Lisbon rejection offers chance to rebuild trust in public life

Fri, Jun 20, 2008, 01:00

A national discussion will require real reform of how our political system operates, writes Elaine Byrne

DEMOCRACY AND reflection. It was practically impossible to walk the breadth of Dublin Castle last Friday without hearing those words. On foot of the Lisbon Treaty rejection, the No side welcomed democracy and the Yes side advocated a period of reflection.

Well okay then, let us do as they suggest and reflect on democracy.

Cicero was a politician in the time of Julius Caesar. During a period of intense political change, Cicero was exiled from Rome. His political arch-rival, Clodius, took this opportunity to demolish Cicero's house and replace it with a statue of Libertas, the goddess of freedom.

Cicero returned from exile and gave a compelling speech to the Roman senate. This famous De Domo Sua speech, over 2,000 years old, translates as "The Case of the House".

This has particular resonance, given recent events at the Mahon tribunal.

The conflict between Cicero and Clodius was fundamentally about the definition of political freedom. It transpired that the Libertas statue was stolen.

Cicero described it as a "polluted, pilfered prostitute" statue that represented the moral lapse of the republic. He equated the loss of his home with the downfall of the republic's political power. He believed that Libertas was the opposite of freedom: "She is not freedom; she is slavery."

Cicero symbolised legitimate political moral authority. He took political freedom for granted. Only through the shock of his exile did he understand that he had to continuously fight for liberty. It was only through the loss of freedom that he began to appreciate her significance.

Clodius's entry to the political arena was very necessary. He created the conditions for Cicero to address the underlying issues of the state. The destruction of his house allowed him to reconstruct it.

The rejection of the Lisbon Treaty offers us the opportunity to rebuild the house of Irish public life.

The Taoiseach advocated a "national discussion" in the Dáil on Wednesday. At the European Council summit yesterday and today, he may refer to the sense of disconnect between the Irish electorate and Europe.

But will he reflect and acknowledge the disconnection between the Irish people and Irish politics? Brian Cowen did not use the word "trust" in his Dáil speech. It was also absent when Cowen and the leaders of Fine Gael and Labour shared the platform at the National College of Ireland before the referendum.

Dublin Castle was the venue of the main count centre where the final results were announced. The EU flag flew in the upper courtyard of the castle, outside the room where the McCracken tribunal heard evidence that Ben Dunne had paid for an extension to then minister Michael Lowry's home.

At the other end of Dublin Castle, the former taoiseach has now spent 12 days before the Mahon tribunal explaining his labyrinthine financial and accommodation arrangements at St Luke's and 44 Beresford Avenue.

To put it plainly, public trust has unquestionably been damaged over the last 10 years because of Michael Lowry's and Bertie Ahern's houses.

Both the Lisbon national count centre and the tribunals resided at Dublin Castle. A clear association may reasonably exist in the public's mind between political integrity and perceived corruption.

Irish politics will now hopefully reassess its foundations and rebuild public confidence in advance of the European and the local elections next year.

Part of that process is an acknowledgment that a deficiency in public trust exists. A telephone poll commissioned by the European Commission in conjunction with the Taoiseach's office found that almost a fifth of respondents voted No because they did not trust politicians or government policies.

A national discussion requires real reform with regard to how our political system operates. Ridiculously flawed legislation on political funding has facilitated political parties in undermining perceptions of their own propriety.

As it stands, approximately €10 million in political donations is undisclosed because political parties do not make their audited accounts publicly available (Irish Times, April 23rd, 2008).

Yet the same political parties complain when the anti-Lisbon group, Libertas, operates under a similar disclosure system and out-finances all the political parties combined.

The proportional representation, single transferable vote electoral system warrants that our national parliamentarians must dedicate a disproportionate amount of time to their local constituency work. Does this prevent meaningful national ideological debate?

Did the referendum campaign alter the traditional dynamics of Irish politics and allow discussion on policy matters such as immigration, taxation and abortion that are generally avoided come hell or high water?

All is not lost. The tone of recent political discourse reintroduced sentiments like "national interest which transcends party boundaries and partisan party politics".

A press release by the Houses of the Oireachtas on the day of the referendum vote noted that "due to a phenomenal response from the public" the 8,000 tickets for the inaugural Oireachtas Family Day were fully taken-up.

As Leonard Cohen sang on the night of the referendum result, "Your faith was strong but you needed proof".

Cicero got his house back. Irish public life must reclaim its house back too, but not of the Lowry or Ahern variety.