‘Formgeschichte’ and the Programme for Government


Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, and the Green Party yesterday published their proposed Programme for Government. 128 days after the General Election, this is the first concrete step towards the formation of a new government. The document – 126 pages long – will now be examined by the members of these political parties and by Friday week we should know if it has been accepted.

Strongly-held verdicts about the document appear to have already been cast in some quarters, with some people declaring it yet-more-neoliberalism, but now with cycle-lanes. Others insist that it is a revolutionary document with the potential to have a transformative effect on Irish society. As ever, the truth of the thing resists being so neatly packaged, one way or another.

No document can be interpreted in isolation. When we compare this Programme with plans prepared by previous governments we start on the road to making a meaningful assessment of just how ambitious this project is. In effect, such a comparison establishes the genre of the document, which is an important first step in any textual analysis.

About a hundred years ago, biblical scholars developed a technique of textual analysis called Formgeschichte, which sought to classify the genre of a document and study the shape of its component parts so as to identify the setting and demands that were at play in its initial formation. If we borrow from this tool, which biblical scholarship has provided, we can utilise it to test the merits of this document.

These methods have generated a rich and varied conversation within biblical scholarship – and now in other disciplines as well – generating theories and insights that could not have otherwise been located. One of the most prominent of these ideas is that there is a common source – now lost to us – which was known to the writers of the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, but not known to the community that composed Mark. Form Criticism, along with various other tools, allow us to build models of how a text has come to be, what might have been at stake in its formation, and so help us to evaluate and interpret those documents in the present day.

If we deploy these tools to the current Programme for Government in the light of the 2016 Programme for Government, we quickly discover similarities in language and concepts that indicate a shared authorship. In the last Programme for Government, the word “enterprise” played a central role in the plan. No reader could be in any doubt but that the community that generated this document thought it essential to cultivate “a supportive environment for enterprise and employment.” This concept is carried over in the new document where we find the word appears with even greater regularity, and commitments – “Pursue a coherent policy approach to the enterprise needs of every part of Ireland through the Regional Action Plan for Jobs” – proliferate.

If we continue our thought experiment in imagining these documents to be ancient, we also quickly notice that there are brand new concepts introduced in the 2020 version. Something happened between the first and second document which meant that the United Kingdom had become much more present. The earlier document does not feature the word “Brexit” and it engages this “United Kingdom” briefly and breezily. By the time the later document had come to be, the United Kingdom clearly consumed a large proportion of the community’s attention and something called Brexit had become a significant challenge.

This is to say nothing of Covid-19, a concept that almost dominates the later document but is entirely absent from the first text. With just these two documents and no other knowledge about the people who wrote them, we would have a pretty good hunch that the intervening years had been full of drama.

So, with no other information, a biblical scholar could identify a shared author and a radically changed context. But there is one further obvious development in the form of the documents. “Climate change” gets its own chapter in the 2016 text. “Climate breakdown” is found throughout the 2020 text. It is joined there by something called the “biodiversity crisis”, a concept unheard of in the first manuscript. There are dramatic shifts. In 2016, Liquid Natural Gas is a “positive step” that should be facilitated. By 2020, there is a commitment to withdraw that positive development from the list of EU Projects of Common Interest. In 2016, the only mention of cycling is the extension of borrow-bike schemes. By 2020, cycling (and walking) had become a central feature of the plan for government backed up by huge commitments of spending (€1 million a day). In 2016, the reduction targets have to do with deficits. By 2020, the reduction being sought is clearly carbon emissions.

Considering these plans side by side in this way does not force a conclusion, positive or negative. How it might help is in framing the kind of document that the 2020 plan represents. The Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice will further analyse the detail of the plan, particularly some of its admirable ambition around transport and its deeply disappointing schemes for resolving the dire housing and homelessness crisis. But perhaps the greatest assistance that the various tools of theological scholarship offers to this discernment process is the reminder that the text matters far less than the practice. Biblical scholars can parse a text with astonishing precision and technical intricacy, but any child on the street can tell you that what matters is how the document inspires practice.

As a genre, government plans are heavy on rhetoric and light on detail. Sceptics in the environmental movement have grounds for their suspicions. There is much in the skeleton of this document that reflects the pro-austerity neoliberal emphases of recent governments. But alongside grounds for caution, there is significant material here for hope.

Ultimately, when it comes to sacred scriptures, there is a point where the reading has to stop and the acting begins. Waiting around for the perfect interpretation misses the point the texts are making. There may be much wisdom here for those deciding whether these secular texts are worth putting into action.