Brian Wilson: Irish woes sound a warning for SNP

IN MY days as Scottish education minister, the Irish representative at European Union Council of Ministers meetings was Michael Martin, now leader of what remains of Fianna Fail following last week's electoral rout.

I recall Michael holding forth to his under-intrigued colleagues, over pre-dinner drinks, on the high significance of the funeral in Irish political life. This was exacerbated, he explained, by the system of multi-member constituencies, so while it was dangerous for a TD to miss a funeral, it was even worse if other TDs turned up, perhaps even from one's own party.

It was a discourse that stuck in my memory as an excellent summation of Irish politics. Never mind that Fianna Fail had failed to build a national health service or welfare state in its decades of power. Forget the euro-billions wasted on vanity projects and the trail of tribunals then investigating corruption. The key factor in turning out the vote was a respectable record of funeral attendance.

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This is what I would describe as de-politicised politics and Ireland is a great warning against it. For more than 80 years, the principal political divisions have not been social and economic. They have been about competing records of nationalism, which flowed from the sides taken in the Civil War of 1922-23 with Fine Gael cast (unfairly) as the pro-partition party as opposed to De Valera's Soldiers of Destiny.

Both parties were founded into a peasant, Catholic, intensely nationalistic society. So while the romantics among us like to think of Irish history in terms of Wolfe Tone, Connolly and Larkin, the mainstream reality for the whole of living memory has been rather more prosaic: a squabble over votes between two conservative parties, whose support has always been tribal, rather than based on any more creative social dynamic.

In recent years, Scotland was constantly invited to envy what was going on in the Republic of Ireland. The Scottish Nationalists' letter-writing cadre had found an appropriate purpose for their green ink. The correspondence columns of The Scotsman and other publications played host to a steady of stream of awe-struck incantations to observe the Celtic Tiger in action. If only we were independent, they pleaded, Scotland too could ride the dream.

It was all, of course, rubbish. Nobody who actually knew a bit about Ireland could quite believe that things were as they appeared to be. My own assumption was that the boom was being created by the infusion of vast sums of euro-largesse, which would eventually dry up.But even that proved to be only a fraction of the story. Alas, the truth turned out to be that Ireland's bankers were even bigger rogues than our own.

Writing in this month's Vanity Fair, Michael Lewis observes: "Even in an era when capitalists went out of their way to destroy capitalism, the Irish bankers set some kind of record for destruction." And it was a very Irish kind of catastrophe, based almost entirely on the kind of small-country cronyism in which everyone knows everyone else and the wheels of business, like politics, are oiled by deals which produce mutual benefit, no questions asked.

Or, as Lewis put it: "While Icelandic males used foreign money to conquer foreign places - trophy companies in Britain, chunks of Scandinavia - the Irish male used foreign money to conquer Ireland. Left alone in a dark room with a pile of money, the Irish decided what they really wanted to do with it was to buy Ireland. From one another."

This is the miracle that we were instructed for so long by Alex Salmond and his associates to marvel at. Disappointingly, we have heard nothing from them of late on the subject. No apologies, no clarifications.

Meanwhile, Ireland faces years of economic purgatory, decent Irish people are once again forced to flee their native land - and all to pay for follies on a gargantuan scale which the presiding geniuses of Fianna Fail have now been held responsible for. Martin will have plenty time for attending funerals.

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But while the Celtic Tiger supporters' club at Holyrood might wish to forget the advice that they were giving so recently to the Scottish people, I would suggest that this is exactly the moment at which we should be paying close attention to what happened in Ireland - and learning lessons accordingly.

The obvious one is that being part of a large state has its advantages, which include spreading the price that has to be paid for baling out greed-crazed bankers.

That alone represents too superficial a conclusion. The reason Irish voters punished their government so heavily was that the banking fiasco finally brought to the surface what had been known to exist for many years: a political system that spent a lot of its time rubbing shoulders with money - and the more of it the better. Insofar as there was a guiding principle, it was to worship the man on the make; which might well be counted as another predictable manifestation of non-ideological politics.

Looking at Scotland today, it is difficult to avoid parallels. For the past 40 years, the superficialities of Scottish politics have been dominated by constitutional debate. A large majority of the electorate has displayed a healthy resistance to this trend and tried to insist on an agenda of health and education, jobs and homes. In other words, things that actually matter to them. But the preoccupation which first created Holyrood and now inspires it, if that is not too strong a word, is constitutional bickering.To this school of thought, the Calman Report is the stuff of political orgasms.

The Lord McConnell, as we now know him, is a classic product of this political generation; indeed one if its leading lights. So it is interesting to find him, at the point of departure from Holyrood, in a state of some disillusionment, describing the supposed font of Scottish democracy as "a place for hanging out" rather than of serious debate. A place where there is so much business to discharge that it meets in full session for two afternoons a week.

He is, of course, right. Surreptitiously, Scottish politics have been depoliticised. Devolved government is managerial rather than ideological. The civil servants have never had a freer run. The most remarkable fact about the Nationalists' four years in power is that it has been devoid of any discernible social imperative. Instead, it has been about picking fights with Westminster and flying flags for Scotland. Saltires have replaced substance.

And then we come to the money. How curious that we should be invited to admire the fact that some of Scotland's richest men are flocking to the Nationalist standard, regardless of whether or not they even support that cause. If the same individuals declared their natural support for the Conservatives, would we be influenced by their posture? So why should we now view them other than through the prism of the Fianna Fail syndrome - politics and money rubbing shoulders in the expectation of mutual advantage.

The SNP is Scotland's Fianna Fail. Big tent, non-ideological, populist, everything to be resolved through constitutional change, unembarrassed by where its money comes from since Scottish millionaires are, by definition, part of the same big happy family as the rest of us. And what better-equipped Soldier of Destiny to lead this regiment of Jock Tamson's Bairns than General Salmond?

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But I cling to a hope that there are enough in Scotland who have not fallen for all of that and we still have the politics of radicalism in our national veins. The politics of abolishing poverty, maximising opportunity, taking control of the land, standing against injustice. Without these imperatives to drive and differentiate Scottish politics, we will be one step closer to the day when attending funerals is the measure of an MSP's worth.

• Brian Wilson was a minister in the last UK Labour government