Five ways to restore Ireland’s pride after recent controversies
‘It is better to have a few good rules and get tough about them, than to have a myriad of regulations that are enforced haphazardly or not at all’
‘One of the failures of Dáil Éireann in recent years has been its inability to respond to scandals by prompt and effective reform.’ Photograph: Getty Images
Proud to be Irish? Definitely. But it isn’t always easy.
Even as President Michael D Higgins last Sunday spoke at Béal na mBláth about idealism, news coming from Rio overshadowed the hard work and achievements of Irish sportspeople and their supporters there. Jokes about what we were hearing served to cover our national embarrassment.
Rio is the latest cloud on an Irish horizon obscured by scandal. Child abuse, banking collapses, multinational tax evasion, gangland murder, drink and drug problems, cynical manipulation of EU environmental policy: the picture is not pretty.
And while people being investigated for alleged wrongdoing in Brazil are presumed innocent of any crime, enough is already known about our Olympic performance this year to say that we haven’t been covered in glory either on or off the field (despite some notable exceptions).
At Béal na mBláth President Higgins proclaimed: “Our founders built well. The structures they fashioned have withstood many challenges thrown at them ever since, and our young State has a remarkable record of stability and adherence to democratic accountability.”
Stability and accountability cannot be taken for granted, and perhaps even long-term critics of Irish public life such as Michael D Higgins underestimated the extent of corruption and compromise in Ireland that has blossomed into view in recent decades.
The idealism of the founders of this state, not just of Michael Collins and Éamon de Valera but also especially the nuanced pragmatic idealism of Arthur Griffith, whom President Higgins failed to mention, could never have created a perfect state.
There is no such thing.
We were never entirely an island of saints and scholars, and never will be. But there are ways to reduce cynicism and render corruption less likely. They include the following five measures.
1 Create an anti-corruption agency that is seen to be proactive across both corporate and public sector areas. One of the failures of Dáil Éireann in recent years has been its inability to respond to scandals by prompt and effective reform. Where there’s a will there’s a way. One reason for certain gleeful if cruel responses to news from Brazil is that people see even in the sometimes questionable actions of Brazilian police a level of response to alleged wrongdoing that is simply not evident here. Cases here are infrequent and slow, are too costly and can have very lame outcomes.
2Stop appointing people to public positions by reference to their connections and ensure that merit is the main consideration. This is not rocket science. Do we wonder that bad decisions are made when clientelism and cronyism, although long lamented, are still acceptable in public life?
3 Political parties should prove their pledges to achieve adequate access to public services. Dáil Éireann’s democratic mandate is not to reduce access to justice, healthcare and education while facilitating private interests or lobbyists. Blatant inequalities, and professional fees out of proportion to the size of this republic, border on the obscene. “Sure what can you do?” is not a policy.
4Protect and resource independent media so that they can speak truth strongly to power and privilege. Internationally, there is an alarming deterioration in the availability of properly resourced and trustworthy investigative media. In Ireland we need a debate about the current quality and role of RTÉ, a register of interests for journalists and programme-makers, and greater monitoring of agendas and bias in the commercial media.
5 Avoid that old political sin of creating rules or standards while failing to put in place the inspectors and other resources necessary to enforce them. It is better to have a few good rules and get tough about them than to have a myriad of regulations that are enforced haphazardly or not at all. Randomness breeds favouritism and exceptions for those with influence.
President Higgins spoke on Sunday about the emphasis of Michael Collins “on the development of resources to satisfy a native frugality rather than any insatiable hunger for accumulation or ostentatious waste”. If Collins is remembered because of his military prowess, Griffith is forgotten in this year of 1916 commemorations precisely because of his unexcited and informed analysis of social and economic realities. Both wanted better than what we now have.
Perhaps the ethos of that Irish Catholic state that we became for so long was not merely “authoritarian”, as President Higgins described it, but a kind of moral fantasy. We learned to project ourselves into an imagined realm of perfection, full of marvellous but impossible rules, while the inevitable shortfalls were blotted out with little consequence in a dark confession box on Saturdays.
Today we wash our dirty linen in public. And the response “Sure what can you do?” is too clearly inadequate. What we can do is create mechanisms of accountability that will never be perfect but that will be better than what we have had in recent years.
Dr Colum Kenny is emeritus professor of communications at Dublin City University.