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No, Simon, democracy is not all about you


Illustration by Tom Halliday

Illustration by Tom Halliday

Illustration by Tom Halliday

Talk about bad timing. There are important things happening - real moves within the machinery of democracy.

They're about housing and health and transport. On top of that, there are significant political shifts in the North.

And then there's the Tuam revelations. And all the cowardly oppression that represents.

Yet Fine Gael and Fianna Fail chose this week to mount one of their mock fights.

And, of all the controversies they could have had a fake fracas about, they picked water charges. No, folks, you were on the wrong side of history there.

Normally, I get a bit of a kick out of it when someone such as Simon Coveney puts on his extra-sincere face and looks hurt. And Fianna Fail's Barry Cowen adopts a pugnacious grimace and says something like: "Are you serious?!"

And they start throwing shapes and spitting insults. And the political media gathers like a circle of kids around two young fellas having a bit of an oul' wrestle in the playground.

Not now, lads. Bad timing. Real stuff happening. The adults are busy.

Democracy, as we all know, means that once every five years or so we get to put some marks on a ballot paper.

Apart from that, if the professional politicians have their way, our role is to sit back and watch Prime Time or Tonight with Vincent Browne. Journalists ask questions and politicians say, "I'm glad you asked me that", before neglecting to answer it.

Now, electing a parliament is important. It may be corrupted, cynically manipulated - but the ability to kick out a government is not to be sniffed at.

Yes, our politicians have managed to divide into two halves of the same political position, and to take turns proposing and opposing what is essentially the same legislation - nevertheless, the right to vote was hard won and remains useful. But democracy doesn't stop once the votes are counted. The machinery of democracy is varied and intricate.

Democracy requires voting - it also requires real debate, a free flow of information through the media and between citizens, the right to inform and be informed, the right to strike, the right to assemble and to protest and persuade. When nurses go around the emergency rooms each day counting the numbers of patients on trolleys, and when they post that information online, that's part of the machinery of democracy.

When the Minister for Transport underfunds the public transport service, that's part of democracy. When this has consequences for the transport workers and they consider withdrawing their labour, that too is part of democracy.

Democracy, in short, involves a range of organised peaceful pressure from various interest groups, pushing and pulling at the machinery of government, arguing and blocking, in the perpetual pursuit of a share of rights and resources.

When the machinery of government becomes moribund - as it has in the Oireachtas - more responsibility rests with the democratic machinery outside parliament. And that's why we're experiencing various forms of democratic protest - from threatened strikes in public services to the Apollo House eruption.

Thousands of people were moved to intervene directly to do something about homelessness because they saw that ideological hang-ups about "the free market" have paralysed the large parties.

When the A&E chaos is declared a "national emergency", and a decade later things are worse than ever; when there are waiting lists to get on to the waiting lists; when all of this puts increasing pressure on medics; that's when the threat of nurses' industrial action is not alone inevitable - it's a democratic imperative.

Some months ago, Transport Minister Shane Ross tweeted a photo of himself on a bus. It was obvious Shane was delighted with himself. Look! It's me! On a bus!

When public transport is seen, from the back of a ministerial car, as something that other people use rather than as an essential part of modern social infrastructure, politicians come up with bizarre notions.

Currently, Shane wants Bus Eireann workers to subsidise the company by €12m a year, out of their wages. The workers, not unnaturally - and, in my view, rather timidly - object to this. So, they've considered withdrawing their labour, invoking a democratic pressure, since the parliamentary solution is in the hands of people who live in pampered circumstances

Outside the moribund parliament, uneasy, angry people organise to demand change. Inside that parliament, the bogus "new politics" is all about FG and FF fending off the threat from the smaller parties - which in turn have been increasingly looked to by voters tired of the cynicism of FG/FF.

The Oireachtas is so frightened of discussing reality that the parties have created the Citizens' Assembly, a kind of Fisher-Price version of the Dail, where randomly chosen citizens consider issues that apparently are beyond the gobdaws we voted for.

Last week, in another democratic initiative from outside parliament, the Simon Community put forward suggestions for housing the homeless - suggestions that confront the constitutional problem that makes a fetish of property rights. Perhaps if fewer landlords were TDs, the Dail might have considered such matters.

Democracy is also about knowing how we got to where we are.

A historian Catherine Corless, working for years, one death certificate at a time (at €4 each), documented the legacy of Tuam's role in the mother and baby home scandal. Officialdom wouldn't help as she didn't have a university degree. No kidding.

Although the death-by-neglect history of "illegitimate" children is well established, the parliament didn't want to know - it was left to Corless's diligence, working in her spare time, spending a small fortune, to ensure those kids will be remembered.

Last week, a cystic fibrosis sufferer had a two-hour drive after Minister for Health Simon Harris asked to meet her. She knew he was negotiating the price of Orkambi, a drug that helps some sufferers. She cried as she drove, believing he'd managed a breakthrough.

When she got to Dublin, Harris asked her to call off a protest due to be held outside the Dail.

This clueless clown imagines he's democracy. A protest might make him look bad (Simon's in a hurry up that FG ladder).

No, Simon, it's the protest that was democracy in action.

It was people's democratic protests that won the day on water charges - and will win it again if, as they might, FG/FF have another go at it.

They lied and bullied and smeared, they sought to make a private profit centre from our water supply, and it was widespread spontaneous democratic protest that stopped them.

The smaller parties, recognising the validity of this, offered support. Last week, FG/FF sought to use the water issue for party advantage. The mock fight between FG and FF was mostly about Simon Coveney showing the party faithful that he could "stand up to" FF, thereby increasing his chances in the FG leadership dance.

FF's position on water charges varies according to how it perceives the challenge from Sinn Fein and the small left-wing groups. That's not democracy, it's cynical electoral positioning.

Meanwhile, does anyone know how the Coveney-v-Cowen schoolyard brawl worked out? Or care?

Sunday Independent