'Democratic renewal' beyond parody

Tue, Nov 20, 2012, 00:00

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.

So what happened? Neither party has told us it has changed its basic analysis. But two other forces are at work. One is institutional inertia. As Ministers settle cosily into office, with all of their astonishing perks, the bad things about the system – such as the lack of accountability and the overcentralised decision-making – begin to look rather nice.

But the other is much more specific: the contradiction between real democratic reform and the realities of imposing the rule of the troika. There’s a simple problem: if you were to really empower citizens, they might get awkward. They might ask questions about why, for example, Ireland can’t afford home help for vulnerable people but can afford an annual splurge of €3.1 billion on dead banks.

Let’s take one concrete example. In its manifesto, Fine Gael promised to “open up the budget process to the full glare of public scrutiny”. But, under the troika regime, the “budget process” consists of secret talks between the troika’s technocrats and officials in the Department of Finance.

The outcome of these talks is then passed, as we know from last year, to the European Commission which sends it on to the finance committee of the Bundestag in Berlin for approval. Far from opening this process up to public scrutiny, the whole point is to keep it secret. Besides, public scrutiny might give citizens the ridiculous idea that they have some function beyond sucking it up, paying the bank debts and providing Europe with a fictional “success story”.

This is why democratic renewal has become such a charade: a decrepit, authoritarian, unaccountable system is much better at doing what it’s told than one in which citizens might be empowered and obstreperous. Thus, the “solution” to the economic collapse ends up copperfastening the very system that did so much to create it.

In this sense, however absurd it may be, the idea of the convention’s anonymous citizens has a ring of truth. If we blindfold them and put tape over their mouths as well, they will be truly representative.

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