A NEW VISION OF THE FUTURE IS WITHIN OUR GRASP
Peadar Tóibín TD, Sinn Féin spokesperson on Enterprise, Jobs & Innovation
One of the problems with modern politics is that it depends of the oxygen of publicity to survive. As a result it is forced to hungrily follow an accelerating media cycle that leaves little time for long term politics.
The problems that exist in society don’t disappear when the front page headlines flit on to the next big thing. The problems of society demand considered reflection. They demand perseverance and the commitment to make slow and steady progress when the heat of the media spotlight has been redirected. I welcome this opportunity for reflection and listening to ideas that the MacGill Summer School presents.
I am the first Sinn Féin TD for Meath since Liam Mellows was elected in 1918. It’s a massive honour for me. Mellowes, as you will know, is a republican giant and even in the modern world the gravity of his ideas pulls you in. When elected, Mellows chose to ignore Westminster and take his seat in the First Dáil in Dublin. This was an all-Ireland parliament elected by the people, but denied the powers to govern by England. His republicanism, like previous generations, was driven by the belief in the universal democratic rights of the people, government of the people of Ireland, by the people of Ireland, for the people of Ireland.
These rights have been articulated through generations of republicans from the United Irishmen, the Fenians and the Volunteers. They were writ large on the doors of the GPO on Easter Sunday and on the walls of Long Kesh and Armagh. It may sound trite or even naive to the modern ear, but the revolutionary founding fathers of the first Dáil sought that self-determination, equality and justice would not be secondary to personal self-interest or the interest of institutions.
The structures of a state do not exist in isolation. They are created and operated by people. Governance structures sit, within and on, the prevailing political culture of society. Political culture affects governance structures and governance structures affect political culture. The relationship is interdependent. A culture at odds with good governance structures will impede their operation. In the past, the colonial governance structures of Ireland contributed to our anti-establishment culture.
As a republican I believe that decisions should be made as close to the people they affect as possible. This allows for decisions to reflect the needs of society, but it also confers and incentivises a culture of accountability and responsibility amongst those making the decisions. The creeping federalisation of the EU works against this principal. It mismatches needs and policy implementation, but it also disempowers society and nurtures a culture of dependence.
There are many influencers of political culture and one such is capital. That capital would create influence is not wrong in itself as long as it is a secondary motivation deferential to the needs of citizens. As a spokesperson for Enterprise, Jobs and Innovation, I represent on a daily basis the commercial needs of small to medium-sized businesses. But this is always tempered by the primary rights of citizens. When this priority hierarchy is confused or reversed it has a detrimental effect on the governance structures of societies. This can be seen at the micro level as corruption, and at a macro level as the status quo where the whole of society is orientated to become the debt repayment agency of private banks.
Writing in notes smuggled out of gaol in 1922, Liam Mellows wrote prophetically:
‘Ireland does not want a change of master. It would be folly to destroy English tyranny in order to erect a domestic tyranny that would need another revolution to free the people. The Irish Republic stands, therefore, for the ownership of Ireland by the people of Ireland. It means that the means and process of production must not be used for the profit or aggrandisement of any group or class.’
Given the time that we live in, it is frightening to reflect that he added:
“Ireland, if her industries and banks were controlled by foreign capital, would be at the mercy of every breeze that ruffled the surface of the world’s money-markets’.
Another influence on political culture and therefore of governance structures is that of the media. There are a number of high quality media outlets in Ireland and our political culture and governance structures owe much to them.
But in general terms the media market in Ireland is that of an oligopoly, concentrated in the hands of a few ultra-wealthy business men and big British media houses. Massive influence is wielded, a portion of which is motivated by private capital needs. The Leveson Inquiry in Britain illustrated the awesome power of a self-serving media mogul who chastened every British Prime Minister from Margaret Thatcher to Tony Blair.
A healthier political culture and therefore healthier governance would significantly benefit from the diversity of perfect competition within the media market. I fear that few governments have the metal to take media oligarchs on.
I believe that the border is a significant and an often over-looked influence on political culture and governance. At the time of the treaty, Liam Mellows and his fellow republicans forecast this point. They feared that, after partition, establishments would develop both north and south. In time, these establishments would realise that the border was integral to retaining their elevated positions. If the border was removed a new political dynamic would develop and it would threaten the status quo of their establishment position.
In my view this has come to pass. The establishment parties this side of the border articulate an anaemic pro-unity message but they know full well that the erasing of the border would weaken their position in any new Irish republic.
For Sinn Féin the removal of the border is not just a political objective, it’s a practical necessity. Functioning on both sides of the border is not easy, and is a constant motivation for its removal.
When we have a debate on reforming the fundamental structures of our republic it’s important to remember that the structure and relationships of Ireland north and south are not set in stone. There is a new fluidity in our governance that is seldom recognised. This change has been brought about through the peace process, the Good Friday Agreement and the St. Andrews Agreement.
In the north, we have institutions based on power sharing and dependent on functioning all- Ireland and East-West Bodies – institutions underpinned by equality legislation. Importantly the constitutional position is no longer fixed and by extension neither is the governance of either of the Irish jurisdictions.
The Good Friday Agreement provided for constitutional change based on the wishes of the people as expressed in referendums north and south. We now have the ability to deliver full Irish independence, an agreed and cordial union of the people of Ireland. A new blank canvass awaiting this generation’s vision of the future is within our grasp. We have an opportunity to build new structures and develop a new political culture. We have the gift of hindsight to help us avoid the mistakes of the past.
As a political activist my focus is not on whether this change is likely or unlikely. My job is to realise the potential for change.
I believe a truly functional national parliament would benefit diversity in Ireland, north and south. This diversity would help realign our politics from the faux factionalism of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. Unity can be the reboot button to introduce badly needed political realignment.
The upcoming Constitutional Convention should be an opportunity for all the citizens of the nation to shape a new constitution for the future. However my experience as cathaoirleach of the Investigations, Oversight and Petitions Committee does not fill me with confidence. In the Programme for Government, Fine Gael and Labour promised a new Investigations, Oversight and Petitions Committee of the Oireachtas. It was to be a powerful committee, constructed on the lines of the Public Accounts Committee, bi-partisan in structure and chaired by a senior member of the opposition. Fine Gael and Labour even held a referendum in October in order to increase significantly beyond the current constitution, the power of investigations within the committee structure. As you know this referendum was rejected by the people.
Our committee, the proposed Investigations and Petitions Committee proceeded in our work, and after dozens of formal and informal research meetings, our all party committee decided to seek the full limits of the powers available to us under the constitution. Against the flow of government pronouncements and the referendum, the government refused the committee the powers it sought and limited the power to send for people, papers and records to Oversight of the Ombudsman only. Government inaction then prevented the Standing Orders from being adopted for a full six months, significantly slowing down the work of the committee.
Accountability needs to be hardwired into the government, the public service and the private sector. When someone does not fulfill their responsibility in these spheres they should face a fitting consequence. This is clearly not the case today. In my opinion, accountability can be best achieved by building a culture of accountability, by legislating for it and by ensuring that robust powers of investigation and enforcement exist. A culture of accountability requires cost effective transparency, an empowered citizenry and a flat hierarchy.
An empowered citizenry can change political culture and governance. An empowered citizenry can be achieved through robust human rights. Through much campaigning and negotiation the North has developed a robust rights framework that builds on international best practice.
There is a need to develop a rights framework that effectively empowers and safeguards the rights of all. This includes making good the commitments of the Good Friday Agreement and St. Andrews to implement an all-Ireland Bill of Human Rights.