Who is paying the penalty?
Humility is not a quality that Irish political culture seems to be over burdened with. It could well be argued that humility is one of the first qualities to be jettisoned in the pursuit of a successful political career. One would hope that those pursuing a career in politics do so with their heart full of an altruistic sense of public duty and a desire to fight for the greatest good for the greatest number of people; you would hope that people look beyond the local and the immediate to think nationally and in the long term. Many may well launch themselves steeled by this zeal only to have it stripped away by the reality of our political culture. The truth of the political arena in Ireland is that it has been overpopulated by an incestuous ruling-class and quasi-hereditary seats in the Dail. So as this bloated edifice became beyond parody in the final throes of the Celtic Tiger, we hoped, given Ireland’s fall from grace and the punishment doled out to Fianna Fáil at the ballot box, that the surviving politicians of Ireland would notice the sea change and act accordingly.
This of course has not happened, due mainly to the reason that Ireland had its sovereignty signed away by the last shower, who gave the new Government ready made excuses for their policies. The harshness of our government’s policies is not the focus of my ire on this occasion, rather it is the continued absence of any humility on behalf of our politicians and complacency among the Irish electorate in expecting more from their representatives. There are plenty of bogey men to point the finger at in Government, not least ‘Big’ Phil Hogan, a man blessed with an ego and sense of righteousness which would not seem out of place amongst the cartoonish villains of the WWE. Rather it is the political culture and the lack of its evolution which has brought me to the keyboard today.
On the front page of the Irish Examiner 8/04/2013, former Ceann Comhairle and current Fianna Fáil TD Seamus Kirk said it was as easy as picking up the phone to get rid of penalty points. There is a constitutional clause which exempts TD’s from road offences if they are on their way to take part in a Dáil vote. This was a clause left over from the Civil War and by right should be exorcised from the constitution. However, more telling about the political culture in Ireland is the revelation of the willingness of constituents to ask their TDs to get penalty points squashed for them, this kind of localism and clientalism is one of the objectionable practices we would have hoped would have been left behind after the last election. The Gardaí have since had an internal investigation, where it was found that, while penalty points have been squashed, nothing corrupt has occurred. This is a staggering example of a worrying culture within the Gardaí, our politicians and ourselves. An offence has been committed and there is nothing corrupt about asking the Gardaí to get rid of the punishment. What has set alarm bells ringing is how this seems to have infected some of the newest members of the Dáil.
The last election, lest we forget, is when the Irish people put down the ‘Bolly’, stepped away from artichoke canapé and voted to punish the political culture which we had allowed to flourish by allowing them to dope us up to the gills with cheap money. “Down with that sort of thing!” was what we bellowed from the ballot box. Fine Gael stomped away with a record number of seats but what was more interesting was the emergence of independents who represented, they claimed, the ordinary person on the street and promised to ask the difficult questions.
Archaic parliamentary processes make it difficult for a lone voice to have any affect and so this motley crew banded together despite having ideologies that ranged from Claire Daly on the left and Shane Ross on the right. Included in this group we have Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan, a man who has undergone an interesting evolution; from outsider-agitator sending joints to TDs in an effort to legalise marijuana, to the Mayor of Roscommon and now an independent TD promising to protect turf-cutters in his locality. He is one individual who has recently found himself in trouble for having penalty points squashed. This is an issue that he campaigned against – Gardaí corruption – so I hope the irony hasn’t been lost on him (although judging by the beard he has been sporting, perhaps Ming and irony are not familiar bedfellows).
The issue of the penalty point squashing may appear to be a small fish compared to the problems facing Ireland on a day-to-day basis. The public service is on the verge of a mass walk out over pay and conditions so why do I concern myself with issues that pale in significance in comparison? The reason is that this is a systemic problem, one which permeates through every level of decision making. It is the culture which will force homeowners in unfinished estates across the country to pay the property tax despite the fact they are living in estates that are continuing to degenerate. It is a culture that has, two years on from the general election and five years on from the beginning of the economic collapse, endorsed a government which seems to be incapable of standing up to the banking system in Ireland. We are still no closer to sorting out a deal which takes the proposition of evictions off the table for families across the country. I’m not talking about debt forgiveness here but there are many other options such as equity for debt which are viable.
It seems that the cosy relationship between our political class and the banking sector continues despite the pain and suffering which it has caused in the last five years. Perhaps the margin of their election win has meant that Fine Gael have become complacent in their position as Ireland’s biggest party but it is the very lack of political cultural evolution which they should be wary of. They may well suffer a double whammy of being in charge when there is no money with difficult and unpopular policies to be made (see Cameron’s Conservatives in Britain who are on their way out after one term but are determined to dismantle as much of the state as possible before they leave) and the willingness of the Irish electorate to forgive and forget about Fianna Fail’s ineptitude when they last had their hands on the wheel. One should always be suspicious of mid-term popularity polls but there is the very real prospect of Fianna Fáil making a significant recovery before the next election.
So, are we, in fact, responsible for the lack of development in our political culture? Have politicians, bankers and developers driven us into this quagmire because we have allowed them to? A former History professor of mine, who is of some note, told us that we were ‘face down in the trough for too long’ and that we are all culpable for letting this culture to develop. We were bought off with tax cuts, cheap credit and second homes and we allowed this attitude of arrogance and ‘cuteness’ to fester.
There is an intriguing email exchange between two heavyweights in the theory of Power, Stephen Lukes and Clarrisa Hayward, debating the role of responsibility and agency in power. To try and sum it up would be a fool’s errand but here we go anyway. Lukes’ case is that full responsibility must lie with the actors, whereas Hayward puts forward the case that the social constructs of society influence greatly the actions of actors – essentially that society creates the parameters under which abuses of power are exercised.
What have we done to change this? We elect on local issues and we tolerate abuses of position and power and we solicit abuses to have our own penalty points squashed. Look across the water, to Britain where Chris Hune MP is facing prison time for asking his wife to take his penalty points. I’m not being unrealistic here, I’m not asking for whiter than white politicians who never put a foot out of step and I am aware by continuing to use words such as ‘evolution’ that time is required.
What we should, at a bare minimum, be asking for is transparency and accountability from our politicians, those at least would be steps in the right direction in arresting the decline in the relationships between the people and the officials we put into power. Then when faced with honest and open assessment of their work perhaps we can reassess our own actions and motivations at the ballot box beyond our own selfish desires.