If the philosopher Karl Popper did not have the inconvenience of being dead, he could easily devote a whole new edition of his classic work The Open Society And Its Enemies to Ireland alone. The Irish have always had a troubled relationship with liberty. It was as if the founding revolutionary myth of a country freeing itself from tyranny was enough in itself to satisfy the appetite for emancipation, so few really felt a further need to cement that spirit into any sort of enlightened independence of mind.
Fast forward to the 21st Century and it's depressing to consider how few robust defenders of a genuinely free society there are in this country. Out of curiosity, I put out an appeal on Twitter last week for suggestions. Fewer than half-a-dozen names were put forward. And most of them were dead.
More depressing still is that those who attack a free society don't even recognise half the time that this is what they're doing. Instead, shutting down dissent is presented under the guise of nice, sensible reform.
That's what happened when the Government passed the 30th Amendment Bill, allowing the Houses of the Oireachtas to conduct full inquiries into matters of public interest.
It seemed like a no-brainer. Why pay vast lawyers' fees to keep gravy trains like the Moriarty and Mahon tribunals on the road when politicians could do the job for nothing in their spare time?
That plan was defeated at referendum, not because voters liked lawyers and wanted them to keep getting so rich that they can buy spare planets as holiday homes, but because when it came down to it, they preferred not to give politicians more power than they already possessed – not least because what power they already had was not being used well. You don't pass a loaded gun to a lunatic.
On the same day, though, voters did pass a referendum relaxing the constitutional prohibition on reducing judges' pay. A clever man would have concluded that whilst people are suspicious of clipping the wings of the law without putting equally trustworthy safeguards in place, it can be done if it is presented under the populist guise of attacking privilege and greed.
No one likes people who earn too much for doing what is regarded as too little. Unless they're one of them. That's probably why Justice Minister Alan Shatter thought he was on safe ground when he wrote to Chief Justice Mrs Susan Denham in recent days, seeking a series of reforms including longer working hours and shorter holidays. After all, if the woman behind the counter at the dole office is being asked to work a few more hours every week, why not judges too?
But judges have a unique place in Irish democracy that should only be unpicked with care and slippery slopes are dangerous places. If the independence of judges can be chipped away on the justification of economic efficiency, then that's a short step to chipping away at it on the grounds of the public good, or the security of the Republic, or any other such convenient excuse dreamt up behind closed doors. And who sits behind those closed doors? Politicians.
On reflection, most of us would surely rather moan about overpaid judges with over-long holidays than risk setting a precedent whereby the Government of the day gets its hands on such a powerful bargaining tool when dealing with the guardians of justice. The potential for a cosy "you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours" arrangement is all too real. It happens regularly in other jurisdictions.
It's about context. Individual measures by the Government wouldn't matter so much if they came as single spies rather than in battalions, but there has been a positive assault by this administration against many of the fundamental pillars of freedom.
Abolishing the Seanad is another one. No one likes the Seanad much, but it showed its worth during the recent abortion hearings. Professor John Crown's contribution to the debate was an example of the Seanad operating to its full potential.
The chamber also gives a voice to many, such as the much-maligned Senator Ronan Mullen, who might otherwise find themselves marginalised.
Reform and strengthen it, by all means. Indeed, doing so is an urgent necessity. But using the current disillusionment with politicians as a cover for constitutional vandalism by doing away with it altogether seems cynical and opportunistic.
They're doing the same thing with social media. Twitter can be a pain in the behind and the internet stinks sometimes like a sewer. But it didn't kill Shane McEntee and the Government knows it. Ministers are simply using one family's personal tragedy as an excuse to clamp down on dissent. The silence of intellectuals in the face of State power was best summed up by Niemoller: "When they came for the Jews, I didn't speak out, because I wasn't a Jew."
Tweeters have become the Jews of public discourse, caricatured as unclean and degenerate and few want to defend them. But once they've finished off social media, they'll not be in a mood to stop. "Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak for me."
In fact, there are enough hints out there to suggest that clamping down on anonymous internet abuse is nothing but a Trojan horse to sneak censorship through the gates into the heart of Irish democracy. It's already become hard enough in what's called the mainstream media to speak truth to power.
Defamation laws have gone from being a tool of the innocent to a weapon of the rich and guilty. Who'd blame a journalist during economically straitened times, with jobs and livelihoods on the line, for taking the path of least resistance? One wrong step and you're finished.
That's not an atmosphere in which healthy journalism can flourish, which is partly why social media often goes to the other hysterical extreme. Nature always finds a balance.
Fine Gael probably has more reason than most to neuter its critics. As someone observed to me mordantly this week, Fianna Fail traditionally left its bodies floating in the Ganges, we can all see them, but Fine Gael buried its deep. What next? A constitutional restriction on shovels, in case anyone gets the urge to start digging?
Seanad, media, judges: that's the unholy trinity on which the enemies of freedom have currently set their sights. Individually, none of them are particularly popular. Collectively, you wouldn't put them top of the Christmas card list. That's no coincidence.
But a society which values its liberty shouldn't just stand up for what's popular. The unpopular causes are usually the ones which turn out to be most worth fighting for.