Gerard Howlin, columnist and public affairs consultant
The opening salvo of the topic set for us this afternoon presumes something has gone wrong. It hands down as a given fact that there has been “a failure of governance at all levels and across all sectors of society”. There is a continuous litany recited, and then re-recited as proof. In speaking specifically of failure in public life, it is others – a supposed establishment – responsibility. It overlooks the fact that in Ireland, those at the top in politics and in public administration at least, almost invariably come originally from the bottom rungs of the organisations they lead.
But is failure a fair characterisation? It is certainly a gripping one, which is probably part of its appeal. We would have to ignore the fact that the Irish state has in some respects, conspicuous success to its credit. In terms of governance, the fact of the continuity of our constitution and the stability of our institutions is testament to that. In my lifetime, we have endured and survived the threat posed by the Troubles. We have incorporated those who would have destroyed the state, into it. We have integrated politically, economically and culturally into the European Union. We have assimilated largely successfully a wave of immigration that is astonishing in terms of its numbers, and fundamentally changed the Irish story from one of emigration to one of immigration. That assimilation, regrettably, has not been always successful, and I will say more about that later. Culturally we have changed socially at astonishing speed over thirty years. What was unthinkable is now a new normal. The skies haven’t fallen in. The state, which was brought to its knees in an economic crash, has survived with its institutions largely intact. I do admit, however, that this continuity marks a missed opportunity for much needed reform and renewal. The fact of a litany of tribunals and investigations, while evidence of failure, is also evidence of capacity to reckon with malfeasance after a fashion.
If failures can certainly be pointed to, there is another point. It is not just that there is a broader perspective, but that in respect of egregious failures which have occurred we have less cause for complaint that we wish for. A less palatable analysis is that Irish governance perhaps bizarrely, is marked by conspicuous success. Why? The terrible truth is that by and large, the Irish people have gotten exactly what they wanted. If the consequences were sometimes appalling, it’s a bit rich now to package it up in hindsight and, unbelievably, as a failure of governance. Failures of governance are symptomatic. Our democratic choices are the systematic cause.
We don’t need to excavate the history of past decades to see why. Let’s look instead at the events of this week alone. As it is yet only Friday afternoon and the week is not over. The government is set to give back €170 million to a majority of people who did the right thing and who paid their water charges. To put it in context, at an average cost to build of €200,000 per house, this is like giving away 850 social houses. It is literally a case of stepping over the homeless sleeping in the doorway on your way to the pub. But it’s what we want, it seems. Now we are going to get it. If housing, together with health, is the pressing social challenge of our time, how are we as a country in the business of giving back water charges? If we the public saw ourselves as the State, we would surely see modest investment in water and in bin charges as value for money. The danger now, and it is a real one, is that Irish Water will in retrospect become the high water mark of the Irish State’s capacity to construct and to deliver any major public service organisation. It would be very brave to try again. By notionally visiting every cost and responsibility on the State we have created something bound to fail again, and to fail worse every time. This will become ever more acute in an aging society.
The proposition set for us here today mistakes symptoms for causes. And the popularity of the old trope of a perennially failing state means that the underlying cause becomes ever less likely to be addressed. We the citizens are the state. But we have no sense of ownership. The real issue is not accountability; it is responsibility. Being accountable is what people who take responsibility do. In a society where responsibility is shirked, accountability is seldom a priority. When accountability is not especially important, failures of governance result as symptoms of that underlying cause.
Our preferred remedy is to neither change nor challenge the underlying cause. That would require a change in culture, not just at the top, but more irksomely from the bottom up as well. In the circumstances where the vast bulk of power, by dint of numbers, rests as residue in the rank and file of society, the bulk of real power rests in the middle ranks of any organisation – it is best then to deal with repeated crises Star Chamber style. There, those at the top who have almost invariably travelled up from the bottom, can be put into cage fight confrontations with barristers or parliamentarians. If you get out alive, you can stay in your job. It’s an efficient system, after a fashion. But it’s gladiatorial. It reinforces the culture of the strongman, which in organisations is the cause of so many of the failures we speak of. It also reinforces the instinct to shirk responsibility among those who are charged with it. To take on accountability, to be responsible, likely means you will be commanded into the cage to fight for your life. The reality of responsibility is increasingly about finding ways to pass it on and preferably upward, without leaving finger prints.
It is a deep irony that we have a society that ostensibly changed completely over thirty years while simultaneously not just perpetuating, but perfecting an inherited command, control and punish model of accountability. We have parliamentary committees operating on the same principles as Magdalene laundries. They are not in the business of learning from mistakes. They are not about cultural change. They are about public humiliation. We know from past experience that humiliation doesn’t make us better. It just leaves us wilier. It leaves us damaged. It gives us an urge to pass the cruelty on. We are remarkably changed in appearances. But in reality the old tropes are now our new ropes.
The underlying cause of the failure of Irish Water as a political project was not simply mishandling by the last government, or political opportunism across the board – with the honourable exception of the Green party. It was widespread unwillingness to take civic responsibility seriously. That unwillingness crystallised in the result of the last election. There is no effective working majority for policies to roll out user charges in return for better services, and none for a broadening of the tax base. The wider cost, far greater than the cost of substandard water and sewage infrastructure, will now unfold. The State, far from being something citizens identify with, at best becomes a whipping boy and at worst an alien construct. It is there to facilitate the offloading of responsibility, not the fostering of accountability. Our highly successful protest movement is the ultimate instrument of neo-liberalism. There has never been a more successful onslaught on the capacity of the collective.
It is an irony that in the late nineteenth century Irish politics gave birth to what for a hundred years was a rigorous, disciplined, party system of politics. It survived secession from an empire. It endured through different eras. It had as an immutable value, the tradition of the strong man or chieftain which remains omnipresent now in our mind-set, and in our organisational culture. The man with the megaphone owes as much to Blaney as to Trotsky. Context has changed. But culture remains intact, and almost impervious. Now in a permanently more diverse political culture, the number of chieftains multiplies. It is not just that there are many more among our elected politicians and state agencies. Every spectator in the coliseum is now an emperor.
Speaking of old traditions, of throwing Christians to lions, and thinking again on immigration, another event this week poignantly comes to mind. On Tuesday, the same day government made its decision to refund water charges, an important report was published on the experience of children in direct provision centres. It was carried out by researchers from the Child Law Clinic at University College Cork who spoke to children in the system aged between 8 and 17 years of age. As a country, we house nearly 5,000 asylum seekers in direct provision. 25% of them are under 17 years of age. The report was an excoriating indictment of how vulnerable children are cared for by the state. You couldn’t bottle all the public concern that followed. But let’s stop. Let’s look clinically at what is actually happening.
Is this in essence yet another state failure? Is it really an indictment of the state apparatus alone? Or is the failure of the state just a symptom? Is the cause of what is being done in our name in direct provision centres an expression of our attitude? The alternative facts are that it’s happening, essentially because we want it that way. Of course, some people feel differently. Many more feel distinctly uncomfortable with the spotlight being put on something so disquieting. But thousands of people, including children, are in direct provision because this is a society which is both astoundingly generous with its spare change, but deeply begrudging with its scarce resources. We need only think back to the early noughties, before the citizenship referendum in 2004. There was a real issue to be addressed in terms of regulating entitlement to citizenship. There was also a rising tide of racism. Urban legend abounded with stories of ‘them’, and the ‘them’ referred to were invariably people of a different race and colour, being loaded with a cargo of free prams, free flats and even free cars by a state that in the raucous telling wouldn’t look after its own. It was unpleasant, it was untrue and it was recent. It is also the direct genesis of the reports this week on life for children in direct provision.
I have lived for over 25 years in Dublin’s north inner city. It is the area with the largest concentration of immigrants in the state. For very many the story, thankfully, is a positive one. That is more likely to be so for European immigrants. It becomes more challenging for people of different cultures, and different colours. To see this week what is happening in direct provision as a failure of governance or of accountability, misses the issue by a mile. People who think that should leave their leafy suburbs or their ivory towers more often. Direct provision exists to warehouse large numbers of people other people don’t want as immediate neighbours. The fact of a housing crisis doubles down on the challenge. What is needed is not charity, but resources. Resources require a much broader and more sustainable tax base. They require a citizenship based on responsibilities, as well as rights. It was never strong, and now in my opinion, it is much weaker.
There is something profoundly out of sync and warped when on our watch, children in direct provision are the Tuam babies of the future. At the same time the Tuam babies’ story is treated as a modern scandal. But it isn’t. It is simply a renewed awareness of a very open and the blindingly obvious part of Irish life until relatively recently. There was no failure of governance. There was a failure of responsibility. Pinning that responsibility solely on nuns as scapegoats now is historically ludicrous. But it is necessary to exculpate us, the community that surrounded these institutions and the families that populated them with embarrassing secrets. The retelling of the Tuam story is fully in keeping with the playing out of accountability as a blame game. It is all the better to relieve responsibility.
Short term head shopping is neither accountability nor responsibility. It does nothing to inculcate cultural change. It reinforces the devious instinct to keep your head down and your mouth shut. This is a country that cannot deliver on new charges and or new taxes. And part of the benefit of new charges and taxes would be to create the headroom to lower existing ones which impact on competiveness. We cannot deliver major infrastructure projects including a much needed North-South interconnector. Our concept of the state is skewered. Our electoral system entrenches power in localities, but in no meaningful sense supports communities. We think we have a politics of rugged individualism and elect people who tell it as it is. In fact it’s an out of tune chorus, competing to tell us what we want to hear. And ladies and gentlemen, you do get what you want. The savagery and inefficiency of sporadic attempts at accountability are not examples of governance or accountability. They are its opposite. The future of the state is as a shelf company with everything outsourced. The personal and the economic cost of risk taking means less will be attempted. Astonishingly we about to allow our elected government effectively outsource the appointment of a Chief Justice to a committee. But of course we went down that road already in relation to the appointment of a Garda commissioner. Severing the links of accountability isn’t better governance. Its responsibility avoidance. It is also ultimately pointless. The radical fact is that democratic politics is about the vote. It is about the equal vote of everyone. Only the vote is the true vox populi. We the people have spoken. We should now take responsibility, and act accordingly.