'WE The Citizens' is redundant due to lack of mandate. The Prime Time debate on RTE last Monday regarding the We The Citizens movement was a fascinating one, but more questions were asked than answered and I'm not convinced the movement has any real value. On the contrary, I think it could conceivably lead to even more cynicism from the electorate.
Just for the record, I don't question the moral motivation. I think it's a commendable idea that people would want to get more involved in the national discourse. I have huge admiration for the movement's chairperson, Senator Fiach Mac Conghail, who has done wonders for the arts in Ireland. He is an idealist, and
an earnest one. And I believe Irish Independent political editor Fionnan Sheahan was spot-on to point out on Prime Time that, while he found the movement slightly redundant, in no way did he consider these people to be "cranks".
But there are implications to movements like this one. It doesn't have any real mandate or accountability. Many of those who spoke on Prime Time realised this and questioned the movement's purpose. People wanted to know what exactly it was trying to achieve -- and neither Mac Conghail nor Professor David Farrell, who is academic director of We the Citizens, seemed to have satisfactory answers.
Another issue I find unsettling is the naming of its assembly as the National Citizens' Assembly, as it implies an official status it does not possess.
People know that the real problem is not the Irish public's failure to engage in politics. The real problem is that during the boom years the Irish public took its eye off the ball politically. We allowed ourselves to ignore a culture of political gombeenism symbolised by public representatives like the Healy-Raes -- or, as Brian Brennan so astutely called them in last Tuesday's Irish Independent: "Political purveyors of double-talk and gobbledygook."
Indeed, the most interesting point about the "Ring of
Kerry" scandal was not the fact that these phone calls were made. That part didn't surprise me. In fact, it seemed pretty indicative of the type of shenanigans which had poisoned pre-2007 Irish politics. The real point was that, according to the show's producer Philip Kampff, Healy-Rae would have carried the phone-in vote by a landslide anyway, with or without his secret admirer "miles away" in Dail Eireann. Yep, a landslide.
My father, a Breton socialist who has lived in Ireland since 1969, gave me what I believe to be the reason for this last week. He reckons that even in my home place of west Cork, "there's been a Healy-Rae under every stone and around every corner for the last 20 years". They got themselves elected to all sorts of councils and boards and committees.
While the country was booming, we all had a good laugh. We thought it meant that we'd cracked some code where we could have cute hoors in charge and still be the richest little country on the planet. And sure wasn't it gas?
But if the public had its eye off the ball during the boom years, it most certainly has its eye firmly fixed on it now. There's nothing like a national crisis to sharpen the national political psyche. This crisis is all about democratic accountability, and the days of double-talk and gobbledygook should be confined to the past.
The Irish media is imperfect and the public may baulk at salaries paid to certain pundits in RTE, but most people feel that there's a valid discourse emerging in the country and that eventually public feeling makes its way to the top. The Government's ratings were so high in a recent poll probably because people are happy enough to feel that things are moving in the right direction, albeit slowly.
An example of a problematic idea We The Citizens has proposed is to make voting mandatory and that a fine be imposed on those who fail to vote. This is undemocratic, in my view. The consequences of such a measure would mean that, hypothetically, you might find yourself in the situation of having to vote for somebody you don't believe in for fear of being reprimanded. That is not democratic. Most countries that have tried it -- for example, Holland and Austria -- have scrapped it eventually.
In bad times, public feeling and governmental accountability are paramount. Ignore these, and, as Fine Gael and Labour know all too well, one of the strongest mandates in the history of the Irish Republic will quickly evaporate and the Government will be out on its ear.
That's how democracy works. How We The Citizens works is not entirely clear.