In the last few days, I’ve been taking part in a kind of dialogue over on irishelection.com with a Veronica, a frequent commenter. As you can see, it is mostly about echoing the statement by Colm McCarthy that “anger is not a policy” when it comes to a sticking plaster for the Irish economy. Veronica contends that our response must be appropriate to the democratic institutions which we give legitimacy to whereas my position is about seeing a space for the real anger that is present among large groups of people. I am arguing that the institutions that have been established for the democratic will of the people in this country to be expressed are largely dysfunctional: a government unable to see anything beyond Merrion Square, a judiciary unable to divine what justice might mean, a set of local authorities that is as powerless as it is underfunded.
The real anger that is bubbling under in the population as a whole will be vented again but what does it call out for? When the head of the HSE can be granted a bonus for good performance that is over twice the average wage, what is it that makes us seethe? When the Murphy report is made available later this week, what will the anger be for? In an article in the Guardian yesterday, Madeleine Bunting attempted to put some shape on an answer. Although not in the CiF Belief section so usually replete with ethics and morality, her short article reviewing two recent publications is instructive:
Here are two superb ambassadors [Sen and Sandel] championing the cause of what they call “public reasoning” in our political life. Bluntly, they are urging people to ask the difficult questions, and not to accept the straw man arguments. We have been prepared to settle for spurious claims – such as human nature is only motivated by self-interest – for too long.
For Bunting, the anger that we can detect right now is a response to gross inequality, arising from our sense of fairness and a pleading for justice. “What has largely been abandoned” says Bunting, “is any meaningful debate about the common good.” She says that faith communities (this is post-Blair Britain after all) try to have this meaningful debate and routinely take part in it. But she also says that they have little traction in a secular European context and so she is unsure how this might take place. I’ll disagree but that’s for another day.
So Veronica’s faith in the democratic institutions might be grounded in a liberal sense of duty to a greater principle of equality before the law (everyone gets a fair trial, no mob rule that kind of thing). But for me the wheels of our current system grind so slowly and so unfairly that appeals to principles of legalism have little sense for many. There are awful examples to make this more dramatic but this is not my intention now. The symbolism of doing right is often more important than policies and procedure. Many interest groups across this country know what the common good means and it works on a symbolic level much more than on an administrative level.
The symbolism of O’Donoghue’s resignation last week was not enough for many, it was dubbed an empty and self-serving gesture. Were Drumm not to draw his 2007 bonus down, it would go some way to dispersing anger. Were banks not to demand repossession of all of the houses that have large loans defaulting it might do the same. A sense of the common good is very well established here, it’s just not recognized by those charged with its fostering. Economic value cannot be extracted from the common good you see.