Joan Burton TD, An Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection


Introduction: measuring words and actions

There is a line in Heaney’s translation of Beowulf which reads: “Anyone with gumption and a sharp mind will take the measure of two things: what’s said and what’s done.”  It’s a line that speaks to modern audiences because it appears to suggest that words must be matched by actions.  In fact, the character speaking is a coast-guard who, convinced by the sincerity of Beowulf’s words upon his arrival on Danish shores, allows passage.  Words could be as trustworthy as deeds in the culture in which Beowulf was set. But we have reason for reading that line in the way that we do.

Because, as history has taught us, there can be a glaring difference between what’s said and what’s done – by rulers, by states, by institutions, by organisations – by those we are supposed to trust.  To see how ancient a truth this is, you need only to consider how the Bible depicts Jesus telling his faithful of the difference between the Pharisees’ teachings and their actions, “for they say, and do not do”.  So any person looking to measure the trustworthiness and credibility of the institutions that play a role in their lives will measure both utterance and deed.   But restoring trust in our institutions is not simply a matter of leaders matching words with actions.

There is a second problem, which is to do with the cynicism that now surrounds politics and public life – the notion that motives are always questionable, and that nothing is done simply in the public interest.  Given the long history of political and institutional scandals here and abroad, that is not surprising.  It arguably means, however, that even when words are matched with action, leaders cannot of themselves “restore” trust in institutions.  They can only work to “regain” trust through credible reform and sustained commitment to best practice that is both visible and persuasive.  Because it is the individual – not the institution – who will take the measure of what’s said and what’s done, who will ultimately decide whether trust is warranted or not.

Ireland has been through an economic and social crisis since 2008, and trust in our institutions has taken a battering.  I believe trust can be regained, but it will be a slow and deliberate task, because we cannot simply ask or expect the people to take a leap of faith.  We must show by evidence that faith is warranted again.  Faith is also built through participation. People believe in democracy because they have a say in it.  And people will believe again in our major institutions if they have a say in shaping their reform.  So the process of rebuilding trust must be an inclusive one if it is to succeed.

Today, I want to talk about the substantial work this Government has done to begin that process, and further steps we should consider taking.  From legislation to protect whistleblowers to the overhaul of our Constitution, sustained and deep-rooted reform of our institutions is under way.  And the public shaping of that Constitutional overhaul, in particular, offers a way forward that is full of potential for regaining trust.

The erosion of trust

“Do as I say, not as I do” is a theme with which we have become wearyingly familiar in Irish public life in recent decades.  There are many famous examples.  Former Taoiseach, Charles Haughey, urged the people of this country to tighten their belts while he himself was doing anything but.  A number of public representatives facilitated planning corruption when they were supposed to be ensuring good planning in the public interest.  Brown envelopes became the bagman’s best friend.  But it’s not only politics that has fallen in public trust.

In Ireland in recent years, we have seen a major erosion of trust in the institutions that dominated the first 90 years of this State. The scandals that surrounded the Catholic Church have been well documented and discussed.  The reckless greed of our financial institutions – and the failure of our regulatory system to control them – brought this country to the brink of bankruptcy.   The erosion of trust is not an Irish phenomenon alone. The 2008 crash was a global one, and a number of corporations played an unforgivable role in the economic collapse.

Rising inequality has destroyed any public faith in the existence of a universal idea of fairness.  In the UK, elements of the media who were supposed to act as watchdog instead themselves engaged in appalling and illegal conduct.  Doping has cast doubt over some amazing sporting achievements.   And so on.  It is little doubt, then, that public trust in institutions is eroding.  I cannot speak here today for the Church, the banks, the media and so on.   But I can speak for the Government in terms of what the political system must do to regain trust.   I believe my own party has a strong record in changing Ireland through the major programme of reform that we have embarked upon since we entered government. These reforms are political, institutional, and societal.

We have restored Freedom of Information provisions to make government decisions more open and transparent to the public.  We have changed the way our parliament operates and banned corporate donations to political parties.  We are regulating lobbying, are leading the most profound change in the history of An Garda Siochana through the establishment of a Garda Authority, and have commenced new legislation to protect whistleblowers.  Last year, we introduced new laws to protect the lives of women by legislating for the X Case.  While I am proud of what we have already achieved, I am also conscious that there is much more to do.  This is why, in the Statement of Priorities that the Government has agreed for the remainder of its term, we have set a number of key commitments.

For example, we will complete a review of the operation of the Judicial Appointments System, to ensure an appointments system that is open, transparent and accountable.  We will bring forward legislation to establish an Electoral Commission to ensure best practice and probity in our election processes.   And we will hold a number of referendums next year to give the public their say on the recommendations of the Constitutional Convention. And that brings me to a proposal I believe we should actively consider – namely that the Constitutional Convention become a regular feature of our public life.

The people’s voice

The Constitutional Convention was a Labour Party idea.  And the idea was simple – that a fundamental review of our Constitution would be carried out by the people to whom it belonged.  It was agreed in the Programme for Government, and established as a forum of 100 people, representative of Irish society and parliamentarians from across the island. Bringing the people and their public representatives together hardly sounds innovative.  But as the Convention itself noted when it concluded its work earlier this year, this was the first time anywhere in the world where randomly selected citizens worked side by side with elected representatives in a dynamic approach to examining constitutional reform.  The Constitutional Convention has shown all of us that more citizen involvement can be a powerful force for progressive change. What’s more, as Convention chair, Tom Arnold, has noted, “one interesting outcome was the increased level of mutual respect that developed between citizens and politicians as they worked together”.  In other words, trust was fostered.

In the Statement of Priorities, we have committed to holding referendums next year, in line with the Convention’s recommendations, on marriage equality, reducing the voting age, and reducing the age of candidacy of the President.  Further referendums may follow on foot of other recommendations by the Convention.  Rather than stopping there, we could go further.

Our Constitution must be a living document owned by the people – and the Convention has given us a template to review it in precisely the careful, deliberative and democratic manner that we need.  We could make the Convention a regular feature of public life; so that every five years, or every decade, the Constitution would be reviewed in a methodological way and the public would have their say in that process.

Inequality breeding distrust

For trust to be regained, public participation in the reform of our institutions and institutional processes is essential.  But that does not negate the need for leadership.  And even if there is a growing cynicism about politics and political leaders, it doesn’t let us off the hook to simply shy away from responsibility or ask the public to decide on every course of action.  We were elected for a reason – to effect positive change in the best interests of our people – and if we fail at that, the public will, rightly, let us know at election time.

When I think of the issues that, more than anything, have led to global erosion in trust in politics, I think of inequality.  The French economist Tomas Piketty has been making quite a splash internationally by his assertion that we are heading towards a new Gilded Age because so much of the growth in wealth in recent decades has gone to the richest in society. Meanwhile, ordinary people have seen their incomes stagnate alongside disturbing trends towards insecure forms of employment and the shrinking influence of trade unions.  Politics is supposed to be the instrument whereby the power of the majority can make itself felt to counteract the underlying trend to inequality. This has not happened. JK Galbraith once said that “the complaints of the privileged are too often confused with the voice of the masses”. Those complaints of the privileged are precisely what trickle-down economics served for the past number of decades.  This was the notion promoted by the super-rich that if we protected them, their wealth would trickle down to everyone else.

The great tragedy of trickle-down economics is that it gradually dismantled the post-war social democratic settlement which had, for several decades, succeeded in reducing inequality.  The disastrous consequences are now with us – a yawning gap in the balance of economic and social power that has led to the sense of powerlessness pervading our society at present.  Trust in public institutions, ranging from governments to trade unions, is one of the first victims of this trend.  If living standards fall and people feel that the traditional roads to opportunity are closed, they abandon their trust in the mechanisms that historically served their interests.  It is for this reason – the urgent need to address falling living standards – that I set out the case in recent weeks for a Low Pay Commission. This would be an independent body tasked with making annual recommendations to government on the appropriate level of the minimum wage and related matters.

I am delighted that the Taoiseach agreed on the need for such a Commission and that Minister of State, Ged Nash, has been assigned special responsibility for establishing it as a priority.  This is only one of many steps we have to take.  But when it comes to tackling inequality, we also need a fundamental shift in approach on a global level.  I, for one, am very glad that a debate on the need for such a new approach is finally under way.  If you read IMF managing director Christine Lagarde’s speeches this year, you will notice the sense of alarm now evident about the economic and social damage that rising inequality can cause. Similarly, Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England, has warned that unchecked market fundamentalism can devour social capital.

President Obama speaks of the need to build the recovery from the middle out, not the top down – meaning the economy will grow by helping those on ordinary incomes, not obscene ones.  In other words, we must work to achieve full employment, fair wages and increased living standards.   This is a virtuous circle, because small businesses will flourish, public finances will improve, and room will be created for new investment in essential services such as healthcare, education and transport.

Conclusion: the need for social recovery

Since coming to office, the Government has focused, by necessity, on economic repair.  In recent weeks, I have spoken extensively of my belief that there is now an urgent need for an equal emphasis on social repair – and the conditions have been created to achieve it.  But this is as true of the EU as it is of Ireland.  A return to economic growth of itself, though welcome, is not enough.  Society must flourish too.  Therefore, we need a social recovery to accompany the economic recovery so that we deliver renewed prosperity for all our people – a social recovery that raises living standards and reduces inequality.  And we must provide leadership on this, which is why, in the Statement of Priorities, the Government have made clear that our emphasis will be on social recovery, and have also made clear that we will work with our European allies to see similar policies implemented across the EU.  A social recovery that reduces inequality would be firm and conclusive evidence that our political institutions are working in our people’s best interests.   It would go a long way to regaining trust.  And we are wholeheartedly committed to it.   But as I say, if we are truly to restore trust in government, in public life, in our institutions, it cannot be a unilateral process.

It must involve our institutions not just working for the people, but working with the people, to achieve it.


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