Friday 21 October 2016

Finally, our children will learn something they can apply in the real world - power

Published 12/11/2015 | 02:30

Students will learn about power and the decision-making process and the ideas underpinning various ideologies
Students will learn about power and the decision-making process and the ideas underpinning various ideologies

It was Plato who said one of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics was that people end up being governed by their inferiors. Which is another way of telling us to pay attention if we want our government to do its job properly - disengagement is not the answer.

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So the advisory body on the national curriculum is to be congratulated for identifying a particularly useful subject - politics and society - as worth introducing to the Leaving Cert syllabus next year. Its applicability to the world around us is immediately apparent.

Students will learn about power and the decision-making process and the ideas underpinning various ideologies. The course will also include a citizenship project to look at ways of becoming involved in civic and political life. The hope must be that engagement with these themes might lead to a generation of more conscientious citizens, willing to accept civic responsibility.

It may even encourage able people from various walks of life to enter local and national politics - almost 100 years on, Irish politicians remain convinced theirs is a family business, with seats inherited from father to son or daughter, as though they were prized items of furniture to be passed along generations. A citizenship educated in civics and politics might work harder at breaking through those dynasties, and question with greater urgency the high levels of family members employed in Dáil Éireann. More diversity and depth of experience is surely needed to improve the body politic. Perhaps the public scrutiny and long hours are a deterrent.

Life in Leinster House is not for the faint-hearted. Yet it does appear to be addictive to those who find themselves operating in the corridors of power - when politicians lose office, they tend to want to throw themselves back into the bear pit at the earliest opportunity. What goes on there affects all of us: the negotiations, the deal-making, the shifting positions. This means it's in our best interests to have not just talented parliamentarians, but people with integrity. Some fit that description, some don't.

Do we members of the public fully realise what's taking place in public life? Not just in Kildare Street, but elsewhere in the decision-making sphere? Why reforms are promised and some materialise but others don't; why some key court cases proceed and others suffer lengthy delays; why certain political parties rise and others fall?

Sometimes we are able to see beyond what's said officially, and sometimes we're mystified. At times, we realise we could benefit from more context and depth of understanding about civics, society and politics. Most of us glean information about the way of the world on the hoof, rather than by studying specifics.

Currently, Ireland's democratic evolution is under scrutiny on account of the 1916 centenary. Among questions being considered is how today's Republic compares with the restructured society envisaged by those who went out to fight and die for it. Arguments are flying about the legality of the Easter Rising, but there is no disputing that the Irish people gave it retrospective legitimacy.

How power is gained, its lawfulness, and how it is used seems to be a valuable subject matter for study at any stage of our lives. Important, too, is the relationship between government and citizen - which encompasses the right to protest. That right was exercised at various stages during the lifecycle of the Coalition, for example, with calls for abortion legislation following Savita Halappanavar's death, and with the anti-water charge demonstrations.

Though we complain about disillusionment with politicians and the political system, Ireland has a relatively high voter turnout for general elections - 70pc went to the polls last time. That was on a par with the 70pc turnout 50 years earlier in the 1961 general election. It's a blood sport, of course, watching sitting TDs and particularly ministers lose their mandate. Admittedly, we were particularly engaged - make that enraged - in 2011, having just lost our sovereignty. Nevertheless, the lion's share of citizens have cast their votes through fair times and foul. Our nearest neighbour, Britain, had 66pc voter turnout in its general election this year, incidentally.

So, we connect with the political process - up to a point. We're considerably less excited about voting for the European Parliament, while the last presidential election was regarded as attracting a decent turnout at 56pc.

These are uncertain political times. Never before have I heard so many people say they genuinely don't know how they'll vote early next year (probably February). Austerity has taken its toll. But it isn't the only reason for voter indecision.

The 2011 general election was hailed as a "democratic revolution" by Enda Kenny but the revolution didn't happen. If you were expecting barricades to topple, you were disappointed. Granted, Fine Gael and Labour enjoyed an exceptional result, while Sinn Féin and various Left Wing groups or Independents made strides.

As for Fianna Fáil and the Greens, theirs was an annus horribilis. But the promised reforms didn't materialise on any significant scale - a wasted opportunity - although some (by no means everyone) may feel compensated by relative stability.

However, we have had ringside seats as witnesses both to the strengths and limitations of democracy over the past five years. We have seen the EU increase its control over our lives, and how small countries must devise inventive ways of competing with their more powerful neighbours - the 12.5pc corporation tax rate is a case in point.

A good starting position for everyone - politicians, civilians and Leaving Cert students alike - might be to consider what politics means to us. Public service or self-service?

A willingness to introduce unpopular measures or the desire to win a popularity contest?

As for the addition to the national syllabus: anything which prioritises critical analysis, examines the need to balance competing interests, and emphasises the role of ideas and how they become policies has to be worth studying. Sooner the better.

Irish Independent

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