Scandals in Ireland and Britain reveal political deficit


OPINION:Abuse and expenses disgrace casts a long shadow over the motivation of political elites in both nations

REVOLUTION CONJURES up images of barricades and soldiers with old rifles bursting into sumptuous palaces. Since modern revolutions are usually less melodramatic we risk overlooking them.

Most of us are familiar with that lone protester, plastic bag in hand, and a tank in Beijing’s Tiananmen square 20 years ago. On the same day, half a world away, another revolution was taking place. It was more successful, of greater global significance, but less telegenic. Its icon is a fairly shoddy table.

Actually, it’s 14 tables adapted and assembled into one giant round table, and it sits in Warsaw’s Koniecpolski Palace. On June 4th, 1989, Poland held its first relatively free elections in a long time – arguably its first. Solidarity candidates won all the non-reserved seats in the Sejm, so Poland had to develop a joint system between the state’s communist apparatus and the people’s representatives. This in a state with massive Soviet forces on its territory, and one where the Catholic church wielded considerable authority.

Polish representatives negotiated their bloodless revolution around the hastily assembled table where all could sit as equals.

One person facing a tank is considerably more telegenic than a group of people sitting around a table, but the table may be a better icon for modern revolutions.

Revolutions are always about failure. The failure of the status quo to perform or reform, and sometimes its failure to do both. Pressure for reform usually builds slowly but when reasonable demands are ignored, pressure mounts until one day it explodes, often triggered by something relatively anodyne.

The ghastly Ceausescu regime in Romania fell when a dragooned crowd booed the dictator as he tried to placate them with modest pay rises in December 1989. The pay rises and the boos were symptomatic of the eventual uprising, not causes. Romanians had long had enough.

Failure to perform is more obvious and dramatic. Reaction to such failure is rarely instant, it needs to simmer before erupting.

In August 2005 hurricane Katrina demonstrated a defining failure of the Bush administration. It would take the American people over four years to transform their desperate anger into the notice to quit which they served last November.

Our neighbouring North Atlantic islands now offer us jaw-dropping, gut-wrenching and deeply humiliating examples of different, and fortunately fairly unique, combinations of governmental failures to perform and reform.

London and Dublin suffer from stumbling fag ends of governments in their third terms. New Labour and Fianna Fáil subscribed to the doctrine of greed being good and embraced a blind faith in speculative wealth. Peter Mandelson’s intense relaxation “about people getting filthy rich”, or our Charlie McCreevy’s definition of failure as not driving an upmarket car, neatly expressed that myopia.

Pick any economic element you like, including your last payslip, for a demonstration of their economic failures.

The UK is reeling from the exposures of its parliamentary expenses saga. My personal favourite is that of the home secretary, Jacqui Smith, finding time in her busy schedule to make an 88p claim for a replacement bath plug.

Behind the examples of greed and corruption lies a century of failure to reform governance. The self-proclaimed Mother of Parliaments persists in deluding itself about living in a constitutional monarchy. A monarchy yes, but not a constitution in sight.

The Baldrick-like concept of the “Crown in Parliament” describes the transfer of hereditary power to an elected executive. One house of parliament is unelected, the other cannot even offer seats to all the people’s representatives. A majority of British electors have voted for the centre-left (Labour and Liberal) in every election since 1945, yet the Conservatives have ruled for the majority of those years because of a refusal to reform the voting system.

Last week’s Report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abusespeaks excruciatingly painful volumes about the failures of our own State. Tens of thousands of Irish children suffered decades of, to use the editorial terms of The Irish Times,“torture” and “slavery”.

The individual torturers failed, the religious orders failed, and the State that committed those children and paid for their keep, failed. Our governments, born of a revolutionary proclamation promise to “cherish all the children of the nation equally” failed utterly in abdicating their duty of care to private “congregations”, then declined to police them. And when confronted with this litany of failures, the State then agreed that the taxpayers should foot the bill for it all.

The two centre-right genuflecting parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, have headed every government since the creation of our State. They prefer the quiet life of being in office to the stress of actually governing. Vital national tasks are contracted out and veiled over, difficult children to the abusing church, zombie banks to a yet-to-be-designed National Assets Management Agency.

Voters in both countries shortly face European and local elections, and in Ireland’s case a couple of byelections.

If British voters punish failing Labour and unconvincing Tories, it could mark the emergence of a modern democracy across the water. If we punish our failed Fianna Fáil, and our fumbling Fine Gael, it could mark the beginnings of a real republic here.

A British “bathplug” revolution, and an Irish “torture” one?

Iconic – and overdue.