The Crisis of Irish Democracy

(Originally Published at in November 2014)

The current crisis of Irish democracy is not the one currently being given space in the nation’s mainstream media outlets. Ungovernability is supposedly just around the corner according to some. A “sinister fringe” is engaging in acts of violence. “Marxist-Leninists” are standing in the way of the government and its wishes. Michael Noonan is on record as saying that he and his government “govern for the reasonable people,” and not the sinister fringe of ungovernable Marxist-Leninists in our midst. Reading this, one would imagine that the Red Army of old is engaging in ideological, and very physical, warfare on Ireland. Of course this is sheer nonsense, but the ghost of the “Dreaded Red” is well risen from its grave, courtesy of the necromancers currently inhabiting Dáil Éireann. Such propaganda is a reaction to the citizens of Ireland having had enough of years of austerity measures. They have taken to the streets, engaged in peaceful protest, and civil disobedience, in order to show their contempt for their treatment by the government. Compared to other European countries over the last few years, Ireland has been relatively quiet on the protest front. The planned introduction of water charges has changed all that. And now, the government and the Irish media, are panicking. A citizenry of a Western and ostensibly democratic state is not supposed to be actively engaged in the democratic process. To do so is to cause a “crisis of democracy”. This is nothing remotely new. During the 1960s and 1970s, people on both sides of the Atlantic demanded equal rights, an end to war, and generally demanded social change from their leaders whom they considered to have failed in their duty to create an equal society in the post-war years. To that end, they engaged in massive demonstrations and civil disobedience in order to achieve their aims. Such activity on the part of the wider citizenry frightened the leaders of the Western world, so much so that it became the basis of a report by the Trilateral Commission.

Published in 1975, The Crisis of Democracy: Report on the Governability of Democracies to the Trilateral Commission, examined in some detail the causes and effects of the active citizenry that emerged in the 1960s and early 1970s in Europe, the United States, and Japan. Written by three leading academics for the NGO, it is premised on the idea that a previously apathetic citizenry became more active and therefore undermined the credibility and functioning of democracy. Although the introduction states that the report is “designed to make democracy stronger”, the definition of democracy being worked off is a top-down approach to governance in which the population is preferably apathetic, passive, and stratified. All three authors wondered how to make democracy not more democratic or effective in the popular understanding of the term, but how to enable a return to the previous state of affairs of an apathetic, passive, and stratified citizenry.

A “crisis of democracy” was “a breakdown of traditional means of social control, a delegitimation of political and other forms of authority, and an overload of demands on government, exceeding its capacity to respond.” An “increase of social interaction” resulted in the breakdown of the means of “traditional social control imposed upon the individual by collective authorities, especially the state, and by hierarchical religious institutions.” In turn, this meant that citizens “resist any kind of social control that is associated with the hierarchical values they have learned to discard and reject.” Individuality was seen to have usurped traditional civic values and stratification, and therefore people were more free than ever to choose their jobs, friends, partners, and general future, as they saw fit. At the very least, the wider population had decided that they could make those decisions for themselves without government interference.

Added to this was the change in access to information. Quite simply, people had more access to information than was previously the case. This, in the words of the authors, “made it difficult if not impossible to maintain the traditional distance that was deemed necessary to govern.” But even more so, as was further noted, such previously unparalleled access to information and the new “democratic ethos” made “it difficult to prevent access and restrict information,” as had previously been the case. Media institutions and outlets were also seen as a threat in this context. They were “self-regulating” and therefore able “to resist pressure from financial or governmental interests.” All in all, the traditional hierarchies in society were seen to have broken down, people were interacting on a level previously unheard of, and information was freely and widely available as never before. A “crisis of democracy”, as the authors defined it, was a critical, active, and informed citizenry.

As they had noted from the outset, the premise that democracy meant free and open participation of the masses was not entirely correct. Returns diminished the more open the system was; European democracies had always been “built on subtle screening of participants and demands”. Therefore, the “crisis” was caused “because this traditional model of screening and government by distance has gradually broken down”. This “screening of participants” obviously resulted in certain groups of people being marginalised in some fashion. Such marginal groups were outside the democratic system and they were kept out. This had “been one of the factors which had enabled democracy to function effectively.” In order to end the “crisis” the obvious solution was to return to some form of screening or reassertion of the traditional forms of hierarchy in society. Individuals and groups, it was declared, would have to learn to show “more self-restraint”, as otherwise governance would apparently become completely impossible. On top of this, new methods of control would also have to be constructed which relied on less coercion than in previous times, but nonetheless gave the same returns in the form of social control and acquiescence. Passivity would have to be reintroduced in some manner.

This is part of the explanatory context regarding the reaction of both the media and the political class to the recent protests surrounding the commodification of our water. People who had never engaged in political protest or civil disobedience before a few months ago are now actively involved in resisting the introduction of water charges. The government, and the EU for that matter, simply took it for granted that the population is too passive and too stratified to resist en masse any kind of governmental decision. Clearly, they were incorrect in their assessment. People have simply had enough. It must be remembered that people are not against water charges. They are well aware of the fact that they already pay for the upkeep of the current water infrastructure through general taxation. The issue is that the government is trying to squeeze them yet again when there isn’t much of anything left to squeeze out. When the government and their representatives are attacked as a result of this, their reaction is a mixture of contempt, indignation, and horror.

This is where the spin of a “sinister fringe” or a “Marxist-Leninist” element comes into play. If you can’t win an argument, then sully your opponent. It’s a tactic as old as history and one that is being wielded without much success, thankfully, thus far. But it does indicate the desperation in government circles and desperation on the part of the powerful, as we all know, does not bode well for any society. Gardaí and Irish Water workers have become increasingly abusive and violent in recent weeks, something not likely to abide any time soon. Increasing escalation on the part of protestors is a likely consequence of the government trying to appease an angry population. By trying to paint the crisis as merely a “communications problem” on the part of the population it only further enrages the latter, and rightly so. Another important element of the rage felt by people is what they consider the perversion of the Labour Party. Labour for decades claimed to represent the interests of ordinary people, i.e. as a populist party, in the Dáil. Now they are seen as just another right-wing party who have shed all pretensions of proper accountability to and representation of ordinary people, in order to further their own ideological needs and ends. Pat Rabbitte personifies this.

In the aftermath of the EU and Local Elections, the then Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Rabbitte rhetorically asked “Where would the country be now?” if the results of the elections had in actuality been the results of a general election. Such an attitude directed towards citizens engaging in the democratic process was apparently uncontroversial. What was controversial and of concern was that they had given an incorrect answer to the democratic question posed to them: Who should lead? An incorrect answer is, and always was, “The people should lead”. Supporters of the Labour Party are also guilty by association. By attempting to paint a veneer of accountability and empathy on the Labour edifice, they are merely prolonging and worsening the moral corruption of the Labour Party. Labour is helping to oversee an ever increasing neo-liberalisation of Ireland and a concomitant transfer of wealth from the bottom to the top, thereby ensuring that, as Thucydides wrote, “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” Coming from a party that claims, along with its supporters, to be to the left of the political spectrum, its corruption and hypocrisy is blatant.

This is the crisis of Irish democracy. It is not a “sinister fringe” or a “Marxist-Leninist” conspiracy. Nor is it the surrounding of Joan Burton’s car by roughly 100 protesters a number of days ago. Instead, it is the contempt shown for the wishes of the population by the government and its supporters. The crisis of Irish democracy is an active, engaged, and passionate citizenry. Such a thing cannot be countenanced in any Western democracy, and it is no different in Ireland.

This article is adapted from a paper entitled Reconceptualising Citizenship: Reflections on Democracy and Crises, which was presented at the University College Dublin Sociology Graduate Conference, Contemporary Europe: National, Regional and Global Policy Issues, on November 13th, 2014.