Peter Mair 1951-2011

     PETER MAIR 1951-2011

Peter Mair died suddenly on August 15th 2011, two weeks after he had delivered a paper on the Irish political system at the MacGill Summer School 2011.  He was 60.  He was mentally and physically at the height of his powers and was a huge presence at MacGill in every way.  It goes without saying that this was a devastating and cruel blow, not only to his wife, Karin and three children and members of his extended family but to all those of us who knew him and admired him hugely.  He was not only great company but also an inspiring and stimulating teacher and academic who had reached the top of his profession. He, as many of his friends in academia have testified, was one of the finest political scientists of his generation.  He was acknowledged in Ireland and abroad as a leading authority on political parties and systems and a distinguished writer on the subject and whose work is essential reading today for students of politics everywhere.  As Professor of Comparative Politics at the European University Institute in Florence and recently appointed as Dean of graduate studies, his reputation in his field had spread far beyond these shores and his loss has been keenly felt throughout Europe.

Peter was born in Rosses Point in Sligo where he holidayed every year with his family and went to the local school there before going to Castleknock College as a boarder.  He studied history and politics at UCD and subsequently taught at the Universities of Limerick, Strathclyde and Manchester and at the European University Institute in Florence in the 1980s.  In 1987, he gained a PhD from the University of Leiden.  His thesis on the Irish party system was published and became a work of reference on the subject. He continued to publish, and the work he co-authored with Stefano Bartolini, Identity, Competition and Electoral Availability in 1990 was awarded the ISSC/Unesco Stein Rokkan prize for comparative social science research.  In 2001, he became co-editor of the journal, West European Politics.  In 2005, he returned to the European University Institute in Florence.

Peter had come to MacGill for the first time in 2010 and loved meeting again former teachers and students such as Maurice Manning who had taught him at UCD and David Farrell who had studied under him in Florence. As part of our debate on the Irish political system and its inadequacies, which has been seen by many as one of the major causes of the severity of our economic crisis, he talked about what he described as our moribund politics and moribund political culture.  He gave a damning analysis of how we organise the state – informed as it was by his deep knowledge and wide experience of how other democracies in Europe work. At MacGill 2011, as will be evident from his paper here, he returned to the theme and was not overly impressed with what happened in the interim at the general election in February.  His paper which follows is essential reading for those interested in transforming this republic. It is such a terrible pity that this voice has been stilled so prematurely and the quality of this mind lost to us forever.

Requiescat in pace

Joe Mulholland





Peter Mair, Head of the Dept of Politics, European University Institute, Florence


I work in the European University Institute Florence where we do postgraduate research in various disciplines. Shortly before I came to this year’s MacGill Summer School, there was a seminar by one young Norwegian scholar about how countries have been coping over the years with the global crisis, global economy and globalisation, Europeanisation and so on. He compared three small countries, two in Europe and one outside. He compared New Zealand, Norway and Ireland and he interviewed ministers and civil servants, policy makers, central bankers et al.  I talked to him afterwards and asked him what lessons he learned in terms of what had gone wrong in Ireland vis-a-vis Norway, leaving aside the fact of Norway’s oil. Norway did better than we did, as did New Zealand. Why did Ireland do so badly?  He said he had no easy answer to that but one short answer is that if Ireland had had Norway’s ministers for finance or New Zealand’s ministers for finance over the last ten or twenty years, we wouldn’t have the problems we have now.

Now that is fairly shaming for an Irish person to hear because if the ministers matter so much or the poor quality of ministerial government matters so much, why don’t we already have this government and this political infrastructure which can govern us better and which New Zealand has, Norway has, the Netherlands has, Denmark has and a number of countries have.  In politics we, as citizens, should have exactly what we want and what we need.  So why haven’t we built up a system of government which suits our needs, which can look after us well and which doesn’t neglect us as it has done up to now.  One answer might be that we are a new country and new countries take a long time to learn but we have had democracy longer and in a more sustained fashion than almost any other country in Europe. Most other European countries democratised when we democratised but many of them lost that democracy during the war because of occupation, fascism, communism or for whatever reason. We, on the other hand, have had a thriving democracy for over eighty or ninety years so we escaped all of the costs of these countries which lost their democracies and we were one of the very few countries to keep on having elections and to keep on electing our own governments.  We had two elections during the war, for example, and each time we returned Fianna Fáil.  We have one TD for every thousand or so citizens and it takes about 8,000 citizens voting to form a quota so we are the best represented voters in Europe. Why did we have such bad governments?  Whose fault is it?  The simple answer is that it’s our fault.

We, the citizens, did this and this is the legacy which we have.  So the question is then, what did we do wrong and what should we do to right it or can we right it at all?  Is it an inevitable legacy that we are all going to be stuck with and which our children will be stuck with?  There is a very deep and long term problem here which has often been commented on and often been discussed and which would require for its remedy a completely new mindset and a new way of looking at politics and at the State.

No Respect for the State

The problem here is that we don’t respect our State. We have never respected our State.  We have never had a sense of belonging for our State.  If anything, we have viewed the State as the enemy, as an oppressor, as something not to be trusted but to be taken advantage of.  That’s the culture of the ‘cute hoors’, the strokes.  You get away with it and getting away with it against the State is getting something which is not yours.

In the country I now live in, Italy, you get, for different reasons, the same sort of syndrome where you are seen as having a great achievement if you can get one over on the State.  An American sociologist studied this phenomenon back in the 1950s and he coined a term for it which is still used by sociologists in Italy.  He called it ‘amoral familism’.  What he meant by that is that if you look at the ordinary Italian, the ordinary Italian will do anything he or she can possibly do to benefit his or her family. And you forget about everything else, even if it is at a cost to the State.  The primary thing is to benefit your family, to advance your family and for your family to do well. You are family orientated but you have no morality in anything else you do.

Now we have a bit of that in Ireland, too, but what we have also in this electoral system of ours is something you might call ‘amoral localism’ which means that you do anything you can to benefit your locality and your constituency and your district, and your TD will do anything he can to benefit your locality and your district and your constituency and, in a sense, damn everything else.

We Have Lost Sight of the Broader Interest

That is something that will be very hard to change and it brings me to the second symptom which is much more redeemable, at least in my mind.

Partly because of that tradition of being hostile to the State and wanting to take advantage of the State, we see the State as something you can milk for your own benefit rather than something you sustain and contribute to. Because of that and also because of our institutions and because of our electoral system, and because of the way politicians and parties have run and organised political life, we have ended up suffering from the oldest cliché of all which is that we have lost sight of the wood because we have been looking too much at the trees.  We have been so busy as citizens in ensuring the representation of our own interests and those of our constituencies that we have lost sight of the broader, collective interest and we have lost sight of it a long time ago.  We exert great control over our TDs but we have never sought to exert any control over our governments.  And the result was a huge vacuum in terms of responsibility and in terms of authority right at the centre stage of government. As citizens, we never held our governments accountable for their policies.  We were too busy holding our TDs accountable for their local activities. And that had two clear consequences. The first is there was never any pressure from us as citizens, or from the backbenchers, or, often, from the media to oblige governments to act with responsibility and with due care. Hence, it was very easy for our governments to be negligent of our interests and we have always allowed them to be so. Now it has become a problem.

Secondly, because there was a vacuum at the centre of power which we weren’t filling as citizens and which our TDs weren’t filling as our representatives, other people stepped in and took over responsibility and took over control of policy making. The special interests stepped in. The bankers stepped in. The builders stepped in. The Church stepped in. The Government, our TDs and we citizens stepped out. And then, when things were bad, we could always blame those with special interests and the powerful lobbies for what went wrong. We can blame the property speculators for the boom that they fuelled and we can justly blame the bankers for the reckless lending they engaged in. We can blame Europe for tempting us with cheap money. And for the destruction caused to the lives of countless children and often to their mothers, we can blame the Church.  But all of this was allowed to happen on our watch, as citizens and under the auspices of our State which we always neglected and never ever engaged with and never found a sense of belonging for.

There is, indeed, a failure of banks, churches, builders and politicians and so on but it is also a State failure.  When there is State failure, it means it’s our failure. And so, despite years and decades of bad government and of poor performance and of mass emigration and of all of the problems which we know of – and growing up in the West of Ireland I would have seen them on a daily basis – we still stayed with the most moribund political system in Europe and we stayed re-electing the same parties and the same politicians and often members of the same families.

Stagnant Politics

Last year at the MacGill Summer School, I also talked about this and I think it’s worth talking about it again because when you look at Ireland what you see is stagnant politics which I have seen for a long time – no  new political parties, no new political ideas, very low levels of electoral change for years and years until finally, last March, soon after my last MacGill talk, the electorate finally rose up and expressed its discontent and the dam seemed to break, as Micheál (Martin) and Eamon (Ryan) will know all too well.* There is no single party anywhere in Europe that has ever taken such a battering at the polls as Fianna Fáil did last March and the election was the most volatile election in post war Europe.  So what did this great revolution and this great earthquake lead to?  What radical change did it usher in?  Well, it led to the restoration to power of a party that last enjoyed the status of the biggest party in the Dáil eighty years ago.  It led to the foundation of a government that has been the time honoured alternative to Fianna Fáil since the end of the 1960s.  It was a revolution which dealt Fianna Fáil a hammer blow, but which otherwise showed absolutely nothing else new in terms of politics, nothing different and nothing other than what we have seen before after the defeats of Fianna Fáil in 1948 and 1973.  What we conclude is that we have a very conservative political elite and a very conservative elite political culture. And, therefore, if anything is to change in Irish politics, it can only come from the bottom up and through pressure from the people from the bottom up towards the system. Institutional change will certainly help that but it won’t be enough on its own. What we need if we are to change Irish politics is a new citizens’ politics.

Now let me step back a bit from this and look at this in a wider context. We have obviously got very severe problems in Ireland economically, socially and politically. They are very severe but they are not completely unique. The scale in Greece and Portugal is worse. Across most of the established European democracies now, as well as in many of the new eastern European democracies, there is evidence of increasing citizen discontent and dissatisfaction with political leaders and evidence of a growing gap and a growing disconnect between citizens and the political class. This gap is now fuelling in Europe a lot of populist protests on the left and also, and particularly, on the right.  It has led to right wing parties in Denmark, Sweden and Norway and not just right wing parties but also to fringe elements on the right which we saw recently with such tragic consequences in Norway.  Almost everywhere in Europe, no matter what the country is, politicians are believed to have lost touch with their roots and to have turned their backs on the wider society.  Almost everywhere, politicians are now seen as being too busy with themselves to pay attention to the voters.  At the same time, politics, and especially party politics, seems to have lost much of its purpose and much of its raison d’etre.  Any party in government faced with a huge burden of national debt and faced with the constraints imposed by Europe on its policies, has lost their room for manoeuvre. They are just being squeezed and squeezed and they have lost much of their capacity to steer their societies and to steer their economies. So, for citizens who might be troubled about the way their economies or societies are going, and then look at elections as a way of changing it, eventually find that it is much easier to change governments than it is to change policies. As one commentator put it, what we have now in contemporary Europe is a democracy without choices.

Reforming Democracy

There are two ways to look at what governments do.  One is that we can look at what they deliver, the product which may be good or may be bad, but it’s what they deliver. And two, is to look at how they deliver it, which is the process. Now to me, in Ireland at the moment at least, there’s not much point in emphasising the product. The product is out of the hands of any Irish government.  It’s in the hands of the troika, it’s in the hands of the EU.  It’s in the hands of the bankers and the financiers. It’s in the hands of the markets and the rating agencies. It’s not in Merrion Street.  So, you can’t focus on the product as the product will be more or less a given. You must, therefore, focus on the process.  If you want a better democracy, try and improve it procedurally rather than in terms of its output.  And we need to do three things, three very simple things.  We need to ensure more responsible and transparent decision making.  In other words, we don’t want to see decisions made behind locked doors at three o’clock in the morning out of touch with the people. We want much more transparent and considered and responsible decision making. Secondly, we need to involve our citizens and representatives, including the TDs, much more closely in the deliverage of process. We need to have more deliberation like the ‘We the Citizens’ assembly and more discussion involving citizens but also involving TDs; and we, as citizens, need to become much more engaged. For the first time, we need to acquire a real sense of ownership of our State and over our State. And that will require a change in mindsets which will be difficult and require a change in behaviour which will be difficult, but perhaps in that sense this crisis can help. But it will be helped and could be helped by institutional change and from my perspective there are at least three things which should be done. These things are small things and relatively easy things to do but if you look across Europe, may be important things to do.

The first is, and I am more and more convinced of this, we need to reform our electoral system.  What sort of electoral system we get instead is more open to question but we need to get away from this multi-seat constituency competition which ensures great representation of Irish voters but also leads to ‘amoral localism’ and this aggregates our voices. Michael D. Higgins once said that Irish politics disaggregates the poor. It doesn’t just disaggregate the poor, it disaggregates everybody except the special interests. It encourages us to look at the trees and to forget about the forest.  We need to change that system.  Secondly, we need to change the Dáil and engage in Dáil reform. We need to put an end to the quiescence and the deference of TDs to their governments. We need to end the quiescence and the deference of the Dáil to the Government itself and to the Executive.  We need to end Executive domination. We need much more dialogue and much more sharing of powers between the Executive and the Legislature. And the third thing we need to do, especially now that these issues are being raised with property taxes and new local taxes, is to reform local government. We need to give real power to local government. We need to properly resource local government and we need to require and demand strong local engagement in local government and citizen engagement in local government.

Empowerment of Local Government

When you look around Europe in terms of how strong democracy is, it is a relatively bleak and depressing picture. Citizens are very dissatisfied.  Citizens are very discontented. Political leaders can do very little. But there is one country which is bucking the trend in a variety of ways and showing what can be done, a country which has been promoting more citizen engagement and a much stronger connection between citizens and their leaders.  That country is Denmark. And the first step that Denmark has taken is that it has reformed and bolstered and empowered its municipal government. I think that would be a very important first step in Ireland too.  That’s where we can begin as citizens to engage in running our own State and taking back control over our own State.




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