Considering how much we like to moan about the people who run the country, trust in government is a lot higher in Ireland than in much of the EU
The headline couldn’t have been more dramatic: “Trust in national governments plummets, threatening social cohesion across EU.” One could be forgiven for thinking it was time to take to the hills, with a plentiful supply of canned vegetables and fresh water to sit out the coming apocalypse.
The results of the latest survey by transnational pollsters Eurofound were not quite so alarmist. True, trust in national governments across the EU has fallen to an average of just 3.9 out of 10 — down almost 10pc since this time last year — and now stands even lower than trust in the mainstream media, if such a thing can be imagined.
However, there are huge regional variations in the figures. In Poland, just two in 10 people trust their government; in Denmark, it’s more than seven out of 10. Ireland, at 4.8 out of 10, is somewhere in between, and nearer the top when it comes to trust than the bottom.
There has been a sharp fall since this time last year, when more than six in 10 expressed trust in the government, but that’s hardly surprising, since everyone rallied round in the early days of the pandemic. That unnaturally high positivity was bound to be eroded as lockdown wore on, testing all our patience.
This study suggests we’re still much closer to Scandinavian countries when it comes to being contented with our lot than more restive countries on the eastern edge of the EU, such as Hungary, Czechia and Bulgaria, where dissatisfaction with the status quo presents a much more immediate danger to stability.
In one sense, it’s hard to understand why Irish people are not as angry with their government as other nations.
Ireland doesn’t have the high level of public services and social protection that Scandinavians have come to enjoy. It hasn’t found the answer to homelessness, like Finland, or tackled income inequality in the same way as Luxembourg, to name two other countries with high levels of trust in government.
On the other hand, the country has done better than many other EU nations when it comes to the vaccine roll-out, albeit that it’s not been as fast as everybody would like.
A closer look at the figures also shows that people here did not struggle to make ends meet during lockdown as much as the vast majority of EU countries, nor do we expect our financial situation to deteriorate significantly in the coming years. Fewer than two in 10 of us expect to get poorer.
People may turn out to be wrong about that. No one really knows what the long-term effects of lockdown will be. Aer Lingus’s departure from Shannon is an ominous cloud.
It’s still a puzzle to see levels of trust in government as high as they are here.
Look at the ongoing hack of the HSE database, which has seen confidential patient data released on to the so-called ‘dark web’; or the cervical cancer scandal; or issues such as housing. In all these instances, most people when asked will tend to agree that the government has made a pig’s ear of things.
When asked about individual politicians, we’re even more cynical. But when asked “do you trust your government?”, the answer is more nuanced.
There could be an ingrained sense of loyalty at work, which dictates that they may be useless beggars (or more colourful language), but they’re our useless beggars. Fatalism plays a part too.
‘Sure, what can you do?’ many will say with a shrug, after a good moan.
Ultimately, it depends what you mean by ‘trust’. Do we trust the government to build a children’s hospital on time and under budget? Obviously not. We’re not mad. Do we trust the government to provide affordable housing for everyone who needs it? Don’t be silly.
Ask if they’re basically decent people doing their best in difficult circumstances and most of us would, begrudgingly, probably concede as much — particularly when considering the alternatives.
The main opposition party still has links to a paramilitary organisation which directs its thinking to a large extent. The smaller left-wing parties are run by people you wouldn’t trust to run a students’ union bar, let alone a country.
It might be that Irish people are simply more realistic about what they expect from their governments, and take questions about trust as another way of asking: ‘Could things be much worse?’
Looking across the Irish Sea at how Boris Johnson’s government, for all its success with the vaccine roll-out, has handled Brexit, they thank their lucky stars.
It helps that the country has avoided many of the trends which have undermined social cohesion in other countries.
Indeed, it’s interesting that Eurofound didn’t ask any questions at all about immigration. In France, more than seven out of 10 people now think there has been too much immigration; three quarters agree that the country is falling apart; and former army generals are warning of impending “civil war” with “the survival of France... at stake”.
Immigrants to Ireland have tended to be those who shared traditional Irish values, so the same tensions have not arisen.
In France, this distrust with authority also plays into the Covid vaccine take-up, with half of all people saying they have no intention of taking it. In Ireland the equivalent figure is under 10pc.
Higher levels of trust in government in Ireland does have some negative consequences, in that it makes many less willing to question the status quo, or what they’re told. Aside from a few issues such as abortion (in the past) and Northern Ireland (still rumbling on today), debate tends to be less robust.
At the same time, an innate reasonableness saved Ireland from many of the worst excesses of the 20th century, and will likely save it from populism in future.
It provides a natural immunity against extremism of both left and right, meaning a Trump-like or Jeremy Corbyn-like figure is equally unlikely to get very far.
If the EU ever does go down under the weight of populist discontent, Ireland could be the last man standing.