We must move from regarding State as enemy and oppressor


ANALYSIS: Peter Mair, who died this week in Sligo, was one of Europe’s foremost political scientists. This is an edited version of his address last month to the MacGill Summer School

I work in the European University Institute in Florence where we do postgraduate research in various disciplines. Shortly before I came to this year’s MacGill Summer School, there was a seminar by one young Norwegian scholar about how countries have been coping over the years with the global crisis, global economy and globalisation with Europeanisation and so on.

He compared New Zealand, Norway and Ireland and he interviewed ministers and civil servants, policymakers, central bankers and so on. And I talked to him afterwards and asked him what lessons he learned in terms of what had gone wrong in Ireland vis-a-vis Norway, leaving aside Norway’s oil.

Norway did better than we did, as did New Zealand. Why did Ireland do so badly? He said he had no easy answer to that at all but one short answer is that if Ireland had had Norway’s ministers for finance or New Zealand’s ministers for finance over the last 10 or 20 years, we wouldn’t be in the problems we are in now.

Now that is fairly shaming for an Irish person to hear; what went wrong and why don’t we already have government and a political infrastructure which can govern us better – which New Zealand has, which Norway has, which the Netherlands has, which Denmark has, which a number of countries have? Whose fault is it?

The simple answer is it’s our fault. We the citizens did this and this is the legacy which we have. So the question is then, what did we do wrong or what should we do to right it, what can we do to right it or can we even right it at all? Is it an inevitable legacy that we are all going to be stuck with and which our children will be stuck with?

Partly, it probably is because there is a very deep and long-term problem here which has often been commented on and often been discussed which would require for its remedy a completely new mindset and a new way of looking at politics and at the State. And it’s not easy to change mindsets and ways of looking at the State.

The problem here is that we don’t respect our State. We have never respected our State. We have never had a sense of belonging for our State. If anything we have viewed the State as the enemy, as an oppressor, as something not to be trusted but to be taken advantage of.

That’s the culture of the cute hoors, the strokes, you get away with it and getting away with it against the State is getting away with something which is not us and doesn’t belong to us but belongs somewhere out there and it is not ours . . . We have in Ireland an electoral system that you might call amoral localism – which is that you do anything you can to benefit your locality and your constituency and your district, and your TD will do anything he can to benefit your locality and your district and your constituency and, in a sense, damn everything else.

That is something that will be very hard to change and it brings me to the second symptom and that’s much more redeemable, at least in my mind. Partly because of the tradition of being hostile to the State and wanting to take advantage of it, we see the State as something you can milk for your own benefit, rather than something you sustain and contribute to.

We have been so busy as citizens in ensuring the representation of our own interests and those of our constituencies that we have lost sight of the broader, collective interest, we have lost sight of that a long time ago. We exert great control over our TDs [but] have never sought to exert any control over our governments.

And the result is a huge vacuum in terms of responsibility and in terms of authority right at the centre of the stage of government. As citizens, we never held our governments accountable for their policies – we are too busy holding our TDs accountable for their local activities.

That had two clear consequences. The first is there was never any pressure from us as citizens to oblige governments to act responsibly. Hence, it was very easy for our governments to be negligent of our interests and we have always allowed them to do so.

Secondly, because of this vacuum . . . other people stepped in and took over responsibility and control of policymaking: the special interests stepped in; the bankers stepped in; the builders stepped in; the church stepped in.

The Government, our TDs and we as citizens stepped out. And then when things went bad, we blamed those with special interests and the powerful lobbies for what went wrong. We can blame the property speculators for the boom they fuelled and we can justly blame the bankers for the reckless lending in which they engaged. We can blame Europe for tempting us with cheap money.

All of that we can blame easily.

And for the destruction caused to the lives of countless children and often to their mothers, we can blame the church.

It’s all their fault – the bankers, the church, the special interests, the builders, the lobbyists. But all of this happened, was allowed to happen on our watch, as citizens and under the auspices of our State which we always neglected and never ever engaged with and never found a sense of belonging to.

And so, despite years and decades of bad government on both sides and of poor performance and of mass emigration and of all of the problems which we know of – and growing up in the west of Ireland I would have seen them on a daily basis – we still stayed with the most moribund political system in Europe and we stayed re-electing the same parties and the same politicians and often members of the same families . . .

In Ireland, we have a very conservative political elite and a very conservative elite political culture. And therefore if anything is to change in Irish politics, it can only come through pressure from the people – from the bottom up towards the system. Institutional change will certainly help but it won’t be enough on its own.

What we need if we are to change Irish politics is a new citizens politics . . . There are two ways to look at what governments do. One is that we can look at what they deliver and the other thing to do is to look at how they deliver it.

Now to me, in Ireland at the moment at least, there’s not much point in emphasising what they deliver as this is out of the hands of any Irish government – it’s in the hands of the EU, of the bankers and the financiers; of the markets and the rating agencies. It’s not in Merrion Street or anywhere else. So you must focus on the process.

If you want a better democracy, we need to do three things, three very simple things. We need to ensure more responsible and transparent decision-making, in other words, we don’t want to see decisions made behind locked doors at three o’clock in the morning out of touch with the people. We want much more transparent and considered and responsible decision-making.

Secondly, we need to involve our citizens and representatives, including [monitoring] the TDs much more closely. We need to have more deliberation like the Citizen’s Assembly, involving citizens but also involving TDs and we as citizens become much more engaged.

And, for the first time, we need to acquire a real sense of ownership of our State and over our State. And that will require a change in mindsets which will be difficult and require a change in behaviour which will be difficult but perhaps in that sense, the crisis can help. After all, why waste a good crisis if you have one?

From my point of view there are at least three things which should be done. These are small things and relatively easy to do but if you look across Europe, maybe important things to do.

The first is we need to reform our electoral system. What sort of electoral system we get instead is more open to question but we need to get away from this multiseat constituency competition which ensures great representation of Irish voters but also leads to amoral localism and this aggregates our voices. Michael D Higgins once said that Irish politics disaggregates the poor – it doesn’t just disaggregate the poor, it disaggregates everybody except the special interests.

Secondly, we need to change the Dáil. We need to get an end to the quiescence and the deference of TDs to their governments. We need to end the quiescence and the deference of the Dáil to the Government itself and to the Executive. And the third thing we need to do, especially now that these issues are being raised with property taxes and new local taxes, is to reform local government. We need to give real power to local government. We need to resource local government properly and we need to require and demand strong local engagement in local government and citizen engagement in local government.

When you look around Europe, you see a relatively bleak and depressing picture. Citizens are very dissatisfied. Citizens are very discontented. Political leaders can do very little. But there is one country which is bucking the trend . . . and showing what can be done and that’s a country which has been promoting more citizen engagement – and that is Denmark. And the first step Denmark has taken is that it has reformed and bolstered and empowered its municipal government. I think that would be a very important first step in Ireland too. That’s were we can begin as citizens to engage in running our own State and taking back control over our own State.

You can listen to Peter Mair’s unedited presentation, and those of other MacGill participants, including Prof David Farrell of UCD, Green Party leader Eamon Ryan, and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, by going to: www.donegalcoco.public-i.tv/core/portal/webcast_interactive/62090

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