You aren't only a minister you are also a chieftain. You pass your authority on to your son or daughter. It doesn't matter if they are competent or incompetent. What matters is that they wear the cloak of power. It has been handed down through the generations, that cloak. It is never to be questioned. If the locality prospers that's enough.

Out of those longstanding traditions our parish pump politics were born. They have made the Irish a cake-walk for every colonizer that landed on our shores from the Vikings to Cromwell. With no national unity to speak of, then or ever, and no overarching commitment to the nation itself, we have continually formed our circular firing squads before the latest invaders had even fired the first shot.

We still do this to ourselves and we may always. All this small time selfish thinking ends at the lines dividing town lands. Forget the county, forget the nation, our own dear little streets have always been pitted against the great ones. That won't change until the nation does.

It isn't showing any indication that it will.

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