Writing in Socialist Voice, socialist activist Tommy McKearney asks:
What on earth is going on in the Republic of Ireland—or, more to the point, what form of governance is operating in that 26-county state?
Reflect for a moment on some of the issues undermining the well-being of society. A banking collapse that first resulted in a massive debilitating debt being loaded onto the public, that was then followed with a NAMA fire-sale of Irish assets, allowing foreign vulture funds to make enormous profits. Then there is a serious homelessness crisis, demanding a major public house-building programme that the Government refuses to embark on, in spite of historically low borrowing rates.
Follow that with a health service in disarray, and add in the confusion surrounding how best to address Brexit. And of course we have the seemingly endless series of controversies involving the Gardaí.
The Dáil is apparently unable to deal directly or decisively with these issues, any one of which would create questions about the Government’s competence but taken together undermine its very authority. In place of a confident and capable Government we find it reacting ineptly to the politics of the latest scandal, resulting in yet another commission of inquiry.
A recent article in the Irish Times reported that twelve such tribunals and commissions of investigation are under way at present, and the number is due to grow. Moreover, we have a lame-duck Taoiseach whose departure date appears to be receding with every passing day.
The situation is so serious that it reminds one of the tongue-in-cheek comment made by Brendan Behan when he suggested apologising to the British and asking them to come back and govern us from Dublin.
Let us be clear, though: this is not running with the old imperialist slander that the Irish are incapable of self-government. The problem rests with the present Government, the main opposition party, and even the nature of the governing institutions. Together they have surrendered economic sovereignty, and demonstrate an alarming lack of ability to confront powerful interest groups—and we’re not referring to the trade union movement, with which they are clearly all too happy to do battle.
In a nutshell, there is an absence of direction of governance in the Republic, epitomised by the series of scandals that have taken place within the Garda Síochána. Everybody is aware of the apparently endless revelations of incompetence, extending in some cases to corruption, within the police force of the Republic. Matters that would give rise to enormous concern in any state appear to be entirely beyond the remit of the government to rectify. Under circumstances that demand a root-and-branch change of Garda management, the Fine Gael-led government is reluctant to tackle the force’s hierarchy and initiate reform.
Nor is Fianna Fáil, the largest opposition party, anxious to bring the issue to a head. Mícheál Martin is asking the commissioner to consider her position; but will he withdraw support from the coalition if O’Sullivan and her senior officers are not replaced with a competent authority?
The policing fiasco is symptomatic of a wider and more general malaise within the Irish political system. Having surrendered economic sovereignty to the EU and global finance houses, the Republic’s political ruling class has gradually lost its ability to chart its own path, and this failing eddies across much of its actions. While adept at holding on to office, they have nevertheless lost their way and are bereft of any clear idea about how to steer the state independently—as distinct from responding to pressure from agencies over which working people have little or no influence. In essence, this amounts to a loss of republican sovereignty.
This is evident over a range of issues but is particularly obvious in relation to the state’s implementation of the European Union’s neo-liberal agenda. Among many self-inflicted injuries arising from membership of the EU there is the surrender of natural resources, participation in the euro zone, and capitulation in 2010 to the EU Central Bank. Now we are learning of threats from the EU commissioner for the environment, Karmenu Vella (conveyed conveniently in a letter to a Fine Gael member of the EU Parliament, Brian Hayes) that the EU is still demanding that we pay additional water charges, in spite of the fact that a majority of TDs claim they are opposed to doing so.
The answer to the lack of meaningful sovereignty is not simply changing the faces in the Dáil. The immediate cause of the difficulty lies in blind adherence to market-driven neo-liberalism. Dublin governments are forced to rule against state intervention in finance, housing, health, and transport, insisting that the market must decide. Nor is this list finite, as practically all other areas are under review for privatisation.
This arrangement benefits the ruling class, who adhere to the policies of deregulation demanded by free-market capitalism, and do so at the expense of working people.
The problem is compounded by the nature of the Republic’s governing institutions. Without lapsing into juvenile ultra-leftism, our representative bourgeois democracy, regulated through pro-establishment media, suffers inadequacies. While the ability to periodically select or reject a government is a precious right, its value is diluted by the power and influence of media that all too often set the parameters of discussion and debate, the most recent example being the coverage of Bus Éireann workers on strike. Instead of focusing on the need for a comprehensive public transport service, reportage concentrated on the inconvenience to travellers while failing to mention the long-term consequences of a purely profit-driven network. The result has been to provide a smokescreen for the unmentionable Shane Ross, allowing him to escape responsibility for degrading a vital service.
Clearly there is a need to improve on the quality of our democracy in order to ensure that the working class is not further disadvantaged. We have seen over the recent past how a popular mass movement such as the anti-water tax campaign has influenced politics in the Republic. It is necessary to draw lessons from this example and create structures that would facilitate similar intervention in other areas.
Organised labour has the ICTU, through which trade unions find a platform for meeting and discussing issues of mutual importance. Wider society might well consider establishing something similar that would mobilise popular support on matters of real importance to working people.
Incapable of dealing decisively with a range of important issues, the Irish ruling class is not so much in crisis as unable to deal effectively with a crisis. They may remain in place for a time, but in the event of another economic downturn or crash they will fail again.
It is important therefore that the working class have a coherent structure around which to rally. With the centenary of the first Dáil approaching, it must surely be worth considering convening a People’s Assembly to do just that.