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Ireland faces its own threats to faith in democratic institutions

Stephen Collins: Trump’s threat to electoral process has implications for entire world

The threat by Donald Trump to thwart the will of the American people represents a crisis for US democracy which has implications for the entire globe. It puts the current dispute in Irish political life over the leaking of a confidential document into perspective.

There is nothing more fundamental to democracy than the acceptance by all those seeking office to abide by the result when the votes are counted. Trump's attempt to pre-empt the outcome and then to cast doubts on the legitimacy of the process has created an appalling vista for the United States.

However it plays out in the weeks and months ahead the foundations of American democracy have been shaken. The “shining city on a hill” which was an inspiration to seekers of freedom all around the globe for more than two centuries appears to be crumbling before our eyes and the implications will be felt everywhere.

As the outcome unfolds it may be worth recalling that the defining moment in Irish democracy was probably not any of the great election victories for one party or another but the manner in which the first government of the State led by WT Cosgrave coped with defeat.


The episode, which is outlined in detail in a newly published book jointly written by this columnist and historian Ciara Meehan*, was the ultimate test of this State’s democratic legitimacy and it should never be forgotten how the leading participants rose to the occasion.

Civil war

In June 1932 the Cumann na nGaedheal government, which had established the institutions of Irish democracy at the cost of a bloody civil war, lost power to the very people who had attempted to destroy it by force just 10 years earlier. There was fevered speculation that the government would refuse to hand over power to its victorious opponents.

Such was the fraught atmosphere that leading members of Fianna Fáil, fearing a coup d'etat, brought guns with them into Leinster House on the day the Dáil met. The other side of the equation was that some leading members of the outgoing government feared that there would never again be a free and fair election if Fianna Fáil took office.

To his everlasting credit Cosgrave remained calm and composed in the wake of the election and accepted without a murmur the decision of the Dáil to elect Éamon de Valera to head the government in his place. "Bitter though it was in party terms, indeed precisely because it was so bitter in party terms, it was his finest hour," was the assessment of historian Joe Lee.

The state of American democracy should give pause to those in this country currently engaged in a ritual bout of political infighting

De Valera also contributed to the democratic legitimacy of the occasion by overseeing a smooth transfer of power and resisting the demands of some supporters for retribution over some of the bloody episodes of the civil war. Only two senior civil servants strongly associated with repressive measures against republicans during the 1920s were moved, not sacked, and the administration loyally served its new political masters.

The acceptance of the democratic verdict of the people was what distinguished Irish democracy from so many other newly independent states in the 20th century where the pattern was for the immediate post-independence rulers to hold on to power by force regardless of the peoples’ verdict.

Potential for mayhem

That is what makes the current situation in the US all the more disturbing. Joe Biden is on course to win both the popular vote as well as the electoral college, but Trump is stoking anger in the hope of overturning the people's verdict. Even assuming that his court actions fail and Biden assumes office in January there is clearly potential for mayhem and violence. By rejecting the legitimacy of the democratic process itself Trump has released forces that may be impossible to contain.

On the positive side Biden has comported himself with dignity and restraint throughout the election campaign and is committed to trying to heal the wounds of division. It would be nice to believe that his soothing approach will calm things down but he faces a monumental task.

The state of American democracy should give pause to those in this country currently engaged in a ritual bout of political infighting and intrigue. Events in the US have demonstrated that a healthy democracy depends on adherence to the basic rules of civilised debate no matter how intense the political competition.

We have our own purveyors of anger and hate who are doing everything they can to undermine the faith of people in the fairness of our democratic institutions. They are often helped by revelations of inappropriate or foolish behaviour by some of our political leaders but they pale into insignificance by comparison with the criminal activities of some critics of the system.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin has shown a steady hand over the past week in the way he dealt with the embarrassment of Leo Varadkar’s inappropriate leak of a confidential document. He was right to focus on the big picture and tell his TDs that this government will ultimately be judged by how it handles the big issues of concern to ordinary people such as Covid, housing and the economy.

* Saving the State: Fine Gael from Collins to Varadkar by Stephen Collins and Ciara Meehan (Gill Books)