Obama's day in the sun shows up dull Dáil tribute

Wed, Jan 21, 2009, 00:00

The two gatherings of our parliamentarians yesterday offered no sense that they are dedicated to ensuring society’s wellbeing, writes Vincent Browne

WE WILL remember Tuesday, January 20th, 2009, but not for the dreary commemoration in the Mansion House of the 90th anniversary of the first meeting of the First Dáil. It will be because an extraordinary human being, carrying the expectations of billions of the world’s humanity, became president of United States of America at a time of most extraordinary crises, in a ceremony that was so moving.

Barack Obama is certain to disappoint because of the weight of those expectations aside from misgivings about his cabinet and advisory appointments – and misgivings about his commitment to ongoing war in Afghanistan and his support for Israel.

But those misgivings were for another day. January 20th was for celebration of the election of a man as president, whose father, as he said himself “less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant”. A man whose early life was punctuated by racism, anger and bewilderment over his own identify. A man of exceptional gifts of intellect, discipline, insight, civility and empathy.

The spectacle of the millions in Washington watching the inauguration and the knowledge that perhaps billions around the world were part of the event was itself inspiring.

The speech was beautifully composed and hit all the themes of his politics: equality and sharing the wealth (he did not use the phrase but it was there, repeatedly, implicitly); environmentalism; a call to community, sharing and kindness; the implied commitment to the poor of the world by the reference to the small village in west Kenya where his father was born and lived much of his life; as well as the defiance in the face of perceived enemies. His own good humour, his informality, that civility – magnificent.

Seven dull speeches and one good speech, many longer than Barack Obama’s inaugural address, were what passed for the commemoration of the First Dáil. Each speech celebrated Irish parliamentary democracy; only one, the good speech, expressed any reservations about parliamentary democracy itself or how it had evolved here.

The good speech, Enda Kenny’s, contained a generous tribute to Irish parliamentarians who were not present at that First Dáil meeting, the old Irish Parliamentary Party of Charles Stuart Parnell and John Redmond. Nobody mentioned the other absent members who chose not to be present, the 26 unionists elected also in the December 1918 election.

Enda Kenny spoke of how the executive branch of government now overwhelmed (my word) the Dáil and of the necessity that the Government and all State agencies be fully accountable to the Dáil. His point was that the Dáil now has no such overseeing role.

The drab proceedings went on for an hour and a half and then the current TDs made their way over to the Dáil’s largely vacuous parliamentary proceedings. Not that the issue discussed was not of significance: the nationalisation of Anglo Irish Bank. But the proceedings made nonsense of any pretence of any parliamentary democracy, except in its formalities.

The outcome of the debate on the Bill on nationalisation was already a given: the deputies of the Government parties would vote en-bloc for it, even though none of them would have had an iota of input to it. Nor would it have mattered to these deputies what anybody said in the course of the debates and, in any event, all but a handful of them were out of the chamber while most of the debate went on.

The Government, ostensibly responsible to the Dáil, decided what the Dáil would legislate and the Dáil obediently did so. The Dáil wasn’t even informed what the potential cost of this measure might be, the scale of any financial commitment, the likelihood of success or of collapse. Nothing. And the Dáil was given just a few hours to go through the pretence of scrutinising the Bill placed in front of them before being forced through the voting lobbies.

And this is the parliamentary democracy that was so celebrated earlier yesterday.

There was a more serious issue than even that. The legislation arose from the conduct not just of one financial institution but of them all, for they are now all in crisis. A small number of financial institutions, entirely outside any democratic control, have assumed enormous power and have become so integral to the wellbeing of society that they cannot now be allowed to fail.

These same institutions have behaved with reckless greed, which threatens to vandalise the entire community. And now that they have brought about their own near-collapse, we, the rest of society, are forced to rescue them at potentially catastrophic cost.

What perhaps is most surprising is that none of the main parties have said that never again can we allow institutions so central to the wellbeing of society to remain outside democratic control.

Our fate depends not on our domestic leadership, but on Barack Obama. If he succeeds in rescuing the American economy, in grappling with climate change, in bringing peace to the world, we have a chance. If he falters . . .

But for yesterday, Tuesday, January 20th, 2009, we hope: yes he can.