By Charlie Mcbride
ONE OF our most esteemed political commentators, Fintan O’Toole, is appearing at the Town Hall Theatre next week in a reading/discussion centred around his provocative new book Enough Is Enough; How to Build a New Republic.
In Enough Is Enough, O’Toole detonates the five myths that govern Irish life – from the notion that politicians properly represent their constituents and ‘get things done’ to the dangerous idea that Ireland in the early 21st century became one of the richest countries in the world.
Each of these myths is held up to the light and shown to be false, and positive suggestions are offered as to how the existing institutions could be reformed. He proposes five fundamental ‘decencies’ that should guide this reform process and argues forcefully that Ireland’s future depends on such change.
While visiting Galway last Friday to address a conference, O’Toole took time out to talk about his book and the reforming ideas it advances. He began however with his thoughts on the then-unfolding news of the IMF bailout.
“It’s a historic moment,” he tells me. “Irish history throughout the 20th century has been marked by a steady progress of sovereignty leading up to the Belfast Agreement when we got to exercise self-determination as a whole island.
“You can chart that via the foundation of the State, the expansion of powers within the Commonwealth, the 1937 Constitution, getting back the Treaty Ports, the declaration of the Republic, all those big moments. And this is really the first time since the establishment of the first Dáil in 1919 that things have gone in the other direction.
“We’ve lost a key part of our sovereignty for the next four or five years at least. It’s a terrible, terrible day for the country.”
No-one can do it but us
O’Toole’s book sets out many compelling suggestions for positive changes to our political system – the Appendix comprises an impressive ‘Fifty Ideas For Action’ but how might these reforming ideas actually be implemented?
“That’s the key question and the one I’ve been getting in events done around the book,” he replies. “Lots of people respond positively to the suggestions but then there’s always the question ‘Who’s going to do this?’.
“The only answer I have is that no-one can do it but us. It’s not going to come from within the elite; the governing culture is not interested in reforming itself to anything like the radical extent necessary. What I am suggesting is that we need a very large civic movement of people who could then put enormous pressure on the system.
“So I intend to put together a very simple set of summaries of the stuff in the book about the political system and how it has to change, and put that online – at www.fintanotoole.ie – and ask people to sign up to it.
“I’m being kind of deliberately optimistic here but say you got 300,000 people to sign up to something saying we’re not going to vote for anyone who doesn’t accept the need to do these things, that would have an effect.”
In readings and discussions he has already done for the book, O’Toole detects a darkening of the public mood.
“People’s sense of crisis has deepened,” he observes. “It was possible last year to believe that by this year we would be beginning to see some kind of economic stabilisation and that you could then chart out a way forward, but this time I found it very difficult to find anyone who has faith in anything we’re being told.
“The level of complete disillusionment with authority is enormous. The problem is our democracy has imploded and only citizens can rebuild that democracy themselves. I’m not saying if you read my book it will turn Ireland into a paradise; like everyone else I’m just desperately trying to articulate some sense of what a way forward might be, but none of it is worth a barrel of spit if it’s not a part of a process of people getting engaged themselves.”
One of the threads running throughout Enough Is Enough is the idea that more power should be invested in local government.
“One of the fundamental problems with our system is that we have very little real power at local level,” says O’Toole. “What happens is everything gets pushed up the system so you get parish pump politics at national level and a whole attitude to national politics that has proved to be disastrous.
“There’s no point in having a new system of local government if it’s just a reproduction at a minor level of the decrepitude of national government. So this needs to be the place where you have to do your basic experiments in new ways of doing democracy.
“I’m not suggesting anything in the book that hasn’t been done elsewhere. Direct democracy is being done in lots of cities and communities around the world where you have continual consultations with members of the public, continual public assemblies discussing, setting priorities, defining choices, deciding how resources should be used, how people want their taxes to be used.
“I think the key here is local government without local funding is meaningless, because then it will just be top-down stuff again. You have to re-establish a link between people’s taxation and the decisions that are being made at local level.
“In Ireland, at local level we’re very good at people getting involved and feeling part of the community. The key thing is to try and translate that into a way of doing politics. If you could get half the amount of energy around local politics as you have around local football teams we’d have a fantastic local democracy.”
Do we get the governments we deserve?
O’Toole lambasts the corruption and incompetence of our political elites, yet it has to be acknowledged that these elites are themselves a product of our society and its value-systems. Could one play Devil’s Advocate and argue we get the governments we deserve?
“We invented machine politics,” O’Toole declares. “The first place in the world where you had mass democracy was Ireland. Daniel O’Connell invented mass democracy machine politics where you had every parish in Ireland organised.
“You had literally millions of people actively engaged in a political organisation. There was no parallel for that anywhere else for at least another 50 years. Even people who were poor, relatively uneducated, in some cases barely literate, were able to ‘do’ politics, their system worked.
“But the problem is we’re stuck with machine politics; you’re right, it’s in our social DNA. We know how to do it, we’re used to it; Fianna Fáil is arguably the most successful political machine in western Europe in the 20th century. Once it took power it very seldom lost it. And we’ve endorsed that and given our blessing to it.
“So you have this machine that has stayed in place. It actually started out with a purpose but now it exists for no purpose other than power and we do have to decide whether we still feel that represents us politically.
“I’m hoping we’re at a key moment where structures and attitudes that have been in place right back to the 19th century will now be kicked away.”
Part of the impetus behind the book stemmed from O’Toole’s reflection on the possibility that Ireland’s wrecked economy might prompt his own sons, who are aged 24 and 20, to have to emigrate.
“My sons were brought up in a society that was telling them everything is rosy, you’ve got fantastic opportunities,” he states. “Now, it’s not just that they have to face the prospect of austerity, austerity, austerity, and nothing else. It’s also that austerity is in order to pay off the gambling debts of people who were, in some cases, crooks.
“Some of what went on in Anglo Irish Bank was clearly criminal and these guys are still walking around, there have been no prosecutions. What I’m really afraid of is we are setting up an immediate future that is enormously unattractive to any young person to stay here.
“My eldest son is already retraining, doing a TEFL course. We could go right back again into the whole problem of mass emigration and you don’t need to be a historian to know how debilitating that was for society.
“Those of us who are older have a duty now to try to have something to say to our younger people why they should stay here, but we can’t do that unless we really set out to fundamentally transform our society and the institutions it operates through.”