'Democratic renewal' beyond parody
You have to feel sorry for Mario Rosenstock, Paul Howard or anyone else who tries political satire in Ireland. Their mode is comic exaggeration of the absurdities of the system, but exaggeration proves impossible. The reality is consistently more absurd than the parody.
Who, for example, could possibly have thought up the latest and most ludicrous twist in the Government’s “political reform” programme – the revelation that the citizens in the constitutional convention will be anonymous?
This great jury sitting in judgment on the dire failures of our political system will be like the hooded monks before whom victims of the Spanish Inquisition were tried.
The Government is happy for the convention to be made up of people who are too timid to show their faces. Behaviour Attitudes, the polling company, was employed to pick the 66 citizens who will join 33 politicians on the convention.
It found, we are told, that some of those it chose were “reluctant to be in the public eye”. This is like picking the Irish swimming team from people who are reluctant to get wet or putting together an Irish expedition to Everest from people who don’t like the cold and are afraid of heights. The obvious response to such concerns was to move on.
There is, after all, an important symbolism in all of this. The whole point of a process of democratic reform is to restore to citizens their sense of collective self-respect. The Irish political philosopher Philip Pettit defines a republic as the condition in which everyone can be “sufficiently empowered to stand on equal terms with others, as a citizen among citizens . . . able to walk tall, live without shame or indignity and look one another in the eye without any reason for fear or deference”.
That notion of being able to look one another in the eye is at the heart of any half-serious democratic renewal. A democratic renewal led by people who can’t meet the eyes of their fellow citizens is an oxymoron.
Let’s remember where this whole thing started. Both Government parties went into last year’s general election with an analysis that linked the economic collapse to the decrepitude of our political system. Fine Gael put it most succinctly: “a broken system of government and politics . . . is at the heart of Ireland’s economic collapse.”
This is obviously true. Corruption, cronyism, the lack of accountability at all levels of public life, the pursuit of short- term political gain at the expense of sustainable progress – these were the toxic ingredients that made disaster inevitable. But something follows from this analysis. If broken systems of governance and politics were at the heart of the economic collapse, there can be no economic recovery without what Fine Gael called “radical root-and-branch change”. Both Government parties agreed that the key driver of this change would be entirely new ways of involving citizens in the decisions that affect their lives.