The coming year will be crucial for democracy
Ireland is in a good place, but we cannot afford complacency in 2018
It could be the year in which Donald Trump’s disgraceful presidency is given a decisive rebuke in the mid-term elections, restoring some equilibrium to American democracy. Photograph: Doug Mills/The New York Times
There is a big difference between being self-confident and being smug. Ten years ago, Ireland entered a new year broadly assured that it would be able to ride out a gathering global financial storm with equanimity.
In fact, 2008 turned out to be a catastrophic year for the Irish economy and the beginning of an awful period for many in Irish society. A decade on, Ireland enters 2018 with good cause for confidence and absolutely nothing to be smug about.
In a turbulent world, we have a relatively stable democracy, a rapidly growing economy and a society that, for all its glaring faults, is still capable of great decency. But we also know from bitter experience that none of this can be taken for granted. We cannot afford complacency, let alone a return to the hubris that proved to be so disastrous the last time we were in such an apparently good place.
What we can say with some confidence is that 2018 is going to be a crucial year for democracy. It could be the year in which Donald Trump’s disgraceful presidency is given a decisive rebuke in the midterm elections, restoring some equilibrium to American democracy.
It could be the year in which Britain finds some way to climb down gracefully from the window ledge of a hard Brexit and returns to the realism and common sense that have long been its touchstones. It could be the year that Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party end their self-defeating standoff and give Northern Ireland voters the political institutions they voted for and badly need in this era of uncertainty.
It could be the year in which the European Union rediscovers its balance after the shock of the Brexit vote and finds its voice as a social project committed to the equality without which political stability is impossible. Or, on the other hand, none of these things might happen and the crisis of democracy may deepen even further.
But Ireland has to do more than merely hope for the best outcomes in the world around us. We might do worse than adapt to our own circumstances the words of Mahatma Gandhi: “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change ... We need not wait to see what others do.” Ireland’s ability, for example, to distance itself from Trump’s most egregious act, his repudiation of the Paris accord on climate change, would be considerably enhanced if we were not Europe’s worst performers on reducing climate harm.
Our ability to argue for a revivified European social project would be similarly enriched if we did not have shameful manifestations of inequality in our crisis of homelessness and in our two-tier health system.
The lessons of a decade ago are clear: throwing money at problems merely to avoid immediate political difficulties is counterproductive
As the fruits of economic recovery finally begin to feed through into opportunities for greater Government expenditure, it will be all the more vital that these long-term questions are prioritised. The lessons of a decade ago are clear: throwing money at problems merely to avoid immediate political difficulties is counterproductive.
The Government’s lack of a Dáil majority and the increasing possibility of a general election must not be excuses for drift and short-term fixes. If Leo Varadkar is to establish himself as a national leader he needs to show an ability to direct resources towards the solution of the underlying failings in key areas of social policy.
Irish democracy, meanwhile, has to give a good account of itself before the world. The referendum on the repeal of the anti-abortion Eighth Amendment to the Constitution will attract a good deal of international attention. We should welcome it as a chance to show that even on such an emotive issue, Ireland has the capacity to conduct a mature, respectful and above all an honest debate.
In an odd way, dealing with the unhappy legacy of the Eighth Amendment dovetails with the other big task of managing Brexit in the best interests of the island as a whole.
In relation to abortion, Ireland will be asked to end its dependency on Britain to deal with realities we have preferred to ignore. In relation to Brexit, Ireland is also being forced to face a future in which it has to move decisively out of the familiar orbit of its bigger neighbour. In both cases, the challenge will be to make these large movements with dignity, with composure and with as little rancour as possible.
At the end of 2018, we will be marking the centenary of the momentous December 1918 UK general election in which Sinn Féin won a majority of Irish seats on a policy of seceding from Westminster and establishing a parliament in Dublin. The republic that eventually emerged from that fateful election will be tested a century on, not least by a different kind of divergence between London and Dublin.
If, this time next year, we are reflecting on its progress, we may be able to say, without smugness, that it has matured into a democracy that can at least deal with its own realities.