True lesson of Brexit still lost on Irish politicians

Public interest must be prioritised to avoid social and political disintegration

For even the most optimistic, it is hard to see anything positive out of the complete disintegration of political authority and capacity that has characterised Brexit.

However, the solipsistic party politics influencing Brexit may actually have generated one positive impact. In its corroding and eroding impact, it has also have given rise to an emerging and renewed attention to the importance of public interest and how politicians must advance it in their policymaking if they are to heal and avoid a repetition of the social division, disenfranchisement and community abandonment that is at the heart of the Brexit breakdown.

The term, at the very least, is figuring in partisan political battles in the House of Commons. Jeremy Corbyn responded to Theresa May’s offer to resign in exchange for Conservative votes for her deal by accusing her of prioritising her party’s future over ‘public interest’. Resignations from her cabinet over the negotiated Brexit deal, including her own, are framed in terms of ‘doing what is in the national interest’.

However, thankfully, the Brexit crisis has shifted the concept beyond a form for words for acrimonious point scoring. It has helped restore genuine interest in the original meaning of ‘public interest’, or public well-being as a political responsibility. Its absence in politics, as the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams recently put it, “is a recipe for anger, bitterness and stalemate”.


Shared goods

Williams also argues that democracies depend on a “strong and sustained commitment to shared goods, identified by shared argument”. In other words, the public’s interest lies in having policies that protect shared goods, from the most basic, like a functioning health system, good social protection or education systems, or the protection of the climate and natural resources, to the more complex; in the UK particularly, there is the very fundamental and complicated issue of British identity, post-Brexit.

It would be so tempting to dismiss all of this as a very British problem. Unfortunately, however, the very same recipe for anger, bitterness and stalemate, is as relevant to the Irish situation.

Tasc has published four reports over the past 18 months that show clearly that public interest is not a political priority here either. Unfortunately, our political leaders, it would seem, have not yet learned the most important lesson from Brexit – that the public interest must be protected if a functioning and trusted democracy is to be sustained.

The reports have documented clearly how middle- and lower-income groups are struggling financially because of the high cost of housing, health and childcare services – three very basic measurements of a society that is prioritising basic public interest. Furthermore, these public-interest shortfalls are being compounded by job insecurity, precarious contracting and high levels of low pay.

The stark message is that wages and social welfare payments simply cannot keep up with cost-of-living rises in this country. We have a situation today where sick people, daily, are choosing to go to work because they can’t afford to take time off, where people can’t go to work because of the high cost of childcare or where exorbitant rent costs are making housing – that very basic of public interests – a luxury item.

The appropriate policy response in this situation is that we urgently need higher investment in our public services – in particular health, housing and childcare.

The political response to this advice has been muted so far, although we also appreciate that policy change does take time and we are hopeful that decision-makers will take on board some of our recommendations.

However, it is hard not to think that our political leaders are choosing to interpret Brexit as an excuse not to invest in the common good, rather than seeing it as the best reason to act to avoid the same potential fate.

Nativist politics

Ireland has not yet experienced the rise of nativist or populist politics prevalent elsewhere in Europe and the world. Faced with a post-Brexit future, and a new European Parliament where those nativist politics are likely to become more influential, it is even more imperative that Ireland’s increasingly marginalised groups feel more secure – not less secure and abandoned – and importantly that they feel that policymakers are responding to their needs.

Over the course of the Brexit debate, Irish political leaders and commentators have referred to the success of the Citizens’ Assembly as a progressive mechanism for confronting and resolving contentious issues.

The assembly has indeed served Ireland well. But perhaps it is time to put it to its toughest test.

Given particularly that transformative policy change takes time, we believe the Citizens’ Assembly model could be utilised at this critical time to address the most fundamentally contentious issue of all – the cost of living in Ireland and the quality and availability of our public services.

If we had this as the basis for a Citizens’ Assembly it would send out a strong and positive message from our political leaders that they do care about the common good, that they realise that public interest is fundamental to a functioning and modern democracy and that they have indeed learned the most salient message from Brexit.

Shana Cohen is director of Tasc, the independent think tank for action on social change