MICHAEL CLIFFORD: People power is going down the drain

WHERE to go from here? 

The recent protests over water charges turned on a tap out of which poured latent disaffection, built up over the last six years. Taoiseach Enda Kenny was right. It was about more than water. Pity he didn’t say what he intended to do about that disaffection.

Perhaps Mr Kenny, and the people around him, are hoping that this is just a blip in their onward march towards re-election.

History suggests they are right. Like water charges, the property tax began in great controversy. Some people let off steam, others got angry, but the matter settled down and everybody got back to being busy. Perhaps it’s in the Irish psyche, that fatalistic impulse that believes bad things will happen no matter what you do, so just wrap up and keep the head down.

But, for a while there, people didn’t accept that fatalism, and at the heart of the protest they have been talking about how “the risen people” have changed the political dynamic.

Is that the case? Or was it a confluence of timing, political incompetence, latent frustrations and, above all, the uncertain prospect of huge bills that created the biggest single-issue protest since the advent of austerity?

Now that the Government has torn up its original plan, the level of protest is likely to fall. Maybe not. But with the flashpoints of metering out of the equation, and relative certainty restored, the smart money says resistance will dissipate.

But considerable energy was spent over the last few months: feet on the street, the airwaves filled with angry voices, a mobilisation of a huge group under a single banner. What if that energy could be harnessed in a positive direction, towards a better future for all?

What kind of country do we want? The country emerging from the ruins of the economy is a slightly less hubristic, slightly more cautious version of the one that blew the arse out of the Celtic bubble. Last Tuesday, at Social Justice Ireland’s annual policy conference, academic Fred Powell delivered a brief critique of a near century of national independence.

We have, he says, had four republics since the founding of the State.

The first one, ‘DeValera’s Republic’, spanning 1922 to 1960, was inward-looking and far from a success. This was followed by ‘modernisation and Europe-isation’, a period of sustainability and relative success that ran until 1995. Then came the Celtic Tiger, a Republic of “risk and grab” that flowed over a cliff with the economic collapse in 2008.

The Republic we have inhabited since, “a republic of subjects”, as Powell says, has been one of austerity. “Is it sustainable, or is it suicidal?” he asked of this current incarnation. “We need to reinvent democracy, if we are to sustain it into its second century,” he said. So far, the signs have been far from encouraging. Also at the conference, in a presentation on investing in a new social contract, Professor Sean O’Riain pointed to a real danger that the recovery would be spread unevenly. “We already see that wages are recovering among managers and professionals, but not across the whole economy,” he said. “In the absence of some kind of national social bargain, the strongest can fight their corner, while the weakest will be left behind. We could end up with the worst of both worlds — increasing wage costs and rising inequality, at the same time.”

Is that the future for which the citizens have sacrificed and endured over the last six years? Since the Government was elected, we’ve had a stewardship that has concentrated on steadying the ship of State by sorting out public debt, including the banking element foisted on the citizens. This has involved one major accountancy exercise, and little more. Political considerations have informed that accountancy, but there has been nothing in the way of vision to give hope to the public at large. In the absence of any vision coming from on high, maybe it’s time that the public energy which was harnessed recently could be put towards formulating one. Any such vision would have to be evidence-based, rather than politically motivated.

For instance, Social Justice Ireland and the think tank, TASC, both of which are concerned with equality, are in favour of water charges. Both insist on protections for those least able to pay, but the principle involved is sustainability.

Father Sean Healy told the conference that our tax-take had to be increased, that, contrary to the popular slogans, we are not a high-tax country. Is there a willingness, out there, to examine such matters, in the context of building a better future for all?

At the heart of any proper vision must be efficient and proper public services. The alternative is the type of society in which inequality thrives, damning any prospect of sustainablity. Anybody in doubt of that need only look to the USA, where the middle class that built America is being systemically hollowed out.

Among small groups in this country, there is a range of issues being discussed about the future. These discussions have little traction, because suggestions can’t, on the face of it, be boiled down to the simplistic slogans that modern politics demands. Now is the time for such matters to be debated in the public square, before a head of steam builds up, back on the road to “risk and grab”.

A major roadblock in any presentation of ‘vision’ is getting buy-in from a public that has been conditioned to think exclusively of the future in terms of their personal circumstances. Or, as Sean O’Riain put it: “It (a different approach) would involve citizens saying that I won’t take that tax cut, but I will take better services.”

The stock response, at the moment, is that many people wouldn’t trust the State to provide better services, but if that’s the starting point, you might as well cancel any plans for a better future.

One simple example is child benefit. Despite recent cuts, we have a very high rate of direct payment of child benefit. Yet the childcare infrastructure is creaking and expensive, and schools are hugely underfunded.

Could an issue like that be explored in the context of a vision for the future? Right now, with large swathes of the population cash-strapped, such considerations may appear beyond their grasp. But sometime, somebody is going to have to get started, because there is a large vacuum where the future lies. Without a specific vision of where this society goes, there will be an inevitable drift towards great inequality, and less cohesion, leading, right down the road, to nowhere. A lot of energy was justifiably expended recently on standing up to government. Why not try to harness that to shape some kind of vision for the future. Anything must be better than “the best small country in which to do business”.

What if protest energy could be harnessed in a positive direction?

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