Opinion: Drift from democracy is a long time coming

The Government created a democratic vacuum and can hardly ascend to the heights of righteous indignation when others take advantage, writes Michael Clifford

THINGS here are dark, to put it brightly, with apologies to Mr Beckett. In the last week basic standards of democracy have plummeted. The leader of Sinn Féin has stated that he has no confidence in the Ceann Comhairle. The deputy leader of Sinn Féin has staged a sit-in in the lower house of parliament, claiming that she is being treated unfairly. The actions of both Gerry Adams and Mary Lou McDonald appear, on the face of it, to be laced with cynicism.

But would they have got away with it at any other time? Are their actions occurring in a vacuum where the Government has abdicated any moral authority, not necessarily by its policies, but through its conduct? Beyond the citadel of parliamentary politics, things have turned ugly. Last Saturday, Joan Burton was prevented from going about her business in west Tallaght. She was assaulted with a water balloon, effectively held hostage for more than two hours and intimidated as she sat in her car. She was verbally abused in a sexist manner.

The man who was alternatively leading and not leading the protest is an elected member of parliament, who sees himself moving forward with his mandate in one hand and a loudhailer in the other. Paul Murphy of the Anti-Austerity Alliance negotiated with the gardaí to allow Burton’s car leave the location at a slow pace.

Who is Murphy that he negotiates at what pace an elected politician can go about her business? Does he see himself as the law in west Tallaght? In his series of media interviews, Murphy said that Burton couldn’t just “swan in and out” of communities like west Tallaght. He obviously regards himself as some sort of chieftain of the area, determining who will be granted right of passage. Is he projecting himself in this manner secure in the notion that many in the area regard Burton as being fair game, as if she were guilty of vile crimes? He is not alone. Defending him in radio interviews, his colleagues Joe Higgins and Ruth Coppinger both compared the abuse meted out to Burton as similar to what can be heard in Croke Part or the Aviva Stadium on match days. The suggestion that women footballers of any code are routinely abused as “c***s” in either stadium is risable. Both Higgins and Coppinger have lowered themselves in grasping for a line to defend the indefensible.

What is alarming is the reaction to the intimidation and violence on display last Saturday.

There has been widespread condemnation in politics and the mainstream media. Among the main political parties, only Sinn Féin has been behind the door in coming out to decry the attack on democracy. The Shinners fish in the same pool of disaffection as Murphy, so they are careful not to alienate any votes. In the media, the outrage is informed by the notion that what occurred is an affront to democracy, which it is, but threats to democracy have not been confined to anti-water protesters.

Beyond those circles though, is there much alarm? Online comments and a quickfire phone poll on RTE’s Liveline are not scientific, but therein can be glimpsed strands of opinion beyond mainstream politics and media. Few online comments expressed any sympathy for Burton. In the Liveline poll, only 56% of the 15,000 respondents found the protests in Tallaght unacceptable.

The drift from democracy didn’t begin last week. For the last three years, the Government has treated most of the opposition, whose function it is to hold government to account, with barely concealed contempt in the Dáil.

Again and again, questions and points raised by Fianna Fáil are dismissed with a wave of the hand that suggests the Soldiers of Destiny landed the country in the mire and therefore have no right to question how the Government is extracting the State. When Gerry Adams gets to his feet, he is slapped down with reminders of his past. There’s nothing wrong with reminding Adams of his past, but doing so to deflect from legitimate questions is a tactic used by Enda Kenny that is long past its sell-by date.

Similarly, the left-wing independents in particular are regarded as if they’d been dragged in by the cat. What is going to happen in the next Dail, if, as expected, there are up to 40 independents? Is their mandate going to be afforded the due consideration that might be expected in a functioning democracy? Beyond the Dáil, the Government has shied away from engagement with the general public, a prerequisite in any functioning democracy. The Taoiseach avoids any opportunity to talk to the public through media interviews. There has been no effort to set out a vision that might offer hope beyond austerity.

There are many problems with the water-charge fiasco, but among the main ones is the failure of government to sell the concept to the public as a positive reform for the provision of water. There was no engagement. The hope from on high was that in an improving economy, this charge could be slipped in with as little fuss as possible.

On radio yesterday, junior minister Aodhan O’Riordain accused Murphy of acting in a Paisleyite manner by whipping up a crowd and then stepping back when matters began to turn ugly.

The same accusation might be made of the Government. Incrementally and by stealth, they have been chipping away at democracy, refusing the engage in parliament, not bothering to do so out in the public square. Having created a democratic vacuum, they can hardly now ascend to heights of righteous indignation when others take advantage of the vacuum.

The events of the last week are unacceptable, but the conditions were created in which those events are now regarded as acceptable to many citizens. There’s plenty to worry about there.



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