VICTORIA WHITE: If Ireland faces a threat to its democracy it will be from the left

There is no ‘Them’ and ‘Us’ in a representative democracy. People’s power rests in their vote, writes Victoria White

Richard Boyd Barrett TD would rather those on the streets decide what happens than those that visit the ballot box. Picture: Gareth Chaney Collins

IT’S ironic that People Before Profit are running a demonstration against new US president tomorrow because, just like Trump, PBP supports taking politics out of traditional democratic structures.

Donald Trump had never held elected office until he was elected to the highest office in the western world. 

His promise has been to bypass the democratically elected Congress and Senate and provide direct representation to the “real” people.

“Real” people are those who will give him power. 

“Unreal” people are those who oppose him.

This is the reasoning of every autocrat. They promise to give you power while they take it away. Because the best way of giving “power to the people” is to cherish, uphold and participate in representative democracy. 

“One person, one vote” is not a principle to be thrown away, it is the result of centuries of struggle, a struggle which still goes on in countries all over the world.

I do not believe that so-called right-wing populism is much different than so-called left-wing populism, except that the left-wing brand doesn’t tend to be racist. 

In power, they both inevitably end up in corruption, a lowered standard of living and the repression of the rights of individuals.

In Ireland we have a low risk of succumbing to right-wing populism but we could drift towards left- wing populism very fast. 

I fancy Brendan Ogle’s chances because his credentials are impeccable: a leader in the Right2Water and Apollo House campaigns who is “uncorrupted” by elected office.

As the political landscape changes, it is important for the media to consistently make the distinction between democratic politics and politics which are beyond democracy. 

Up to now, they rarely have. Left-wing populism provides journalists with good headlines and good stories and that sure beats working. 

I’ve been at it myself. I got a thumping column out of the movement against water charges in what would otherwise have been a slow news week.

That’s why I know Fine Gael councillor Jim Daly was absolutely right this week when he told the C103 radio station that “the media, particularly RTÉ, really went to town” on the water charge protests. Of course there was genuine disquiet and even anger at the Government’s hopeless bungling of the charge. 

As Daly said, it was “timed wrong, approached wrong and done all wrong”.

But Daly showed the instincts of a news hack when he explained that the media at the time were bored by the Fine Gael/Labour coalition and what that means is that you were too.

Stable democratic governments need not be boring and it was among the failings of the last coalition that it was. 

Protest must happen and must be reported. But certain RTÉ radio presenters — I watch far less telly — got themselves into such a steam about the water charge protests that it was quite a surprise when you opened your front door that there was not a queue outside with bowls and buckets looking for a sup itself.

In the world’s poorest countries 2.5bn people do not have access to proper water sanitation and 783m of them have no clean drinking water. Ireland is not among them. 

I have the perhaps vain hope that the current Coalition will be able to bring in a regime which charges for water above an intelligently agreed allocation. 

But populism is so much easier to promote as the writer and environmental campaigner Naomi Klein has obviously discovered because she lost all my respect by supporting Right2Water in a speech at the RDS last year.

What is so worrying about some of the most successful left-wing populist politicians in the Dáil is that they do not see the parliament as a place from which to govern the country. 

In a fascinating interview on RTÉ radio last weekend, People Before Profit’s Richard Boyd Barrett described the Dáil as “a platform to encourage and mobilise the kind of people power action which can bring real change”.

Pursued by Brian Dowling he elaborated that electoral politics were “part of it but not the be-all and end-all”. 

There was, he said, a “rotten culture” in the mainstream parties which meant they concentrated on getting people elected rather than “the actual issues”.

Action on these issues, he said, had to come from “a mass movement of ordinary people”.

Are we to understand that “ordinary people” don’t vote, they march? 

The “actual issues” which concern “ordinary people” are decided on the streets, not in the Dáil? 

That democracy is not the business of “ordinary people”? 

And that a vote for every man and woman which was so hard-won was wasted on them?

On the same programme the Anti-Austerity Alliance’s Ruth Coppinger told Brian Dowling that Trump’s presidency would not be defeated in parliament but by street protests featuring women and Latinos — people too “ordinary” for politics, I guess.

Politicians are ‘The Other’. The judiciary is ‘The Elite’. That’s how a spokesperson for Home Sweet Home explained Judge Paul Gilligan’s decision that they should end their illegal occupation of the building last week. 

The motivation of many behind the occupation of Apollo House was no doubt good but the narrative that only “ordinary people” care about homelessness and that politicians both local and national have been doing nothing is dangerous and untrue.

Mr Noonan could end homelessness by compelling Nama to hand over the vacant properties in its possession “at the stroke of a pen”, say Home Sweet Home. 

The fact which is missed here is that Nama is the State. 

If Nama failed to sell certain properties the taxpayer would lose out and considering most Nama-held properties, including Apollo House, would make sub-optimal long-term homes the intelligent route is for Nama to reap as much as it can so the State can build proper social housing.

There is no simple ‘Them’ and ‘Us’ in a representative democracy such as ours. People’s power rests in their vote. They’ve not done badly. Ireland is the sixth most developed country in the world according to the UN Human Development Index, tied with Germany and above most places you care to mention.

I would like to see a far bigger home-building project, a universal public health service, a rapidly decarbonising economy but at least I accept that a growing tax take would be necessary to provide them. 

It is ironic, as our Irish Examiner columnist Gerard Howlin has pointed out, that the politicians and activists shouting loudest for action on housing are often associated with voting through reductions in local property charges and against expanding the tax base with a water charge.

The media have been ignoring their duties under the Broadcasting Act in failing to discriminate between democratic politics and politics which undermine democracy. 

As right-wing populism prepares to take the stage in the US, Irish populism is entering stage left.

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