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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: January 15, 2012 @ 11:17 pm

    Don’t throw the democratic baby out with the economic bathwater

    Deaglán de Bréadún

    The economic crisis we are going through is like nothing else since the 1930s. Heaven forbid, but it may turn out to be even worse. What is the average citizen to do? Our political leaders can often seem helpless in the face of these unpredictable and alarming events. Here are some thoughts, in a piece for the print edition of this newspaper, on the political implications of our current difficulties:-

    One of  the hazards of political journalism is the never-ending torrent of emails that find their way to your inbox. Some are more interesting than others and you learn to be grateful at times for the “delete” option.

    However, a message that arrived in recent weeks stood out from the rest. The heading was a clarion-call: “Democracy now in danger – who runs our country?”

    The substance of it was that elected governments have been shunted aside in Greece and Italy at the behest of “European monopoly big-business interests” and even the Irish budget documents were made available to the Bundestag ahead of the Dáil.

    So who were these eloquent advocates of parliamentary democracy? None other than the Communist Party of Ireland, long-time stout defenders of one-party regimes in the former Soviet Union and its satellites.

    Still, as the saying goes, “the Devil can quote scripture”. If the party has been converted to the views of the Polish-German radical Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919), who vainly sought to persuade Lenin of the need for free elections in Bolshevik Russia, then so much the better.

    The democratic system is often taken for granted. It is not generally realised that little Ireland is one of the oldest democracies in the world. Nor is it widely appreciated that, at a time when some of our current European partners such as Germany, Italy and Spain were fascist dictatorships, the flag of democracy still fluttered in the breeze over this small state.

    The late Conor Cruise O’Brien once wrote that, for all its flaws, Ireland was “a fairly decent little democracy”. More pride should be taken in that heritage and it should be guarded jealously when it comes under threat. A lot of people, most of them young and idealistic, died in the process of creating the sovereign democracy now enjoyed, at least on paper.

    Sadly, much of our economic sovereignty has been lost in the current crisis. The prevailing view is that this is a necessary sacrifice to get through hard times. There is another perspective: “burn the bondholders” and make our own way in the world. Whatever side one takes in this argument, there are other aspects of the situation that need to be addressed. If the democratic framework is to avoid serious damage in the current difficulties, certain issues have to be tackled.

    One of them is inequality. Nationalists and republicans in the North have long advocated “parity of esteem” but on this side of the Border “parity of pain” is needed. Virtually the entire population has made sacrifices to ensure the ship of state stays afloat. Yet there is still a sense of entitlement in some quarters, among those who appear impervious to the feelings of the wider community.

    The upper reaches of the financial sector are a case in point. You would have thought that having contributed so much to the present woes, top bankers and financiers would have acquired a certain humility but still one reads of colossal salaries being paid out. Just who do these people think they are?

    The idea of a maximum wage or salary for individuals may be crude but it does indicate the general approach that needs to be taken. The figure does not need to be all that low – let’s say € 120,000 per annum – indexed to inflation of course. That should be adequate for anyone’s needs. As the great American writer Jack London observed, “You can only eat one porterhouse steak a day”. And wasn’t it Éamon de Valera who said in the 1930s that nobody was worth more than a thousand pounds a year?

    The Occupy Dame Street protesters have pitched their tents on the plaza outside the Central Bank where a sign proclaimed it Ireland’s “Tahrir Square” in honour of the Egyptian demonstrators seeking to bring democracy to their country. Who knows, we may yet see an “Irish Spring” to match its Arab counterpart? There is a business maxim that goes “never waste a crisis”, and the same motto should be applied to the political system.

    It has been rightly said that the test of any society is the way it treats its older members. In that respect, the debacle-cum-farce of the pensioners’ taxation controversy does not reflect well on anybody. The Revenue Commissioners at least have apologised for a lack of sensitivity. One can only imagine the anguish inflicted on senior citizens upon receiving a letter out of the blue from the taxation authorities, with all the dire scenarios conjured up.

    The Government has taken an arm’s length approach. Nothing to do with us, we can’t interfere with the Revenue – perish the thought. This administration is far more adept at staying out of trouble than its predecessor but in this instance it has been too clever by half. Instead of preparing pensioners for the impending unpleasantness, our elected rulers left it to the tax-collectors to break the news. Age should not be a shield against paying one’s fair share of tax but at least our elders ought to have been given the courtesy of proper advance warning.

    Meanwhile, only 10 out of an estimated 440 very wealthy Irish “tax exiles” paid anything towards the €200,000 levy imposed upon them by the late Brian Lenihan. These are rich Irish citizens who are domiciled in the State but declare themselves non-resident for tax purposes. The average payment was only €147,000 each – the reduction came from exemptions and write-offs.

    Michael Noonan said after the budget that alternative approaches were being considered because there are “different ways of skinning a cat”. The same subtleties will not be applied to older people who are resident for tax purposes – some of whom will simply find themselves “skint”.

    It is one of the strengths of this society that, despite all the cutbacks and impositions in recent times, social solidarity has held more or less firm, but a perception of unfairness puts that precious commodity in jeopardy. Let’s not lose our democracy along with our purses and wallets.

    • jaygee says:

      There is a ruling elite that does not abide by any rules of fairness. Getting the country to vote twice in order to ensure that the European dream of cheap mobile labour and unfetterred capitalism could reign was one ploy. The ability of the wealthy to employ the best advice enabling them to avoid their tax liabilities is a feature of this unfairness.
      Name and shame them every day and contrast their position with those who are suffering the most in the crisis.
      The world could do with a Rosa now.

    • John O'Driscoll says:

      The reality of Irish democracy today and of the past 80 years is that in fact it has become a system based more on blood than ability. 200 or so dynastic families, interlinked and internetworled to the exclusion of most outsiders, have taken ownership of political power in Ireland, and new entrants to the trade must meet with their approval. Usually such approval being based on such solid philosophical tenets as ”won’t rock the boat”, ”one of us”, ”I knew his fadder well”, ”the most ruthless, cunning, brilliant of them all”, ”plays the game”, and so forth.

      Some old Greek once said ‘let them govern those who govern best” and more recently Thomas Carlyle think it was said ”the tools to him who can use them”. These might be seen to recommend technocracies, whcih, being systems where the most qualified (not necessarily the most able, just the most qualified0 are by nature exclusive. Most of the demos not being qualified to blow their own noses it does rather make a nonsense of that bit in some forgotten old document forged in blood and fire about cherishing all of the childer of the nation equally but sure who cares about such things now that the Irish People’s destinies are neither sovereign nor indefeasible and that Ireland’s Cause has been so fatally dishonoured by the cowardice inhumanity and rapine it has repeatedly been betrayed to by those who are no more patriotic to their fingertips than they are honest and decent and moral.
      Ireland has neither been governed by philosophers nor honest men these past decades, and the result is all about us. Rather, those in the golden circle of dynastic families, and certain approved incomers, have betrayed this country and State in its and Her entirety so as to enrich themselves and their cronies; achieving power with the approval of Paudeen and Biddy solely upon their abilities to build a few ring roads round the parish pump before high-tailing it off to Dublin and ultimately perhaps the EU to do the bidding of their plutocratic masters.

      Irish democracy is today almost completely a lie, and has for the large part been a lie for most of this State’s existence; certainly since the emergence post-1945 of the US Rough Beast, the military-industrial-congressional complex, as a means by which abstract Evil has been enabled to slide down gravity’s rainbow into the PaRtiCular as Nietzche would perhaps not put it so well. Now, we are witness to a nEU Rough Beast, the EUropean SuperState, with all the hyper-militarising aspects of Lisbon 2 (another death blow to Irish ”democracy”).

      It may be that the last magnificent gasp of Irish democracy was the defenstration of that party of treason, Fianna Fail, although I suspect we scotched that snake, not killed it, and she will close and be herself in due course. Hard to kill a bad thing.

      Anyway, as we have seen democracy tumble in Greece and Italy, elected heads of governments being replaced without a shot fired by unelected former heads of European banks, we will see the same here. I predict that technocrats will rule the financially weaker member states within the next half decade, unaccountable to the People of those States, and the sham of a weak but ”democratic” EU Parliament will be used to cloak the outright theft of national sovereignties by the unelected Commission.

      Perhaps in the short term it won’t seem a bad thing. National gold reserves in those derelict states will be seized by the ECB and used to bolster a revivified, or should I say a revenant, Euro. Of course, the People will have less and less say in how they are governed, less even than they have now in the dying days of democracy, but that will be of little concern for most of them, worrying only about what’s in their personal greasy tills as they do, being only human, shortsighted, and ultimately worried about themselves alone.

      But now we will have two Rough Beasts butting up against each other, and more emerging in the East. When elephants dance the chickens should be nervous but enough of that, time will tell and history as ever, will show the bloody carnage that is wreaked when Empires collide and collapse. That is for history to write about. In Ireland, there’ll be the usual tugging of the forelock and kissing of the landlord’s jackboot and pious turning blind eyes to all manner of cowardice inhumanity and rapine once there’s the usual 30 pieces of silver in it.

    • @2: “When elephants dance the chickens should be nervous” – I like it! One of your own or is it a quote?

    • John O'Driscoll says:

      Sad to see the only thing I wrote you like is someone else’s quote! Nope, it’s an old Filipino expression.

    • LoopyLo says:

      we can’t have democracy or regain sovereignty in this country, until our politicians stop making a mockery of both with the salaries and the free cash flowing from the public coffers that they give themselves, such is the elite King’s Bed With 20 Mistresses that the Seanad and the Dail have both become.

      I would welcome EU involvement to stop politicians past, present and future absorbing whatever revenue can be creamed by these new VAT hikes and new taxes to giving themselves a better life. They are not far from being our previous rulers that no doubt enjoyed many offerings for the dinning table while the people starved to death.

      As you happen to mention an Irish Spring, no, we will not. Because a number of things have to happen first and already these are beginning to build up within society. It will take the Troika’s comments on Thursday along with whatever new taxes the Government can create and whatever can be sparked by the outrage that is printed in the media every day, of which I hope someone somewhere will eventually use to prosecute these same politicians…

      But it will not be Revolution. Most likely someone somewhere will have nothing to lose and in a bid to stand up they will go to a place where nobody has gone for a long time and pick up arms and seek Revolution that way.

      As I recall in the case of Tunisia, as outlined by Wiki

      “The demonstrations were precipitated by high unemployment, food inflation, corruption,[10] a lack of freedom of speech and other political freedoms[11] and poor living conditions. The protests constituted the most dramatic wave of social and political unrest in Tunisia in three decades[12][13] and have resulted in scores of deaths and injuries, most of which were the result of action by police and security forces against demonstrators. The protests were sparked by the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi on 17 December[14] ”

      Had it not been for one individual so in despair of what they faced, they poured petrol over themselves and set themselves on fire. That sparked it. Not just nationally but it sparked international interest by the media.

      It seems that the suicides of Irish men have not sparked a Revolution. Then tell me, if people killing themselves for any sort of reason that has been ignored by the national media hasn’t, then what will?

    • Desmond FitzGerald says:

      Reform from the top won’t come unless there is pressure from the bottom.

      It would seem that despite all the whinging and moaning people (certainly the voting middle class and their parents) are more or less still very well off in Ireland while those who take the brunt of the cuts were never part of the political system to begin with so don’t have any reason to challenge it. They’ve always accepted their lot.

      We also have the fantastic safty value of emigration that dissapates any effort at reform. It’s worked perfectly for decades so why would Kenny and Co want to change a system like that.

      However, the cloud on the horizon is that even if we do manage to balance our budget by 2015 or 2016 there is still the little overlooked fact that we have debts of billions to service from then on which is going to cost about 4 billion a year so those who think balancing the budget is all we need to do are in for a rude awakening – perhaps that will be the breaking point but by then of course the Euro will either be history or there’ll be a federal Europe in all but name and yet again the well off middle class will have passed the cost onto the social welfare classes and the welfare classes will once again lie back and accept it as they always do.

      As we see in our Labour politicans the ones who make the leap from the social welfare class to the fat middle class are the worse for stamping out any reform a la Mr Gilmore.

      It’s great system and sure why would anyone want to change it.

    • sf ca writer says:

      Economic poetry about Ireland, I read your stuff, so go on,have a look..

    • John O'Driscoll says:

      ”Just who do these people think they are?” – They think they are the Anointed Ones, somehow entitled to reap their enormous incomes from the sweat of other’s faces. And by dint of the fact that they do; that they can, what is there to prove them wrong? Those at the other end of the social scale of ‘respectability”, the hoboes encamped at the foot of that altar to Mammon on Dame Street, represent a huge threat to the Anointed Ones, as such armies of tramps always have represented such a threat after every great upheaval and cataclysm e.g. the American Civil War, the Great Depression; the Flower Power/Peace Movement, because, as I said elsewhere on these blogs tonight, society shapes and frames its moral framework through the discourses of its institutions, the home, the church, the schools, politics, the media, and as men obtain ‘respectability’; as the ”civilising” influence of marriage and homesteading work upon them to conform to the accepted social structures, so too does homelessness and poverty and the carefree life of the vagabond threaten with its alternative discourse those accepted social structures or constraints, and with that also, the Old Lies such as ‘sweet and beautiful it is to die for your country” that allows old rich men to send young poor men to do their dirty work in every corner of a foreign field that is ”forever” Halliburton or Texaco or Shell; such as that ”every man must do his duty” so that the rich may get richer on the blood sweat tears death and suffering of those who die as cattle and for whom there are no passing bells but for the monstrous anger of the guns. Soon, the discourse will turn against the protestors and the homeless of the West; not against those whom have made them protest and made them homeless, for they control the organs of the media, the tools by which the modern mind is kept enslaved. I dreamt once of an army of camper vans, old cars, tents and so forth bringing Dublin and London and New York to a standstill. Wrote in about it to this site but it got spiked for some reason. Might be it will happen. There’ve been hobo and tramp armies before that threatened to take over major US cities. The bullyboys of the rich, the Boss Hoggs of the police and militia were employed to break them up and the media to throw muck and slander at them for their ‘crime’ of vagrancy and protest. From what we saw in recent years at May Day parade protests where the Guards – their identification cravenly concealed – batoned and brutalised peaceful protestors, I’ve little doubt the same treatment will be meted out again. Once the OCCUPY protestors change from being an amusing diversion and means whereby the disempowered can ‘get it off their chest’ into a real and present threat to the established discourse I’ve no doubt the Bulls will be called in to toss them off the streets. The Anointed Ones, those who can because they can, will so ordain it. And the rest, those who still cling to their little all, their not-so-cosy homesteads and the few that remain cosy, will stand by silently and watch, or buy into the Anointed Ones social condemnations because that is the way to survive as they see it. To join with the Evil because they think it can never be beaten. So it goes so it goes.

    • Enda says:

      Interesting article, but isn’t the quote “a society will be judged by how it treats its weakest members”, not its oldest?
      Seems to me pensioners in this country have a pretty strong voice as evident by how quickly successive governments have changed their tune in response to pensioner outrage.
      How does this country treat the sick, the mentally ill, the poor, the disabled and those in prison? Methinks that is a much truer judge of whether or not we’re a “fairly decent little democracy”.

    • Richard says:

      Hi Deaglan,
      I must admit I am very surprised to see you embrace the concept of a maximum wage of 120,000. How exactly do you think this could be enforced? Would it apply to high-earning individuals such as Bono or Michael O’Leary (if not, how do you decide who is exempt)? And are you seriously suggesting that those people would not leave Ireland if such a law was enacted?
      I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

      Deaglán writes: Some technical glitch is preventing me from writing a separate response to your comment, so here goes:-
      @10: There are already maximum pay limits in the civil service of Eur 200K and semi-state sector of Eur250K. They could be lowered.
      As for the private sector, everything above the limit could be taxed at 100%.
      Re U2: I understand they pay most of their tax in the Netherlands. Isn’t that what the demo was about at the concert earlier this year?
      As for others who might seek to adopt non-resident tax status, Brian Lenihan tried to do something about this but it hasn’t gone well apparently. The loss in this regard would have to be balanced against the gain from an overall pay-limit.

    • jaygee says:

      sf ca writer……..Read your stuff and liked it.

    • Poli-tricks says:

      @ 7 John

      Well said sir.

    • John O'Driscoll says:

      As our national assets are sold off to private investors, so that Ireland can remain a good compliant little debt slave, pro tem anyway, while at the same time the vulture funds gather over Greece and doubtless Portugal in due course, seeking to profit from the almost certain present default of the oldest democracy in the world (well, oldest ex-democracy now that She sorry It’s being run by unelected technocratic former EU bankers), I’m beginning to see a pattern emerge. The ownership of Ireland by the People of IReland, just as the ownership of Greece by the People of Greece, are becoming historical curios rather than current facts. Nation-states are being replaced by private/corporate technocracies.
      One wonders will the next Great War be fought between corporations and zaibatsus rather than nations or empires? Regardless it’ll still be the poor bloody infrantry gets it in the neck while the scarlet majors cum senior management toddle home to die, in bed. Having done for us all with their plan of attack &c.

    • Desmond FitzGerald says:

      You and your media colleagues Deaglán could do more to change the conversation away from obsessing to how much profit is made to how many jobs a firm retained or created instead of the crude yardstick that if profit doesn’t exceed the previoous year then the business must be doomed.

      Also changing the subject from rich people moaning about tax to questioning their patriotism and asking why is it they won’t pay proper tax – they’ll still have far too much money even if they paid full tax.

      We could also do with a rolling story to cover the expenses and funding of every single elected representative in the entire state from local to EU level but that would mean the person doing it risking their access to the lala world of inside the Oireachtas being cut off.

      So while people need to change their attitudes to these issues they also need to be educated on such issues to show that sitting on your backside and not voting means you lose the right to whinge afterwards or that leaving it to someone else means nothing will change – you have to be part of the solution and decisions are made by those who turn up.

    • peter barrins says:

      The fundamental system of democracy in Ireland is sound – the problem lies with its operation and the range of choices on offer. Or, is this a problem? Do the majority not elect those who best reflect their values and aspirations? It took virtual economic annihilation for the Irish electorate to finally relegate FF to a minority party but there is little difference between FG and FF and so, broadly speaking, the same policies and antics continue. If at the next election the economic situation is unimproved or worse, who will the electorate vote for if they want to administer the same hammering to FG and Labour? I don’t believe that party politics has served democracy well because political parties are not democratic and candidates are often selected using wrong criteria. If I was leading a political party I would be quite concerned at the increased number of independents (many of whom are of a high calibre) elected to this Dail.

    • John O'Driscoll says:

      @12 don’t know if it’s me yer addressing but I’m not sf ca writer wish I was that good. I liked ”Ownership” the best. You might own yer floor mate but you don’t own the ground it sits on no more than the rest of us the People of Ireland don’t own Ireland no more. ”Ireland” might own us, or ye rather, according to the constitutional duties of loyalty and fidelity imposed on Irish citizens, but there’s no reciprocal constitutional ownership of Ireland no more. Being as all EU acts laws and measures are superior to Bunreacht and moreover being as ye’ve traded yer birthrights for a mess of ECB discount window dead tree pottage and 30 pieces of BUSHCO silver which also means you don’t control your ports. Long time since Erskine Childers observed that a Nation that don’t control Her ports is no nation at al lbut it’s no less true for that today.

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