Ireland – Democracy without Choices

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

This article was published in the Sri Lankan paper The Nation but has disappeared from their website.


The internationally renowned Irish political scientist, the late Peter Mair, who died suddenly at the age of 60 in August 2011, used the phrase “democracy without choices” to describe the situation of Ireland today. Political parties are expected to respond to voter preferences, but international and supranational actors demand that certain policies are pursued by domestic authorities. It is clear that outside actors trump the wishes of Irish voters.

Fintan O’Toole, writing in the Irish Times: “It is  obvious to everyone that ordinary government has ceased to function in Ireland. What has been less clear is that something even more profound has happened: our system of government has been set aside. This is not a rhetorical exaggeration, but a demonstrable truth.”

The parlous state of Irish democracy in 2012 must be seen in the light of  Ireland’s historical links with Britain and the USA and the nation’s  more recent enthusiastic membership of the EU and commitment to the euro. However, the Irish politicians who ran the state from the beginning must take credit for their own part in undermining democracy. When Ireland won independence from Britain in 1922, the new Irish constitution appeared in the newspapers on the morning of Polling Day. Those voters who lived at any distance from Dublin did not see it before going to the Poll.  Tens of thousands voted with the promise of a Republican Constitution still in their minds.

Kevin O’Higgins, Minister for Justice, announced to the Dáil , the new Irish parliament, in October 1922: “If a large section of the people feel that a certain law is desirable; and if Parliament fails to introduce the desired legislation, power is given here to the people to initiate legislation themselves. …  it keeps contact between the people and their laws, and keeps responsibility and consciousness in the minds of the people that they are the real and ultimate rulers of the country.”

This sounded good but turned out to be humbuggery. That kind of open democracy never happened. On 3rd May 1928, opposition leader, Eamon De Valera failed with a petition of 96,000 signatures to force a referendum for the removal of the oath of allegiance to the English monarch.  [The Constitution, Article 48, required only 75,000] On 12th July, by  Constitutional Amendment No. 10, in less than 100 words, the Government effectively buried true democracy. In June 1928,  many other constitutional amendments were rushed through. A senator complained that the voters should be consulted. “Ministers have made statements to the public, which they must know are not true. They have stated that this Bill, if it is not passed, will produce a state of war or disturbance in this country. It is hard to understand how any people with any intelligence could possibly make such statements.”

The website Direct Democracy Ireland comments: “The British Government and preeminent jurists refused to acknowledge Direct Democracy… Our elected rulers probably recognised its benefits for the people and scuppered them.  The amending statutes … provided stark evidence of its serial manipulation into a Westminster-style elective dictatorship. While cynically and systematically denying the electorate the necessary power, the Free State government duplicitously proclaimed the people as ‘the real and ultimate rulers of the country’.”

Ireland was dominated by Britain for so long that it saw Europe as a means of taking a different path.  Accession to the European community in the 1970s was seen as completing the removal of  postcolonial constraints. Europe was popular with voters and  political elites saw it as  compatible with Irish nationalism. The EU gave the Irish economy a chance to escape economic dependence on Britain. Irish diplomats were skilled  at getting what they wanted from the EU. An insider told me that they were to be seen at all the social functions in Brussels, working the room with a charm offensive,  while the Brits sulked in their hotel rooms.

The EU gave great assistance in improving the Irish infrastructure and protecting Irish agriculture. US multinationals were attracted to Ireland because they wanted to participate in the single European market. There was an educated English-speaking work-force and Ireland’s low corporation tax was an incentive. The downside was that Ireland had to commit to the neo-liberal voodoo economics of  the Washington Consensus. This was successful for a time. Ireland became a global model for development and modernisation and bettered the UK in many indicators of prosperity.

Although the referendum idea had been scuppered  by the Free State government in the 1920s, Ireland’s EU profile was as a referendum state. There have been ten referendums on EC/EU treaties, beginning with accession in 1972 and then on each successive treaty since. Irish Governments decided  it was more politically prudent to hold referendums than rely on parliamentary ratification. The electorate felt it was  safer to be an integral part of the European Union than not in troubled economic times.

The Irish population has been quiescent about Europe, but this could be changing. They did vote out the Fianna Fail scoundrels who caused the economic mess but have not got much confidence in the current government.

Dr Paul Gillespie, former foreign policy editor of The Irish Times and a lecturer in the University College Dublin school of politics and international relations: “Being locked into the European credit and banking system meant Ireland’s capacity to act unilaterally was tightly constrained in any action which might be perceived to endanger the wider euro system. Not paying in full debts to bondholders who lent money to Irish banks was put top of that list by the European Central Bank and key member-states for fear of contagion – and they now had the financial power because of the bailout to insist they got their way.”

Asked why he was permitting unsecured bondholders of Anglo Irish Bank to be repaid €700 million, the Minister for Finance, Michael Noonan, said in the Dáil: “It is the choice between two evils, as far as I am concerned, and the decision we are taking is the lesser of two evils … It is more in the interests of the Irish people to grit our teeth and allow Anglo Irish Bank to pay the bond than to default, because default takes us over the edge of the cliff.”

Former PM John Bruton argued that repaying loans in full is unfair and unethical because they were originally lent as a risk and have since been profited on in secondary trading.

O’Toole argues that Ireland has a weak parliamentary democracy but constitutionally a strong executive cabinet system. Article 28 of the Constitution defines the cabinet directly as “the government”. Constitutional expert, John Kelly, interprets this as meaning that, in relation to the statutory functions of government, “the valid exercise of these functions must presuppose a formal consideration and decision at a government meeting.” A TV documentary demonstrated that the blanket bank guarantee of September 2008, was made without “formal consideration and decision at a government meeting”. Uninformative phone calls were made but the Cabinet did not meet.

During the troika bailout, decisions were made without consulting the Cabinet, and, indeed, deliberately keeping them in the dark. Details of the next two budgets were communicated to the EU and other European governments before those decisions were made by the cabinet.

O’Toole believes legal action should be taken over this unconstitutional activity: “The Offences Against the State Act outlaws anyone ‘taking part in any way in a body of persons purporting to be a government . . . but not authorised in that behalf by or under the Constitution.’ But the legal establishment, which felt obliged to warn us that cutting judges’ pay was a threat to our system of government, is oddly silent. The Supreme Court has found the attorney general is obliged to act when faced with breaches of the Constitution: ‘It is a power, function and duty imposed on him by the Constitution”. The duty of the Attorney General in such a case is entirely independent of her role as legal adviser to the Government. She has to ask the appalling question: on what lawful authority do the bank bailout, the troika deal and the budget rest?”

Paul  Gillespie wrote in a tribute to Peter Mair: “Mair argued that political parties which originated in representing ordinary citizens in 20th century democracies have been transformed by professionalisation, elite dominance, experience of government and the search for political power. Democracy, as a result, has been hollowed out.”

Democracy all over the world is suffering the same fate.