Need to rebalance state and society

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2011), Letters, Volume 19

The Munster rugby team—a successful example of cultural ventriloquism.

The Munster rugby team—a successful example of cultural ventriloquism.

The current crisis in Ireland can be compared to ‘the crisis of liberalism’ experienced in the United Kingdom before 1914. One aspect of it was the feeling that the Westminster model had ceased to provide democratic representation under industrial conditions. It was in this period that Labour first considered issues such as proportional representation, but interest in ‘functional representation’—an elected second house, the referendum and equal suffrage—was also widespread. This crisis coincided with a period of creativity in Irish society (through the co-operative, language and labour movements), and its constitutional dimension proved important. The British radical John A. Hobson published The crisis of liberalism in 1909, and three of the reforms he hoped for—equal adult suffrage, proportional representation (with STV) and an elected second house—were provided for in the 1922 constitution of the Irish Free State.

There were innovative elements in the 1922 constitution: the suffrage was made equal, direct democracy was encouraged and functional representation was allowed for. Yet the vision of democracy mattered more than specific constitutional provisions, and strong party government reasserted itself with the Civil War. The experimental features of the 1922 constitution were soon discarded. Since then the basic features of the Westminster model have generally been accepted. Authors like Figgis are remembered as ‘intellectual Sinn Féiners’ who did not understand the realities of Irish politics. Yet something is lost when ideals are not converted into reality. After all, interest in electoral reform, in ‘extern ministers’ and in a reformed second house has returned. Elements of the Westminster legacy—the effectiveness of doctrines of responsible government, the weakness of the Seanad and government dominance of the Dáil—are again being questioned.

Three causes of crisis

We are now deep in a second crisis of liberalism. Disillusionment with party politics, anger at corruption and interest in new forms of representation have returned. The concern is again to reconnect people to their political system, and to prevent élites from manipulating public institutions for their own benefit. The first crisis followed the emergence of industrial society, the second that of global capitalism. When a state’s legitimacy is primarily bound up with its role in the economy, such crises will result in a loss of faith in the manner in which the state involved itself in capitalist development. Brown envelopes, ‘golden circles’ of business people and politicians and the bail-out of banks are all symptoms of a crisis in which the public interest has been devoured by private ones. The first crisis of liberalism reflected the fact that the Westminster model was unable to make new élites and interests accountable. The second has three identifiable causes: blind adherence to the neo-liberal vision of the future; a near-total absence of accountability, oversight and prudence among Irish élites; and the absence of an independent civil society strong enough to enable people to see ‘Ireland Inc.’ for what it was in the later years of the Celtic Tiger.

Three responses

There are three standard responses. The first ignores the connection with neo-liberalism and contemplates reform in terms of better ‘governance’. Changing the electoral system will bring ‘big picture’ politicians into the Dáil who can manage global capitalism untroubled by the hard slog of constituency politics. Appearances on RTÉ will suffice. The second is constitutional populism, which simplifies the Irish political space by dividing it into élites and the (downtrodden) voters, who have been betrayed by ‘the system’; 1916 or ‘a second Republic’ are invoked as moral yardsticks to highlight its failings. That Fianna Fáil were returned to power on three successive occasions and that a Dáil which includes Sinn Féin has no common conception of the Republic are not dwelt upon. The third response is simply to blame the crisis on the people, or on their supposed culture of greed, corruption and cronyism. A global financial crisis becomes a national psychosis. The solution is to turn politics into administration. The pre-1921 British administration is a model, but it was also accused of corruption, nepotism and religious discrimination.

The Irish political mind typically assumes a dualism between culture and institutions. This reflects our colonial past but is unhelpful. If institutions have been corrupted by ‘culture’, then new institutions can also be corrupted by culture. Unsurprisingly, the old issue of clientelism has returned. Yet no successful politician can stand outside Irish culture. Rather than implicitly distinguishing between ‘Nice People’ and ‘Rednecks’ in our analysis of what has gone wrong, successful examples of cultural ventriloquism should be considered: the presidency of Mary Robinson, the Munster rugby team, or Frank O’Connor sitting in his Brooklyn apartment writing about Irish rural life. Some localism is necessary for democracy. The question of whether the UK should adopt the Australian electoral system highlights the danger of producing MPs without the support of local majorities, thus further disconnecting people from their political system. Moreover, not all national institutions have been corrupted by culture. The civil service, the supreme court and the presidency stand out. Institutional reform can create effective new institutions when their workings (and privileges) are less influenced by parties (e.g. the Anti-Corruption Commission in Hong Kong). If the failings of our system are attributed to some generalised conception of ‘culture’, the role of specific business, legal, organisational and party cultures is lost.

Need to rebalance state and society

If our political system concentrates power, making consensus on economic policies easier to maintain, we should rebalance state and society. The intellectual Sinn Féiners shared a suspicion of strong central authority, which is the hallmark of the Irish state. If Ireland needs more accountability, reforms that will strengthen élites are illogical. Neither should it be made easier for people who are unwilling to do constituency work to get elected to the Dáil. Instead, strengthening local government could diminish the need for TDs to act as local messenger boys, and the number of TDs should be greatly reduced. Constituencies should also be enlarged. Reconstituting the Senate to provide for ‘functional representation’, as was considered in 1922, might balance representation with expert oversight without a cost in democracy. Fine Gael has been proposing to strengthen the Dáil since the 1960s, and the smaller parties should hold them to this promise as part of any coalition deal. Courses on citizenship should form part of the curriculum in schools.

The task is to combine the pessimism of the intellect with the optimism of the will. There is no evidence that our financial problems are insurmountable, but if we act on that basis we are doomed. Ireland would have been better prepared for the current crisis had a serious debate taken place in the 1980s. Instead the Celtic Tiger intervened. One consolation is that much of our history is cyclical. When the French scholar Paul Dubois saw in Ireland in 1911 a land stagnating from alcoholism, emigration and sectarianism, he also sensed a possibility for regeneration in educational reform, the co-ops and language revival. This followed. After independence the three major economic crises (the late 1920s, the 1950s and the 1980s) led to policy responses, although none broke the long-term cycle. The first crisis of liberalism, and the Northern Ireland conflict, did produce constitutional change. Cyclical patterns are also evident in other respects: periods of peace followed by those of violence. The patterns give some grounds for believing that there will be a way out of the current mess. On the other hand, Marxists stress that the ‘superstructure’ (which includes law and politics) usually changes more slowly than the ‘base’, but such change requires serious debate about the ends of the state. Since the discrediting of ‘de Valera’s Ireland’ politicians have been reluctant to express grand visions of the future, but our much-vaunted pragmatism has actually left us with very little room for manoeuvre. It is better to have a debate on first principles.


Crises can be moments of decision (as in ancient Greek), and therefore of opportunity, or can be ‘organic’ crises leading to state collapse. Only decision can prevent the second outcome in Ireland. Its precondition is a recognition of the scale of the problems, and a rejection of the ‘utopia deferred’ implicit in Brian Cowen’s image of ‘Ireland Inc.’ rising again as ‘an innovation hub’ in the chain of global capitalism. We must establish a more self-respecting vision of the future. Populism is intrinsically an anti-status quo discourse, but provides a mirror in which democracy can contemplate itself, warts and all. Those who use this mirror have to be prepared to see both good and bad in the political system, and relate its shortcomings to the neo-liberal model of development we have adopted. This holds now as it did in the first crisis of liberalism. Many political systems alternate between periods of interest-motivated politics and periods renewed by populism. If renewal is conceived only in terms of values—through ‘a new constitution’, ‘a new politics’, ‘a second Republic’—the structural basis of this crisis will not be addressed, as with constitutional debate in the 1970s and 1980s. One alternative to populism, technocratic rationalism, tends to subvert democracy, and another, fatalism, has deep roots here. We were for a long time dependent on Church and State. One reason why the intellectual Sinn Féiners looked to the Gaelic past for inspiration was that it had no state tradition, and the regeneration of society at that time drew its impetus from civil society, not the state. This ran aground in 1923, but they were addressing fundamental issues in a holistic way. The present generation needs to do the same. Despite decades of educational expansion, we have actually become again a dependent people, unable to provide for the coming generation or to legislate in accordance with our wishes. If we continue to externalise the source of vitality in our society, leaving adaptation to international economic circumstances as the primary rationale of politics, we will end without a state of our own and no Irish society to speak of.  HI

Bill Kissane lectures in the Department of Government at the London School of Economics.

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