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Times Change

Quarterly Political & Cultural Magazine 


Restoring confidence in politics

Pat Rabbitte defends a beleaguered profession

When Ireland was on its knees afflicted with widespread poverty and haemorrhaging emigration - which was the case for most of the state's history - the country's politicians were, if not revered, certainly regarded with some respect. Now that the country has become relatively prosperous and is experiencing net inward migration, the standing of politicians has never been lower.

Less than twenty years ago the country was in recession; even well qualified young people had no alternative to emigration and the debt burden was crippling. Added to this, Northern Ireland was in turmoil and the sectarian conflict seemed intractable. Poverty was geographically clustered in huge urban blackspots, long-term unemployment was endemic and rural Ireland was in decline. Yet the status of politicians was relatively high.

Despite recent set-backs, a resolution of the Northern Ireland conflict seems possible in an awesome historical breakthrough. Long-term unemployment has been halved; state agencies are recruiting labour abroad and a National Plan comprising 40 billion investment over seven years has been launched. The national debt has been brought under control. And the standing of politicians has never been lower.

From the 1930s to the 1960s, Ireland was an insular, static society and a dismal economic failure. Mr de Valera promised that 'no more will we rear our children like cattle for export.' With the exception of the Great Famine period, we exported more people than at any time in our history and in the process siphoned off the most potent source of protest. Censorship was pervasive, Church and State were hand in glove, women were second-class citizens and we swept our scandals under the carpet. Tuberculosis was rampant and, for a majority of our people, the Irish state was a failed political and economic entity. At the same time, Mr de Valera was revered. Mr Costello and Mr Norton had their admirers. And the average backbencher was on a par with the parish priest and the schoolmaster.

This government and, at a minimum, its two predecessors have presided over a sustained period of rapid growth. Our GNP has doubled since 1992. At least 70,000 additional people are at work each year. For most people at work living standards have improved. We own more cars, more consumer goods, take more holidays and expect our children to remain longer in education. And yet the standing of politicians was never lower.

None of this is to suggest that difficult issues do not confront the political system. Indeed some people will argue that if one were to gauge those issues from their prominence in the media, even our problems are the problems of success - an infrastructural deficit, a skills shortage, traffic congestion and so forth. In reality, of course, we have other seeming intractable problems - too many of our people are still living below the poverty line with child poverty being especially acute. People with low skills and no skills find their labour unwanted and are expected to accept the reality of intergenerational unemployment. If it is true - and I believe it is - that our recent economic success is due in considerable measure to our education system, it is also true that up to a quarter of our children are effectively casualties of the same education system. Regional imbalance and rural decline are still realities and there are huge urban wastelands where multi-deprivation is ghettoised. Indeed it is possible to argue that we are now facing some of the worst problems of inequality and alienation because of our new found prosperity. Young people on reasonable incomes cannot afford to buy a house. Official Ireland that for so long exported hundreds of thousands of our own people is not capable of coping with a relatively small number of immigrants.

Yet when compared to any period in our history we are relatively better off; more people are at work; the prospect of peaceful co-existence on this island was never more hopeful; and emigration is a matter of choice rather than a forced economic necessity. And the ranking of politicians continues to fall.

Should anyone care and why does it matter? We only have to look to societies where democratic politics is absent to appreciate the answer. Indeed look at the struggle, energy and time invested in asserting that the normal writ of democratic politics should run in Northern Ireland.

Young people in particular are not persuaded of the relevance of politics. They live in a hugely changed and more tolerant Ireland than their parents and many of them are too busy making money to care about the character of their own society. They know quite a lot about making money but little enough of when Ireland was a less tolerant and less affluent society. Nor do they understand that, in order to deliver that more tolerant Ireland, sometimes courageous political positions had to be taken up and painful political birth pangs endured. In addition, many of these people don't seen to appreciate that in a less stable political environment, making money would soon become a transitory phenomenon. The character of our politics also determines the kind of society we enjoy as distinct from the kind of economy in which we participate.

So what has gone wrong? Why has politics become debased and the practice of politics denigrated? Part of the answer is that the conduct of some senior politicians has debased politics. But there is more to it than that. I remember well Charles Haughey's statement in the Dail that as far as corruption went, Ireland was only 'in the halfpenny place'. Of course, there was a grain of truth in this. One can still count on the fingers of one hand the number of corrupt Irish politicians. Nor should it be forgotten that most of our great political scandals are also business scandals. Corporate malpractice, tax evasion and failure to comply with company law have increased as business has grown. In a wealthier Ireland is it entirely surprising that a small number of politicians resorted to unorthodox measures to enrich themselves? Does this justify easy shorthand references to 'the politicians' as if there were a political class out there all of whose members are devoid of normal patriotism - however defined - and dedicated only to the fast buck and with an eye on the main chance?

I agree that the boil had to be lanced and that the cathartic period we are now going through is both necessary and inevitable and was a long time coming. The result I believe will be a more healthy and a more mature democracy. Whatever the ultimate findings, certain politicians have brought disgrace to the practice of politics and worse still are now adjudged in the public mind to have done permanent damage to politics. But there is little reference to the legislative changes that have been put in place to ensure high standards - insofar as legislation can guarantee standards in any walk of life - in public life. The Ethics in Public Office Act , the Electoral Act, and the Freedom of Information Act are now the law of the land and have already profoundly affected the traditional culture of Irish politics and public administration. Some journalists will gorge themselves in an orgy of comment on, for example, politicians expenses - as they are entitled to do - but won't acknowledge that they can access that information only because of legislative changes made by the same politicians. That is not to comment on the fact that some journalists give the impression that expenses are an entirely novel phenomenon - a phenomenon to which they themselves are strangers.

No journalist asked Mr de Valera about his use of the Parliamentary Leader's Allowance or where he slept at night. Mr Costello wasn't upbraided about the amount of time he spent in the Law Library. Mr Norton wasn't invited to comment on whether his party got favourable terms from the bank. And no journalist asked Mr Martin Corry about his expenses to travel from Cork. Those unquestioning days are gone forever and a good thing too.

However, the assumption now is in some sections of the media that no party leader can be trusted with the Parliamentary Leader's Allowance. All TDs are assumed in the same quarters to be fiddling their expenses. Newspapers that feign shock at the implications of fund-raising to finance party political activity at the same time rail against state funding of political parties.

It is not only certain senior politicians who waited on Mr Haughey's every whim who have now developed amnesia; for many years his utterances, his acquisitions, his style, his knowledge of art, blood stock, and wine were all reported with approbation and occasional awe. He was the Messiah destined to deliver us from a duller and poorer Ireland. The gossip columnists all wanted to touch the hem of his garment and certain anonymous commentators, and some not so anonymous, nurtured his self-image. The subliminal message in some current commentary is that all politicians are only distinguished from Haughey in matters of degree. Given the opportunity all politicians would behave similarly. It is a gross travesty of the truth and threatens to do serious damage to the body politic.

It was the media after all that largely failed to follow up on a fine and courageous publication in 1982, The Boss, by Peter Murtagh and Joe Joyce. The Boss has withstood the test of time and has been shown to be prophetic. In any other Western democracy at the time it would at least have got a run for its money. Several politicians at that time and since, and some journalists, pursued these same issues - but they were a minority. My point is that politicians are not uniquely to blame for turning a blind eye to what went on.

Notwithstanding the explosion in print and broadcast technology, the space allocated to serious reportage and commentary of substantial Dail business has been in decline for a number of years. Apparently it is considered too boring, not 'sexy' enough or doesn't sell newspapers. The tedium of line-by-line scrutiny of legislation in committee rarely attracts the attention of journalists. If it becomes the conventional wisdom that the hard slog of legislating attracts little or no attention, politicians will respond accordingly and the standing of politics will be further eroded.

Such reform of the Dail as has taken place is either pointless or ineffective if it has failed to change the way its functioning is seen. I would argue that the Oireachtas and the media, without compromising their respective functions, have a convergence of interest in raising the quality of debate on public affairs.

Politicians themselves are primarily responsible for the damage done to politics. Before any of the revelations that have recently engulfed public affairs, it was perhaps inevitable that the dominant culture in Irish politics - the nod-and-wink men and the inside-track mentality - would lead to the loss of confidence that now besets our system. Politicians may be primarily responsible for that loss of confidence but they are not exclusively to blame and some perspective should be maintained. And certainly politicians alone will not be able to restore confidence in our parliamentary system. Schools, media, business, churches and others have a role to play without compromising their vigilance or duty to criticise.

Pat Rabbitte is TD for the constituency of Dublin South West


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