A Failed Political System and Culture


Mary Lou McDonald TD, Deputy-Leader, Sinn Féin


The question posed for this session is a profound one. It is not a new question, neither is it one that is amenable to a single, simple remedy or solution.

The introductory sketch authored by the summer school organisers suggests a number of dimensions to the issue: a democratic crisis which is Europe wide; political disengagement; a pull to ‘extremism’, and an anti-politics culture. The financial crisis is cited as an aggravating factor in what the Council of Europe has described as ‘public distrust in representative democracy’. In the course of my remarks I will try to address some of these issues and – hopefully – suggest some positive conclusions.

For decades trust in politics has taken a battering

A healthy, credible democratic process – of the people, by the people, for the people – is the foundation stone of a healthy, diverse and equal society. It is the robustness of that democratic process and the quality of the society that it fosters which determines the trust or lack of trust felt by citizens.  Put bluntly, if democracy or politics is run by an ‘insider’ class and corrupted by cronyism then it is little wonder that trust suffers.  If society is divided between the ‘haves and have-nots’, where the entitled few hold sway, little wonder that trust is shattered.  I believe that trust has been the casualty of a closed, corrupted political system which has failed collective interests and the collective good.

It is probably impossible to identify the precise moment at which the people settled on a view of politics as corrupted. Perhaps that instinct lingered from partition and the foundation of the state – a consequence of the carnival of reaction which James Connolly predicted.

What we do know is that for decades now trust and confidence in politicians, the political class and the institutions of state has taken a battering. A succession of planning scandals, political scandals and tribunals of inquiry shed light on a system that was dominated by self interest.  As Mahon and Moriarty peeled back the layers of corruption, the public mind was confirmed in its view of low standards in high places.  It became a matter of public record.

The State failed our Children

The toxic relationship between church and state came into sharp focus as Ryan, Murphy and others painfully told each harrowing chapter of institutional and sexual abuse of generations of Irish children. That the state failed our children, that too became an acknowledged matter of record.  Trust and confidence in the very institutions and people charged with upholding the public good were undermined.

The double standard was breathtaking

More was to follow when the speculative property bubble burst.  The much celebrated Celtic Tiger collapsed on the back of light touch regulation, unscrupulous lending and the cowboy antics of the Anglo ‘moolah men’.  As the economy entered crisis, so too did the lives of people across every class and divide in Irish society. The banks were bailed out and the ‘austerity’ began.

While families and workers coped with job loss, emigration and struggled to get by, they witnessed a political system that was largely unresponsive to their changed reality. Many of the very politicians who were the architects of this disaster sailed into the sunset, pension packages intact, as did retiring senior civil servants – some still in their prime.  Special Advisors remained special, so special that the new government of democratic revolution broke their own pay ceilings to accommodate them.

The double standard was breathtaking. The economic crisis changed the lives of citizens but not of the political class.  The choices made by the current government have sent the strongest message that the burden of recession would fall on those least able to take the strain.

The same government that bristles with indignation at the very idea of modest tax increases for the highest paid, or, heaven forbid, a wealth tax, removed medical cards from thousands of people including children with very severe disabilities. To add insult to injury they persist with a mantra that this is fair; making fair truly a four letter word of Irish politics.  So, although the election of 2011 changed the faces at cabinet, little else changed.

The political class continues to serve the ‘haves’ and pays, at best, lip service to the ‘have-nots’.  For very many people this was proof positive that the political class are ‘all the same’. Fine Gael and Labour took the baton from their Fianna Fáil predecessors, ditched their pre election promises and carried on cutting. It is impossible to overstate the damage this has done to trust, not just in government, but in the body politic as a whole.

Little has changed

It is, however, outside of the economic arena that it is most clear how little has changed despite the succession of tribunals and scandals, recommendations and assurances that lessons had been learnt.

The same old behaviours were in evidence in May 2011, when the then Secretary General of the Department of Justice, Mr Seán Aylward, attended UN hearings and flatly denied any state relationship with the Magadalene laundries and when the state forced Louise O’Keefe to the European courts to achieve justice and remedy for her abuse at the hands of her teacher.

It is in evidence still, as the state forces survivors of symphisiotmy to go to the UN for justice and when the government equivocates, as it does to this day, on justice for the women and children who passed through, who died in and who were adopted from, mother and baby homes county homes and similar institutions.

Protecting the State whatever the consequences

In each of these cases the political class rally forces, united in their opposition to justice for victims and survivors of abuse. Why does this happen? I do not believe that it is a reflection of individual callousness or malice. It is rather the expression of a state instinct to minimise rather than acknowledge.  Perversely, it is an instinct to protect the state whatever the consequences for citizens.

When the then Garda Commissioner and his cheerleader, former Justice minister Alan Shatter, publicly vented their disgust with Garda whistleblowers John Wilson and Maurice McCabe, unchallenged by an Taoiseach, the message was unmistakeable. The system protects itself above all else. It remains the instinct of the political class to deny rather than to acknowledge.  In my view the lack of trust in those that govern is self inflicted. Political disengagement is not a flaw in the citizenry but a reflection on a failed political system and culture.

When that prevailing culture is challenged, it is the instinct of the establishment to portray that challenge and indeed those who challenge as populist, or opportunistic or extremist.  It is the system circling the wagons to protect the status quo and more to the point their own position of power.  Certainly the wilder extremes of commentary on my party, Sinn Féin, are evidence of this.

The collective culture and mindset must be transformed

So what to do? How to rebuild trust in those that govern? The first consideration is: Who makes up the political class?  Many politicians resent any assertion that they are part of what I have termed the ‘political class’ or the establishment. It is taken as an insult – marking them out from the man on the street.  All such sensitivities to one side, elected public office holders are the face of the political class of the governing class. That face remains overwhelmingly male, white, settled, middle class and middle aged.

To take just one example, the lack of gender balance – that is to say the absence of women – is, to my mind, a significant factor in the alienation of citizens from the political process.  This must change.

The lack of diversity within elected life is more than just a cosmetic consideration. Immediately it means that politics is interpreted and understood as the domain of some to the exclusion of others.  It sets the framework for what and who is considered and prioritised in public policy. If politicians are the face of democracy then the permanent government – the civil service – and the public service provide the heartbeat.

The special advisors, spin doctors, consultants and lobbyists complete the line up. For the purposes of anatomical consistency let’s call them the teeth of the political class.  The collective mind set and culture of each element of this governing class must be transformed if there is to be any chance of trust enduring.

Accountability must become a core value – this means volunteering information, answering questions voluntarily, understanding that the apparatus of state is there to serve the people. It places an onus on members of the Oireachtas to work diligently to hold the executive and agencies of the state to account, without fear or favour.

It also means the elected government must stop hiding behind the civil service. Some in cabinet have brought passing the buck and political evasion to an art form. The civil service and public service agencies are there in a supportive role, not as an excuse for political inertia or as the fall guys and gals for bad political decisions.

The interests of the state – as defined by the governing class – must no longer be allowed to trump the rights of citizens.  Acknowledging wrongs done to citizens is always the right thing to do. It is the hallmark of good governance.  A good place to begin this cultural shift is for the government to confirm that the Commission of inquiry into Mother and Baby homes will be inclusive in its institutional scope, leaving no victim or survivor behind.

Time for a real political alternative

Finally, it is time that the electorate, the citizens, are offered a real political alternative to the ‘Tweedledum Tweddledee’ politics that has as an article of faith that no administration is possible without Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil.

The dominance in government of these two parties, propped up by Labour and others, has stifled any real sense of political choice. It is possibly the main reason why so many believe that all politicians are the same and might explain why some citizens don’t see the point in voting.  We have had an ongoing debate on the need for reform but the system remains resistant to reform or change.  It is now time, taking our cue from the profound political and democratic changes in the North, to deliver.












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