GERARD HOWLIN: Change comes dropping so slowly you might not have noticed it

"What is coming may not be better but it will be irrevocably different"

Those up the ranks know they shafted new colleagues all the better to preserve their own entitlements, writes Gerard Howlin.

It’s a consequence which will arrive soon if it’s coming at all. Ultimately the significance of the hiatus over forming a government, will be about how government is done. Expectations of ‘new politics’ now, as for a ‘democratic revolution’ before, will be overdone and disappointed. Whatever its form, it will overwhelmingly resemble what went before, except there will be a great deal of gyration, day-to-day, issue-to-issue. That, however, will be froth. The bigger issue is whether, in terms of governance, much will change. I think a little can.

The obsession with outward form — the horse trading — obscures already accomplished changes in function. Simply put, politics was already changing incrementally even during the apparently immutable tenure of the former two-and-a-half-party system, now disappeared. Electoral results are a symptom of that, not their cause per se, though they do give momentum. The continuing change in function is evidenced by the social transformation of a conservative, hierarchical society over 40 years, within essentially the same structures.

In terms of political form not a lot changed until 2011, between the banning of John McGahern’s novel The Dark in 1965 and the arrival of same-sex marriage 50 years later. A fundamentally different society had arrived none the less.

What prompted social change and an increased questioning of authority is complex. Certainly education and technology are powerful forces. Radio and television first, and an explosion in the automation of society caused by the IT revolution flattens hierarchy. With everyone a desktop publisher, enabled to speak globally in an instant, what need now of politics or pulpit? That power is turned sour, however, because noise is the new silence. Everyone is screaming but nobody is listening. The ultimate torment to the ego is the moment when, finally enabled, you are ultimately ignored.

The shenanigans yesterday at the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors annual conference underline that. The popular appeal of insurgency has spread to the extent where, well-paid and extraordinarily well-pensioned senior gardaí would prefer to populate the prison cells themselves than police others into them. If only the great McGahern, the son of a Garda sergeant, were still with us. There is a novel in it.

When the modus operandi of gardaí, paid from public taxes and enabled by swathes of legal powers and privilege, blend effortlessly with those they are to police, we have a sense of the change that has arrived.

It is this society that negotiations for the formation of a government belatedly, but only partially, reflect. The slow fracturing of political support, over decades, became more fundamental in 2011 — and 2016 reflects ever quickening, fundamental alteration. Harrumphing by political beasts after the general election — from within the remaining primordial forest, resembling hardly a clump of bushes in its diminished grandeur — for a grand coalition to shore-up the status quo underlines both how far we have come and the farce of imagining we are ever going back. What is coming may not be better but it will be irrevocably different.

Over decades practically every great citadel of Irish authority has been besieged, assaulted, breached.

Clergy and politicians have had to significantly change how they manage their internal affairs and relate to the community at large. The prospect of a minority government, genuinely responsible to the Dáil and dependent on it, represents less a challenge to politics which is famously flexible, as to the larger, often more powerful reality of the permanent state behind it. If changes in how government is done in the 32nd Dáil last long enough to stick, regardless of how incremental they are, this may be its best lasting legacy.

The reality of government is that the 15 at the cabinet table are as much in the chorus as leading actors. Partly this is because the scale of modern government is so complex it is beyond the capacity of any minister, however talented to actually manage their department. It is also a consequence of an unresolved dysfunction of our political system where the skills required to get elected do not coincide with those required to lead complex organisations. Most fundamentally those charged with the actual management and detailed accounting are burdened with almost none of the real responsibility.

If any sliver of ‘new politics’ arrives, its challenge will be felt within the comfort zone of the senior civil and public service. A state has only two functions — to declare war and raise taxes. Keeping the peace, protecting the people in an Irish context, is why An Garda Síochána was established. Raising taxes is how we pay for that service and others we require.

It is the job of politicians to make policy decisions on what is important. Often they fail to do so well or coherently. But, once made, policy decisions must be delegated for implementation. It is at exactly this juncture — the high-level handover between policy and administration — that failures happen most often, most egregiously.

A more accountable government, answering to an empowered Dáil by default, if not by design, will lean more heavily on senior management, insisting it stand over its remarkably undefined realm of responsibility. In return, this will ensure an unhealthy cosiness is replaced by greater rigour.

The current dysfunction is underlined by the fact the negotiating teams of politicians can receive briefings on budgetary matters behind closed doors from the Department of Health, but neither the public nor Dáil, has formally heard anything. It is the equivalent of buying a car without an NCT.

In the officers’ mess of the senior service, in Garda barracks and in school staff rooms, there is an entrenched begrudgery and cussedness. Some is festering resentment at relative status reduction. None of those roles, in a more complex society with more opportunity, have the standalone importance they used to.

Those up the ranks know they shafted new colleagues all the better to preserve their own entitlements. Their new colleagues know it too. More fundamentally, as once clergy and politicians were, public service leaders are swivel-eyed at the dislocation of authority and accountability which they have not adjusted to.

Once CCTV was an instrument of authority, the better to watch and hold others to account. Now every gurrier with a gizmo is equipped with the equivalent. It is a metaphor for surveillance being turned on the watchmen. It is part of a profound dislocation and readjustment with which, this week, we see senior gardaí and politicians grappling, the latter much more adeptly.

The election result reflects the diffusion of society. It is a reality, unreformed public services, occluded behind the shelter break of politics, must adjust to within the scope of taxes it is prudent for the state to raise.

Perhaps a cooling-off period in the cells would be no bad thing.


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