FUNDAMENTAL CHANGE IS POSSIBLE WHERE THERE IS POLITICAL WILL
Pearse Doherty TD, Sinn Féin spokeperson on Finance
The Partition of Ireland was accompanied by a counter-revolution which created two very conservative states on this island. Both states were shaped to serve the interests of specific political and economic elites.
An Orange, one-party state in the north sustained itself through institutionalised discrimination, sectarianism and segregation. In the South, the idealism and vision of the republican revolutionaries of 1916 were replaced by the narrow interests of a conservative elite in business and politics. These forces took their lead in social matters from an extremely conservative Catholic Church hierarchy.
The control of Health and Education was franchised out to the Church and we are still dealing with the dreadful consequences of this today. The institutional failings of this State are a direct consequence of these events. However they are also due to the repeated failings of successive generations of politicians.
Those politicians who were in government and whose failures are unquestionably linked to the institutional failings cannot be let off the hook on the basis that they were acting within the political culture of the time.
And this includes those who were in government and leading the Opposition during the latter years of the ‘Celtic Tiger’ period.
The Stand taken by Courageous Individuals
Like the insulting suggestion that we all partied during the ‘boom’ there has been a trend to suggest that we are all complicit in the political culture of this state since its foundation. But through those years there were people who spoke out and fought back – progressive voices suppressed by the combined strength of a conservative establishment. There were ordinary people – like those families who fought against pressures to put their daughters into Magdalene laundries or Mother and Baby homes – who took a stand against the accepted norms of the time.
Many of the institutional failings of this state have only been exposed when courageous individuals have spoken out and challenged the status quo. I am thinking of people like Tom Gilmartin, Christine Buckley, Andrew Madden, Louise O’Keefe, the still anonymous midwife from Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda who blew the whistle on Dr Neary, Tom Clonan, and most recently Maurice McCabe and John Wilson who exposed the penalty points scandal within the Gardai and have both paid a heavy personal price for doing so.
Look at how disgracefully this State treated Louise O’Keefe and look at how it has treated the victims of symphysiotomy — an abuse that had its routes in the unhealthy relationship between Church and State.
We have also had the Morris Tribunal which exposed corruption in the Gardai, the Mahon Tribunal and the Moriarty Tribunal which exposed the actions of planners and Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael politicians while the Report of the Commission of Inquiry into institutional child abuse, the Murphy Report and the Ferns Report exposed criminality at the heart of the Irish Catholic Church. It was the actions of the individuals that exposed the corruption, abuse and malpractice that has occurred in this state since its foundations.
It takes individuals to blow the whistle but it takes the combined strength of the ordinary people to make the change – to change both politics and political culture. The political culture of this state has its roots in the formation of the State itself; in its reactionary nature and in its repression of all those who confronted or challenged the status quo.
A State which so easily turned its back on citizens in the North, on its emigrants and on the citizens who most needed its support. Similar to many colonial struggles, the national revolution gave way to a counter revolution. Many post-colonial governments mimicked the imperial empire. In Ireland, we inherited a system of government, reflecting Westminster. Our economy was attached to London and we had no ideological difference between the main parties in the state. What developed here was a political culture of impunity – a State with no real opposition to hold governments to account and no media willing to hold politicians to account. The politics of an establishment consensus that did not have the interest of the majority of the Irish people at its core.
Self-preservation by a small but powerful elite has been the underlying feature of this political culture.
The Role of the Media
It’s a culture of entitlement – seen in the opposition to wage cuts at the top of the public sector and by the recent scandals that have engulfed certain State-funded charities. When we look at political culture and institutional failings we cannot ignore the role of the media. Almost uniquely in Western Europe, this state has no left wing media and there is a growing problem with the development of a monopoly in media ownership. The Irish media not only failed to challenge the economic policies of the ‘Celtic Tiger’ period, but, in the main, it actively and aggressively promoted them.
Instead of asking the questions about the implications of a property bubble and the dependence of the exchequer on taxes related to construction and consumption or querying what was going in the banks and in terms of financial regulation, the mainstream ignored, rubbished or silenced critical voices asking these key questions. Light touch regulation was part of a dominant political philosophy in this State.
It was pursued with vigour by the Progressive Democrats and Fianna Fáil and largely unchallenged by what were the major opposition parties in that period – Fine Gael and Labour – and again, crucially, unchallenged by the media.
Political Culture will change only when Politics changes
Political culture will only change when politics changes – when we break to strangle hold of the establishment parties on the governance of the state. For far too long this state has been governed in the interest of the few. The disadvantaged and vulnerable have, at best, seen a blind eye turned towards their needs. Ordinary citizens have been forced to pay a heavy and unjust price for the fact that successive governments have been in hoc to an elite of private interests including lobbyists, developers and bankers. The establishment has had it its own way for far too long.
We have seen the rot that was allowed to develop within the gardai, within politics, within banking, in the entanglement of church and state, and within the state itself, as the two conservative parties retained their stranglehold on government. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil politicians have been more than happy to have emigration act as a safety valve against pressure for political and social change.
In his contribution to the Report of the Commission on Emigration produced in the early 1950s, Alexis Fitzgerald, who went on to be a Fine Gael Senator and an advisor to Fine Gael Taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald, summed up this attitude when he stated:
“I believe that there should be a more realistic appreciation of the advantages of emigration. High emigration, granted a population excess, releases social tensions which would otherwise explode and makes possible a stability of manners and custom which would otherwise be the subject of radical change”.
A Political Culture of Cronyism and Favouritism
The Irish diaspora then, as now, were denied a say of the future of their country. Corruption in Irish political life has been endemic and systemic under governments involving Fine Gael, Labour and Fianna Fáil. A culture of political cronyism and favouritism has prevailed for decades, allowing ‘golden circles’ of powerful individuals to consider themselves above the rules that apply to ordinary citizens. This crony culture has been widely evidenced over the years in terms of appointments to State boards. A cultural shift is urgently required in order to restore public trust and confidence. Sinn Féin is committed to modernising public sector governance in the wider context of political reform. This includes corporate governance of all state bodies that are publicly funded.
Sinn Féin would ensure that all publicly funded appointments are made on the basis of merit, reflect the make-up of our diverse society and that equality is at the core of the public appointments process with opportunities to serve on public bodies promoted to the widest possible field of potential candidates and in a public manner.
Meaningful Political Reform
Trust and confidence in the political system have been shattered as a consequence of the disastrous mismanagement of the economy, public services and state finances by the previous Fianna Fáil-led administration and the inaction of the current government in delivering on their promise of introducing political reform. The Fine Gael/Labour coalition’s approach to political reform has been piecemeal and minimalist. It has done nothing to rebalance power between central and local government or in the Oireachtas between the Executive and Legislature.
Meaningful political reform proposals must be based on the principles of sovereignty, democracy, accountability, transparency, national unity, equality, the empowerment local communities and the creation of a political system where citizens come first. Many of the issues which I have touched on today are the legacy of bad politics and the legacy of politicians who failed to stand up for the best interests of the citizens of Ireland. But politics in Ireland is already changing. The old dominance of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael is going and with that comes the hope that real change can be achieved. Progressive voices have never been louder. The challenge is to build on this.
Fundamental Change is needed
We are on the cusp of something that has never been achieved — a government without Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael. That is when political culture in this state will really change. There can be no elite in the New Ireland. No group which is immune to the laws that all of us must obey. Nor can there be any group that is denied equality or justice. There is a better way.
In business there is a saying that form should follow function — that structures should be built for a purpose. What we need to recognise is that there is a need for a fundamental change and that this should be reflected in our institutions. This is not without precedence. Arising out of conflict, the Good Friday Agreement recognised the fundamental rights that all people should be treated equally and with respect.
This became the starting points for the design of institutions which were based on power sharing, and interlinked, reflecting the relationships within the North, between the North and South and between Ireland and Britain. It also put in place robust legislation on equality and commissions to safeguard human rights.
I am not suggesting that these institutions should be brought wholesale into this state, nor or am I suggesting that the potential of the Good Friday Agreement have been fully realised. But I do believe that there is a need for a discussion on the future of our people and nation and the institutions that serve them. The Good Friday Agreement does demonstrate that fundamental change is possible where there is political will.
The Agreement also provides for the peaceful and democratic pathway to a united Ireland. It provides this generation with the opportunity to re-imagine Ireland and our people.
We are here to challenge the establishment
At the recent elections we stood on a platform of speaking out and standing up for the needs of ordinary people, particularly those struggling under the burden of austerity. Sinn Féin makes no apologies for it – we are here to challenge the establishment, to challenge the status quo, to challenge the political culture, to fight for a state and a country that acts in the interests of citizens, not in the interest of a small and privileged group at the top echelons of society.
Sinn Féin is not and never will be afraid to make a stand on issues even when it is not popular to do so.
Political culture does not emerge from nowhere; the political culture we have inherited reflected a lack of vision and ideology, and a failure to heal the wounds of the civil war and promotion of privilege and position over the needs of the people. Culture evolves and can be challenged and changed.