Three cracked pillars of a failed state

Facing up to State’s failure can allow us begin again

In 1980, in his first Fianna Fáil ardfheis as taoiseach, Charles Haughey described Northern Ireland as a “failed political entity”. He was right, of course. But: black pots, black kettles, glasshouses, stones. There was, and is, more than one failed political entity on this island.

Back then, when Haughey used this infamous phrase, there was a rather sterile argument about partition. Was it a historical inevitability or a grotesque tragedy? We can now see that the answer, as it usually is in Irish history, is “both”. Given the lack of any serious engagement with Ulster unionism by Irish nationalists, partition was probably unavoidable. But that does not make its consequences less drastic. It produced two deeply flawed and ultimately unsustainable political entities.

They failed in radically different ways:, one through violent explosion, the other through slow implosion. The fate of the southern State is much more complex and ambiguous than that of the northern statelet, and it has the immense advantage of retaining the broad allegiance of most of its citizens. Yet those ambiguities should not mask its ultimate failure. And that failure should be seen as a challenge and an opportunity – it invites us to radically rethink the State.

Failure of the State
The failure of the State can be calibrated in many ways: the unwillingness to protect vulnerable citizens from slavery and abuse, the inability to sustain a modest prosperity, the apparently endemic resort to mass emigration, the descent into systemic corruption, the throwing away of hard-won sovereignty, the persistence of structural inequality. But we can also see it even if we look at the State in its simplest expression as a set of institutions.


The State as established under the 1922 and 1937 Constitutions is a classic, three-pillared democracy. It is built on the structure designed in the 18th century by Locke and Montesquieu, the separation of powers between the executive, the legislature and the legal system. But each of these pillars is so badly cracked that any honest inspector would have to condemn the building they support.

This is hardly, at this point, a controversial statement. Every serious observer in recent decades has pointed out, again and again, that the legislature does not originate legislation, scrutinises legislation in a wholly inadequate way (more than half of all Bills under the current Government have been rushed through under the guillotine), and seldom holds to account the executive that, through the whip system, exerts almost complete control over it.

The legal system, meanwhile, has proved itself to be almost entirely powerless in bringing to justice those who commit those crimes that are most corrosive of social order: corruption, fraud, tax evasion, bribery, perjury, market abuse, corporate recklessness. It has therefore failed to uphold its own most basic principle – equality before the law. There is a rough but real distinction: poor criminals go to jail; and rich and/or well-connected criminals enjoy a very large measure of impunity.

The weakness of these two pillars of the State is long established. What is new is the virtual collapse of the third. The executive is now crumbling too. The Constitution is clear about what the executive branch of government is: the cabinet acting as a whole. But cabinet government is now itself in crisis. The most consequential economic decision in the history of the State, the blanket bank guarantee of September 2008, was made when most of the cabinet was not present and when, according to themselves, the absent members had little understanding of what they were agreeing on the phone.

Since then, we have seen that the budget has been passed on for examination by the finance committee of the Bundestag in Berlin before going to the Cabinet in Dublin. And we know, not least from a senior Minister such as Joan Burton, that economic and budgetary decisions are being made not by the Cabinet but by the (all-male) Economic Management Council of Enda Kenny, Eamon Gilmore, Michael Noonan and Brendan Howlin, along with unelected and unaccountable advisors. In the most important areas, cabinet government has been replaced by arrangements outside the constitutional structures of the State.

One might argue that there is in fact a fourth pillar of the State: direct popular sovereignty through referendums. If so, this pillar is cracked, too. The referendum on the Seanad will present us with a “choice” scarcely anyone wants: between abolishing bicameral parliaments and keeping a rotten and absurd institution.

Even without considering failures of policy or achievement, it ought to be obvious that the southern State is a “failed political entity”. Does this mean it is a “failed State” in the same sense as, say, Somalia is? Of course not: we have a functioning Army, police force and bureaucracy and public services that, however strained and inadequate, meet the requirements of a modern society. But it is a failed State in the simple and obvious sense that none of its institutional arms is in working order.

The first step to recovery is honest acknowledgement of the scale of the problem. Piecemeal, symbolic “reforms” will do nothing except deepen the sense of disillusionment. Facing up to failure can give us the courage to start again.