A duty to the State

Wed, Jul 25, 2012, 01:00

FORMER ATTORNEY general and minister for justice Michael McDowell said some abrasive things at the MacGill Summer School about media commentators, politicians and wealthy individuals who promote and avail of the rights and protections enshrined in the Constitution while ignoring its balancing requirement to give loyalty to the State and to its institutions. Loyalty to the State, in his view, involved “upholding the law, paying our taxes, not campaigning to boycott taxes or seeking to control our media while paying taxes to foreign states in preference to the Irish State”.

Mr McDowell’s criticisms will, no doubt, bring retaliation from a variety of quarters. Such developments can only benefit public discourse about the kind of society that should be created as the economy recovers. His basic argument, that duties owed to the State receive little public attention compared to the clamour that surrounds the rights and protections of citizens, is undeniable.

He does not regard the Constitution as an a la carte menu, from which citizens may pick and choose, but as a bill of fare involving overlapping protections, duties and responsibilities. Loyalty and fidelity to the State is presented as the correlative duty of citizens who seek its benefits and protections. Warning against allowing public anger and frustration develop into “a collective disloyalty to our democracy”, he declared: “we have a Republic and we, and we alone, bear the ultimate responsibility for the wellbeing of that Republic.”

Mr McDowell found an ally in Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton on the issue of taxation. She complained that some aspects of the Irish tax system failed to command proper allegiance. In particular, she was critical of tax exiles and the “many very wealthy people who, through tax shelters, escape paying the share of their income needed to finance the efforts of the State”. Then, there were those who had prospered in the boom years and now went to extraordinary lengths to put their assets beyond the reach of their creditors, even when those creditors were the Irish people.

On the broader issue of loyalty and respect for the State, Ms Burton warned against debasing the language of political life: “Issues that concern right and wrong, theft and fraud, crime and punishment, merit description in terms that do not mitigate their impact. When we soften our language we suggest there is one law for corporate crime and a different one for ordinary theft or welfare fraud. We become complicit in wrongdoing and that corrodes trust.”

At the same venue, Taoiseach Enda Kenny announced that Minister for Justice Alan Shatter would bring forward new legislation on political and corporate corruption and other forms of white-collar crime. Such measures cannot come soon enough. But the matters raised by Mr McDowell and Ms Burton have a much broader reach in terms of individual and collective responsibility as a quid pro quo for constitutional protection. They cut to the heart of democratic accountability and the duty of loyal citizens.

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