It is not ‘self-hatred’ to point out that our Constitution is not being respected

Opinion: McDowell’s criticisms verge on the creepily authoritarian

Michael McDowell with Bertie Ahern. His self-love seems to have survived his membership of the worst government in the history of the State and his leading of his party to oblivion. Photograph: PA

Michael McDowell with Bertie Ahern. His self-love seems to have survived his membership of the worst government in the history of the State and his leading of his party to oblivion. Photograph: PA


You’re driving along in the old jalopy when the wheels fall off. You call the garage and along comes Michael McDowell. He takes out the owner’s manual for the car. The manual is perfectly fine, he says. You need to get back in the car and get over your middle-class self-hatred and then you can drive off. Believe in the manual. Obey the manual. Be loyal to the manual.

I wrote a column here recently pointing out what I take to be obvious: that each of the three pillars of the State – the executive, the parliament and the justice system – has suffered chronic and systemic failure. For this I have been widely rebuked. Stephen Collins, in The Irish Times, condemned “the unremitting denigration of every single institution of State” and argued that “Far from being a failed State we are a highly successful modern country”. The Sunday Business Post, in an editorial, warned that the implication that “the country is a complete, unrescuable mess which somehow needs to be taken apart and put back together again in some kind of ‘new republic’ is a step too far.”

And, at the Parnell Summer School, Michael McDowell (in comments endorsed by the Business Post) accused me of “wallowing in what I have termed as a middle-class self hatred or negativity”. As well as being neurotic I am also being unpatriotic: he said loyalty to the State and the Constitution demanded loyalty to the institutions of government which “by and large have served the citizens well”. He also said the Constitution had not failed the people and the three pillars of government – legislature, the executive and the judiciary – were not failed institutions “in concept”.

Being accused of self-hatred is a new one – I am usually, and with rather more justice, accused of the opposite. Self-hatred is certainly a fault Michael could never himself be charged with. His self-love has indeed proved to be more impregnable than Fort Knox. It has survived his membership of the worst government in the history of the State; his complete failure as minister for justice to make the criminal justice system fit for the purpose of prosecuting white-collar criminals; leading his party to extinction; his obnoxious trumpeting of inequality as “an inevitable part of the society of incentives that Ireland has, thankfully, become”; and the disastrous consequences of the ideology of low taxes and light regulation that he championed. It has even survived the outrageous folly of paying €30 million of public money for the site of Thornton Hall – which the Comptroller and Auditor General found to be twice the market price. Michael is not perhaps the world’s greatest authority on self-hatred.

But insofar as Michael has an actual point to make, it seems to be twofold. The first is that the three pillars of government have not failed “in concept”. This repeats the (surely apocryphal) story of Garret FitzGerald leading a cabinet discussion about some knotty problem. When presented with a solution he is alleged to have replied, “That is all very well in practice, but how would it work in theory?”

I’ve never suggested the concept of the classic division of powers is wrong. What I’ve written is that each of the pillars is, in real live historical fact, in a deep crisis. The executive (the cabinet) has been downgraded; economic and fiscal decisions are taken by a four-man committee and their unelected and unaccountable advisers. Parliament has failed, time and again, to scrutinise legislation adequately or to hold the executive to account. The justice system has proved incapable of punishing large-scale crimes of fraud, perjury, bribery, tax evasion and corruption that have undermined the State and caused immense harm to citizens. It is striking in this debate no one has suggested any of these statements is wrong. What is implied, rather, is that it is bad form to say these things too clearly.

Michael’s other point, indeed, seems to be that stating these facts is not just bad form – it is effectively treasonous. One must be loyal to “the institutions of government”, even when those institutions are patently failing to do the job they are constitutionally obliged to do. Leaving aside the creepily authoritarian aspect of this injunction, the absurdity is profound. In the name of loyalty to the Constitution we are not supposed to notice that the Constitution itself is being abused by those institutions. The Constitution, for example, gives the Oireachtas the “sole and exclusive power of making laws for the State”. The Oireachtas does not make laws – it passes laws written by the government, in most cases after debate has been guillotined. The Constitution obliges the government to be responsible to the Dáil and to “meet and act as a collective authority” – neither obligation is being met. But loyalty to the Constitution demands that we not say that the Constitution is being ignored the State.

If it’s self-hatred to believe that Irish democracy deserves better than a State that can’t even respect its own rules, pass the flagellant’s whip.

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