News Analysis

Thursday 8 December 2016

Showing respect for public is a start

In the cross-party talks on State finances, politicians have a golden opportunity to regain our esteem, writes Ronan Fanning

Published 17/10/2010 | 05:00

'We must never forget that the only real source of power that we as judges can tap is the respect of the people," said an American Supreme Court judge, Thurgood Marshall. In the case of politicians, the relationship between power and respect is more basic.

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For judges do not achieve their power by running for election and, if the stream of popular respect they tap sputters, they can still sustain their authority, superficially, by the panoply of the courts and, ultimately, by respect for the law. In a democracy, political power, unlike judicial power, rests on popular support. The respect of the people is the reservoir from which all power flows. Once the reservoir runs dry political authority disintegrates and power begins to evaporate. The Irish experience over the last two years is a classic case study of how quickly that can happen even in a successful and apparently healthy democracy.

Part of the explanation stems from a vulnerability in the system of parliamentary democracy we inherited from the British: the possibility that popular support for a government can collapse soon after it wins a majority in a general election. This, of course, is what happened in Ireland in 2007-2009. By September 2009, less than halfway through the life expectancy of the present Dail which had first assembled in June 2007 and little more than a year after he had become Taoiseach, Brian Cowen's satisfaction rating had already plummeted to 15 per cent (the lowest level ever recorded by a Taoiseach) and a massive 77 percent of voters -- more than three out of every four -- wanted a change of government.

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