Informed debate, not wild charges, required for proper approach to political reform
Sense of national self-loathing that permeated some summer school speeches is a little worrying
The State has been resilient, and withstood the threat from the IRA, which attempted to harness national pride for an evil purpose. Photograph: Getty
The silly season is in full swing with “summer-school speak” and “wild rantings”, to use the colourful terminology of former Fianna Fáil deputy leader Mary O’Rourke, filling acres of newsprint and hours of air time.
Irish parliamentary democracy and its institutions have been dismissed by prominent pundits as representing nothing less than “a failed state”, “a perversion of the human rights ideals of 1916” dominated by “unaccountable elites”.
While exaggeration is allowable and even necessary to get attention in the lazy days of summer, the sense of national self-loathing that permeated some of the summer school contributions this year was a bit worrying.
Of course our democracy is far from perfect and needs reform on a number of fronts. But the unremitting denigration of every single institution of State can be corrosive and, ultimately, destructive of democracy itself.
A theme running through most of the criticism was a contempt for almost all elected representatives and thus for the electorate itself. If our TDs can be dismissed as “poltroons” then the voters who elect them are clearly no better or are, at best, in the grip of “false consciousness”.
There is a clear frustration among some intellectuals that in the face of the recent economic and financial storm the Irish electorate chose to stick with the old reliables, Fine Gael, the Labour Party and even Fianna Fáil rather than embracing some new form of politics.
‘Elections belong to the people’
In response it is worth quoting one of the most inspirational political leaders of the past 200 years, Abraham Lincoln, who remarked: “Elections belong to the people. It’s their decision. If they decide to turn their back on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters.”
At present the Irish electorate is still sitting on the blisters of the boom years which arose as a direct result of its weakness for populist politicians and their easy solutions. Hopefully, voters will have drawn some lessons from the experience but, ultimately, the choice is theirs.
One way of trying to minimise the danger of a return to irresponsibility would be a genuine programme of political reform. Despite all the promises made in opposition, the performance of the Coalition on this issue has to date been deeply disappointing.
Most of the issues referred to the constitutional convention are not central to a real reform agenda. And some of them, such as the reduction in the voting age, look like trivial publicity stunts.
The dilemma facing any government is that genuine reform will inevitably involve a diminution of its own power and make the decision-making process messier and more protracted. Given the range of serious problems facing the country, the temptation is to postpone reform while ploughing ahead with the task of getting the economy back in order.