Eddie Molloy Only reform can save us from past
The need for genuine political change was seen as the most crucial agenda in Glenties
LISTENING to the 55 papers presented at the recent MacGill Summer School was like trying to drink from a fire hydrant. Such were the breadth and quality of the presentations it was difficult to take it all in at the time. On reflection, however, a number of important themes are discernible running through the week's discourse.
In answer to the central question posed, 'How Stands the Republic?', numerous speakers zoned in on the need for fundamental reform of the Dail. The utter dominance of the Government over the Dail was taken up with gusto by a string of speakers, including backbenchers Eoghan Murphy, Aodhan O'Riordan and Catherine Murphy, as well as Fintan O'Toole, Michael McDowell, Micheal Martin and others; they analysed and parsed the dysfunctionality of a system whereby the Dail is reduced to little more than a rubber-stamp for government.
The imminent referendum on the abolition of the Seanad brought a sense of urgency, but regardless of whether they favoured or opposed abolition, the need for genuine Dail reform was widely seen as the more crucial agenda. The Taoiseach, who opened the proceedings, had strongly defended his decision to seek abolition of the Seanad but as the week wore on, his concept of Dail reform seemed less and less adequate.
A second theme reverberating through the deliberations was initially articulated by Ombudsman Emily O'Reilly and later in a session entitled 'The Ambiguous Republic', with powerful contributions from historians Diarmaid Ferriter and Dermot Keogh, Margaret O'Callaghan of QUB and poet Theo Dorgan. Ambiguity, making promises knowing they can never be fulfilled, avoiding hard choices and pretending we can have our cake and eat it, having laws that are broken with impunity – the proverbial 'Irish solution to an Irish problem' – is a pervasive feature of the culture of Irish politics and society. It is a malaise that reflects an immature republic, a nation that has yet to reach the stage where we have a "government of laws, not men", as journalist Brendan Keenan put it, quoting John Adams.
Our nod and wink culture was thrown into stark relief when set against the picture of governance in Denmark painted by Bo Lidegaard, editor, former diplomat and adviser. Apparently, in Denmark, transparency means that a citizen's right to know is not denied at every turn, accountability means there are consequences for breaking the rules, decentralisation means what it says in the Oxford dictionary – 'transfer of authority from central to local government' – and equality of access to social services is a reality and not a cynical pre-election promise. No ambiguity there. In this context, the unambiguous answers of Josephine Feehily, chairman of the Revenue Commissioners, was proof positive that with the right leadership, we can create a Danish-like "government of laws" in Ireland.
A third theme played out during the week was between those speakers who trenchantly criticised injustice and past failures and demanded an end to the "culture of impunity", and those like Maureen Gaffney who advocated more positive thinking, saying: "We must struggle against this emphasis on the fallen state and corrupted nature of political endeavour." On the Wednesday, a dozen speakers spoke on behalf of the million citizens who have good reason to feel betrayed and helpless. Geoff Meagher, president of the St Vincent de Paul, Kathleen Lynch, professor of Equality Studies at UCD, and judge Michael Reilly, Inspector of Prisons, spelt out how the State has failed abysmally since 1916 to come anywhere near creating a "Republic of Justice and Equality" – and not for want of money.
That we need to do both, rail against injustice, unflinchingly investigate corruption and denounce the culture of impunity and, at the same time, draw on our strengths to build a better future, was crystalised in a pithy exchange between David Horgan who is involved in the ultra-optimistic business of oil exploration and Justin O'Brien from the University of New South Wales. Horgan declared "there is no future in the past", to which O'Brien retorted, "yes, provided the future is not the past".
And that, by the end of the week in Glenties was the abiding, sobering thought. Although there are grounds for optimism in the commendable achievements of government, the public service and business, in the face of tremendous odds, as set out by the Taoiseach, John Moran, Secretary General of the Department of Finance, Fiona Muldoon, director of the Central Bank, Peter Breuer of the IMF, entrepreneur Philip O'Doherty and the reforming Education Minister Ruairi Quinn, the implications of Justin O'Brien's challenge hung in the air: will all the suffering and sacrifices of citizens and hard work by so many dedicated people be enough to prevent a repeat of the catastrophic failures of the Fifties, the Eighties and the 2000s?
Is our Republic fated, like Sisyphus, to rebuild out of the ruins one more time, only to crash again? The answer, sad to say, is 'yes, very likely' in the absence of the kind of political reforms needed to fulfil the pre-electoral promise of a "new way of doing politics".
Eddie Molloy, PhD, is a management consultant.