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.