On Saturday I had a conversation with someone who detected one of the significant features of political culture in Ireland: the over personalisation of public debate. If I understood her correctly, and alcohol was involved, there seems to be little sense among many in Ireland of a public interest. Even if normatively defined as ‘things that we might disagree about’, this public interest is external to individual interests and resides somewhere as an abstracted public. I have long speculated that in Ireland, a public sphere exists but it is an atrophied kind of public sphere. It is bisected by so many competing interests and whatabouterries that it can be hard to recognise. And then this morning, I noted Richard’s question about how matters of democratic deliberation are often left hanging in mid-air as if nothing can be done about Shatter or Callinan or Burton or Irish Water: “it isn’t just a matter of outlining how dreadful [Shatter] is, but at the very least to pose the question: how do we eject this f***er from office?” The ideas seem to be linked. There is a disabling politics at work here: isn’t it dreadful that Shatter comprehensively abuses his office and misrepresents issues but “sher, what can we do about it? Aren’t they in charge?”
I’ve been listening to this disabling politics for about three decades now. In a state where a Centre for Public Inquiry can be skewered by rumour alone and where all it takes to shut down a debate is to throw a lawyer’s writ across a table, how do we get beyond the idea that elected power is unassailable? One of the most awful symptoms of this is when anyone half-way articulate stands up at a meeting and expresses a coherent opinion, people ask afterwards if they’re a politician. The ability to speak in public, even if not encouraged through the Best Education System in the World, is thought to be the preserve of a class of individuals who can only be understood in the narrowest of terms of what politics means. Another terrible symptom of this is the notion that the mildest of NGOs like the ICCL or the Penal Reform Trust are committed to overthrowing the dominant ideological system as opposed to asking mundane questions about policies that matter to all of us. They are always irritants in the smooth functioning of a system that makes the visit of Brian Hayes to a flooded Limerick the sign of regal mercy itself. “These people are never happy, are they? Always whinging about their rights and justice” goes the line. A further symptom of this disabling politics is that the local elections and the European elections can be held on the same day without any regard for what a FF-dominated council means for Roscommon because really, local councils do not matter. They’re sorting stations for the bigger game; the bigger game that hoists prematurely-ageing males aloft as they crawl over the line in Dublin south east. And yet, we are told, all politics is local. I don’t hate The Local but I want it my local to have meaning in your local.
Alan Shatter should resign as minister, Callinan should go too. And they should do this not because they are bad people or because they are mean. Or even because I think they are incompetent. They should do it because they have poorly served us. Having watched the two of them in Templemore grinning alongside each other, the worst part of this GSOC thing is not that the office was bugged but that they think we do not care. They gurn and patronise their way into the game, the terms of which they themselves believe they set. They don’t. We set those terms. The disabling realpolitik that valorises the tallyman while denying restitution to the women of the Laundries is our politics, not theirs. We have to own it first and then destroy it. In recent weeks, we have witnessed the colonisation of a developing political terrain of this politics in the silencing of Panti. The terms of this argument were set early on by the deployment of the law by some parties. When this worked financially, but not emotionally, some relied on tearful victimhood. There is no doubt that being argued against by a student must be quite difficult for a teacher, particularly when many teachers rely on students’ cultivated supplication for most other things. I am not saying that emotions should have nothing to do with political opinion forming. I am saying that there are bigger things than your hurt feelings. Which is kind of what Panti was saying from the Abbey’s stage.
(WARNING: I’m not going to get into class here, that’s another post. Can you handle that?) This local elections we need to take the issues that matter to us all to those who look for our vote. I’m forever fulminating about candidates dropping calendars with their serious features plastered on them through my door. This is stupid politics. It relies on the idea that they are the brokers to things that we all collectively own and maintain. I know what day of the week the third Thursday in March is and I can look it up if I want to. A political party doesn’t need to tell me that. We need to make politics in Ireland about really mundane things. Boring public resource kinds of things: water access in this area, not what John Tierney said. How the continued payment of promissory notes means that people I know cannot get treated for cancer. This is why politicians like Shane Ross are also part of this disabling politics: it is not about issues, it is about us. I want Richard’s children to have a better education and cleaner air. Not because I know Richard personally but because it is in all of our interests, as members of the public. The sooner we rip back the curtain and reveal the man with the levers and a megaphone the better. To me, it cannot come soon enough.