Contradictions in grassroots ideals of citizens group


We The Citizens makes assumptions that limit free speech and exclude alternative views, writes RICHARD McALEAVEY

THE RECENT series of three articles on these pages by We The Citizens chairman Senator Fiach Mac Conghail should prompt us to think more deeply about representation, citizenship and democracy.

In a time of major political and economic crisis, not just in Ireland but throughout Europe, We The Citizens proposes to demonstrate that “our Republic could benefit by citizens coming together in new forms of public decision-making.”

Mac Conghail’s articles have been helpful in fleshing out precisely how, in We The Citizens’ view, those new forms ought to work.

But the details reveal the devil. Mac Conghail claims the assemblies proposed by We The Citizens are a threat to political elites. Yet in his articles he accepts, without question, that the conditions imposed on the Irish population by the EU-IMF-ECB bailout are both legitimate and necessary.

He claims, furthermore, that citizen assemblies should be used to ease the passage of legislation to meet these conditions.

But there is a telling contradiction. The policies of austerity imposed to date have concentrated even more power over how society ought to be run in the hands of unelected elites.

In Ireland, the economic adjustment programme signed by the Irish government entails policies that drive up unemployment and drive down wages. At the same time, tens of billions of euro in speculator debts are forced on to the population in order to save the financial system.

These policies – which were imposed, not voted for – will have a dreadful effect on people’s power to engage in democratic activity.

While the central theme of the regional assemblies organised by We The Citizens was citizen empowerment, Mac Conghail implicitly supports policies that will lead to the continued disempowerment of citizens.

If this were any run-of-the-mill civil society initiative, we might be inclined to respond “who cares?” But We The Citizens is not normal. Its name, with the use of the definite article, suggests the group has the power to represent the collective voice of all citizens.

It has received ample funding via a wealthy benefactor [Atlantic Philanthropies] that no ordinary group of citizens could hope to replicate.

In the midst of a political and economic crisis, its media profile has been strikingly high. Its board comprises prominent figures from business, academia, and non-governmental organisations, including the head of corporate affairs at Intel Ireland.

Intel Ireland is a powerful political actor in its own right. In 2009 it spent a six-figure sum on a political campaign supporting the Lisbon Treaty.

Also on the board is Brigid Laffan, the former chairwoman of the Ireland for Europe citizens’ campaign for a Yes vote in the second Lisbon Treaty referendum.

It is hard to imagine that We The Citizens would have received the same attention had its board members included prominent opponents of the Lisbon Treaty.

And yet perhaps the biggest threat to citizen empowerment in coming years will be the centralisation of fiscal decision-making with European authorities.

The Euro-Plus Pact agreed by European governments will mean longer working hours, lower wages, the destruction of collective bargaining rights and the dismantling of welfare states across member states. The consequences for active citizenship will be disastrous.

While in Ireland We The Citizens presents its visions for facilitating the objectives of unelected elites, citizens in Spain and Greece have confronted the political and economic crisis by organising their own mass assemblies in public spaces.

In these assemblies, under the banner of Real Democracy Now!, every citizen is considered equal, with equal importance given to voice of the university professor and the precarious or unemployed worker.

The assemblies are not funded by billionaires and they do not operate according to the prescriptions of experts.

They are a powerful grassroots re-engagement with the basic tenets of democracy and active citizenship.

We the Citizens, on the other hand, solidifies the stratification of Irish society, with oversight from experts and business elites. It presents the image of a flowering of grassroots democracy, but paves the way for a technocratic administration of society, in the interests of wealth and unelected power, all at the expense of the citizens.

Richard McAleavey, a citizen, is a writer and translator who works in the IT sector and lives in Dublin