All our criticism is dismissed and jibed at, as if we are not really there


RENEWING THE REPUBLIC:Does the Government think its sole duty is to run the State as if it were its own property, writes THEO DORGAN

HAVE POLITICIANS lost the sense of shame entirely? I’ve been thinking about this for a number of years, but the recent resignation from office of minister Willie O’Dea brought the question into sharp focus. He has expressed no shame about his behaviour because he has been formed by a political culture that places no value in personal responsibility, and therefore has become impervious to shame.

O’Dea has made it quite plain that he feels hard done by, and gives every impression of a man who genuinely cannot see what the problem is. The facts seem plain enough: he furnished an affidavit to the High Court that was untrue, and he subsequently changed that affidavit in substantial terms.

He said one thing, had it pointed out that what he’d said wasn’t true, he changed what he said. A mistake. End of problem.

Now Willie O’Dea is a qualified lawyer who has held responsible office in his time; he made an untrue statement to a court (he says by mistake, and we must believe him) and he expects no consequence from his action.

In the ordinary world in which most of us live, this is quite remarkable. Were I to do something similar I should feel I had let people down. I should feel I had exposed a flaw in my character, and I would feel reduced in the eyes of people whose good opinion mattered to me. I hope in such circumstances that I would have sufficient sense of personal honour not to feel that, by dint of having been found out, I had somehow become the victim in the case.

It is not, though, O’Dea’s personal response to the situation he created for himself that saddens me so much as the collective response of his colleagues in Government – and indeed the wider response in some sections of the professional media.

His Taoiseach did not call him to say that he expected a higher standard of ethics from a Cabinet minister of the Republic, his colleagues closed ranks around him with every appearance of heartfelt sympathy, and a significant number of commentators wrote of the whole business as if it were an episode in the value-free sport of politics rather than a grievous betrayal of the trust we must place in an elected government and its members.

O’Dea’s embattled self-pity, his woundedness, is not unique to him. Since the current, entirely predictable, economic crisis broke upon us, the Government has appeared pained by the fact that they are being held responsible for the direct consequences of their actions. As if they were not bound to us in the compact of democracy.

Minister for Justice Dermot Ahern, for instance, feels very sorry indeed for Willie O’Dea, and clearly thinks the poor man was ganged up on for little more than partisan reasons. It genuinely does not seem to have occurred to him that O’Dea has let us all down by his behaviour.

In the face of the most blindingly obvious evidence to the contrary, Minister for Health Mary Harney persists in explaining to us that we are all wrong, that the health service is in fine order.

Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan seems incapable of understanding that many of the reservations being expressed about, for instance, Nama, are genuine, objective, and motivated by a disinterested concern for the common good.

This Government (and in truth much of the Opposition) is in profound denial. Our economic situation is indeed dire, but something far worse is happening all around us.

This democracy of ours is breaking down, on a scale and in a manner that we have not seen before now, principally because there is now a profound contradiction between what we expect of government, and what government thinks it is there for. In my view, the Government now thinks its sole duty is to manage the State as if it were its own property.

How else to explain a committed free-market government riding to the aid of a private profit-making enterprise, bailing out its improvident, reckless and greedy managers and board with public money, our money?

How else to explain the relentless advocacy of the free market by a Minister for Health who has never, as far as I can ascertain, held a job that wasn’t paid for out of the public purse?

How else to explain the extraordinary sense of willed invulnerability to our mass unhappiness with the present state of affairs?

However imperfect and in constant need of adjustment it may be, representative democracy seems the sanest and fairest practical way to regulate the complex business of the modern State. For representative democracy to work, there must be a complex relationship of trust between the ruled and the rulers.

If I am to be ruled, if I am to consent to be ruled, then I must grant government considerable latitude in its decision-making processes provided only and always that government acts honourably, scrupulously, fairly and attentively in the discharge of its business.

It has become terrifyingly clear that this Government is really, truly not listening to us. All criticism is dismissed, jibed at, spun out of meaning – as if we are not really there.

A licence to govern is not carte blanche to do as you please between regrettably necessary elections, to behave wilfully, even stupidly, between polling days, with a mental resolve to gloss over mistakes (and worse) in your pre-election literature in the hope of being returned to the merry-go-round. Government is a process, an ongoing process whose driving force, so to speak, is the constant renewal of mutual trust.

It seems abundantly clear that Irish people no longer trust this Government. Worse, it seems clear, too, that most people no longer trust the professional political class – though many would grant a few exceptions.

It is both glib and cynical to dismiss this lack of trust as glib cynicism – the default position of politicians and of far too many political commentators. The majority of people, in my experience, are decent, straightforward and honourable. They try to do no harm, try to do what good they can, in their families, neighbourhoods and larger communities. We believe, more or less, in justice, compassion, mercy, truth and honour. We expect our rulers (I include our would-be rulers in this) to understand these things and to conduct themselves in public office by the standards we ourselves try to bring to our dealings with others.

A certain amount of grumbling, some of it inevitably misinformed or under-informed, is inevitable in a system such as ours. We are, after all, a nation of hurlers on the ditch. The present situation, however, goes far beyond this. We know that things aren’t working, and we know that our politicians, no matter what they may say, do not understand how radically things are breaking down. They do not, or will not, understand what we understand, see what we see.

We cannot reasonably expect, in a country this size, a government enjoying the luxury of an economist in Finance, a medical professional in Health and so on, but surely, from the massed ranks of the Department of Finance and the Department of Foreign Affairs we could assemble a small team whose sole brief would be to trawl the world to see what initiatives are being enacted with success in other states that might be of help to us?

Let me give some examples of the sort of thing they might propose.

We are haemorrhaging jobs in the small business sector because the banks will not release investment capital to keep these enterprises going. The Greek government has announced a programme of the state-run fund for loan guarantees to small and very small enterprises to enhance market liquidity and support small businesses in paying their current debts. Under the programme, up to 80 per cent of bank loans will be guaranteed by the Greek state for amounts ranging from €5,000 to €300,000 and are intended for the payment of debts to social security funds, tax authorities as well as suppliers. €2 billion has been assigned to the fund.

Why can’t we do this? Does anyone in Finance know about this? A number of economists were warning for five years before the crash that the economy was on the brink of collapse; has anyone thought to bring these people together, pro bono publico, sit them down and examine, dispassionately, what suggestions they may have for getting out of this mess?

The arrogance of a government losing trust in the people is only marginally more dangerous than the despair of a people losing trust in their government.

If we are to survive the present crisis we will need a government prepared to feel shame when it lets us down, prepared to put the national good before party or sectional interest, prepared to listen to, learn from and act upon the collective, unbiased intelligence, including the moral intelligence, of its own people.

A very great deal is at stake here.

Theo Dorgan is a poet. His latest collection, Greek, has just been published by Dedalus Press

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