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Fintan O’Toole: Brexit makes the Irish State look better than it is

Why do politicians seem so competent on international stage, and so incompetent at home?

We talk of “the Government” but it often seems these days that we have two governments. One is external, the other internal. And it is hard to make sense of the contrast between them.

The external government – by which I mean the State’s management of its relationship with other states – is looking quite impressive. It is competent, skilful and effective. The internal government – the State’s responses to the needs of its own citizens – is as bad as it has ever been. It is incompetent, unskilful and ineffective. Why should this be? These two governments, after all, draw on the same pools of political talent and bureaucratic proficiency. Yet they seem to operate in different universes of ability.

This question is prompted by the odd nature of the State right now. On the one hand, it has so far managed the most pressing external crisis – Brexit – very well. It is a striking achievement for a small state to have made its concerns so central to the European Union’s entire approach.

Ireland has no ultimate control over what the British will do (not least because the British have no apparent control over their own actions), but the State has played its limited hand coolly and cleverly. It remains the case that, as I have suggested before, three of the four possible outcomes of the crisis – the acceptance of the withdrawal agreement, a soft Brexit and no Brexit – are reasonably good for Ireland. (No deal being of course the odd one out.) That’s as good as anyone could have hoped.


Admittedly, in contrast to the lords and ladies of misrule across the Irish Sea, mere competence looks like dazzling statecraft. The State – both its political leadership and its diplomats – has done what citizens have a right to expect it to do. It worked out early on a clear set of goals and pursued them consistently and intelligently. If the British government had even half of the Irish State’s ability to identify and articulate achievable outcomes, we would not be in this mess.

Brexit fairies

Yet which of us has not asked ourselves, as we watch for example Simon Coveney being so impressive in the Brexit debates: is this really the same guy who was minister for housing in 2016 and 2017 and thus right at the heart of the public policy debacle that plumbed new depths of shame last week when even the (understated) official figures for homelessness topped 10,000 for the first time, including 3,784 children? Who, watching Leo Varadkar cut such a credible figure on the European stage has not wondered how they swapped him for the Varadkar who achieved so little as minister for health between 2014 and 2016? They seem like reverse changelings: the Brexit fairies took away the domestic duds and replaced them with deft diplomats.

You can't outsource responsibility for the peace process or for navigating through the turbulence of Brexit

There is, moreover, a pattern here. Think, for example, of Albert Reynolds and Bertie Ahern, taoisigh who were somewhere between mediocre and disastrous in domestic affairs but acquired real stature in their contributions to the peace process. With the glaring exception of the so-called bailout in 2010, when the State was in chaos and failed utterly to protect the national interest, Ireland has for the most part conducted its external relations very effectively in recent decades. But the street angel has been a house devil – the aura of competence that surrounds the State when it is facing outwards evaporates when it is turned towards its own internal problems.


How do we explain this? It is not irrelevant that the diplomatic service perhaps attracts more ambitious people and gives them more autonomy in their jobs. But there is something much larger going on. It is about the State’s acceptance of responsibility. To put it simply, you can’t conjure “market solutions” to diplomatic crises. You can’t outsource responsibility for the peace process or for navigating through the turbulence of Brexit.

In areas like housing and health, the public good is held hostage to private gain

The State just has to go and do it. It has to think very seriously about where the collective interests of citizens lie, develop a strategy to advance those interests and concentrate hard over a number of years. Diplomacy is one of the few areas left where the writ of market ideology does not run. And remarkably it is one of the few areas in which politicians look good, the bureaucracy is patently serving the public interest and the State seems both credible and capable.

The public good – protecting citizens from harm and trying to make things better for them – is at the heart of the external government but not of its internal twin. In areas like housing and health, the public good is held hostage to private gain. The ideology of the market means that the State can’t just build public housing to meet the needs of citizens or create a national health service in which patients are not customers.

The State displaces its responsibilities on to private market forces, not because they can meet or ever have met the underlying needs but because the dominant ideology dictates that it must. This is a kind of willed incompetence – the State is not able because it does not want to be able. Freed from that crippling attitude in its international diplomacy, it looks shockingly adept.