To move on we must never forget

03 Apr 10

RENEWING THE REPUBLIC: This series has shown a thirst for political reform coupled with an uncertainty about how to achieve it, writes ELAINE BYRNE in the Irish Times April 3 2010

 

ACCOMPANYING THIS series has been an image of our national flag, contorted at the centre by a knot. The narrative embarked upon by the various contributors over the last few weeks – the writers, theatre directors, poets, song writers, political scientists, retired public servants, former politicians and others – was the well-worn path of deep-rooted despondency mixed with flickers of optimism and even an unconventional suggestion that our country was in need of some mothering.

 

Of the 300 readers who contributed to the debate online, it was perhaps the very first reaction that set the tone for the rest of the series. According to Joseph Morgan, “There is a complete disconnect between the political elite and the people.”

 

The recent Eurobarometer poll articulated this detachment by Irish citizens. Ireland has the fifth lowest level of public trust in its political institutions across the 27 European countries surveyed. Confidence in the ability of the Government has dropped by 36 per cent within one year and now rests at a record low of 10 per cent according to the September 2009 Irish Times/MRBI poll.

 

The perspective of disconnect at times amplified itself into naked cynicism during the series. The parameters of the debate narrowed into an expression of outright contempt towards those associated with any position of power or influence who sought to introduce notches of optimism, confidence or hope into the discussion.

 

This Lenten penance of writing perhaps reveals that we are still too angry to accept any resurrection of opportunity and possibility. Appropriately enough, Black Tuesday coincided with the birthday of Vincent van Gogh, a man consumed by madness. By the end of that day, the Irish taxpayer was the owner of one debauched bank, two building societies and now holds a majority and minority stake in two other banks. On our behalf, the Government committed some €32 thousand million to the financial sector as a consequence of their mistakes. By the end of year, the taxpayer, through the offices of Nama, will also own €81 thousand million of property loans.

 

Wednesday’s front-page Irish Times report outlining Brian Lenihan’s banking plan contained 22 references to “billion”. That word has no meaning anymore because it is too big to appreciate fully. As Des O’Malley observed yesterday, the UN estimated cost to rebuild Haiti is a quarter of what we will spend on bailing out Anglo Irish Bank.

 

Those that seek to remember, to call to account, are often chastised for their anger. The capacity continuously to forget, our lack of memory or collective amnesia, has been a destructive virtue of Irish public life.

 

There will be no apologies or statements of regret from the political, financial or regulatory authorities. As Seán FitzPatrick said on RTÉ radio days after the September 2008 Government guarantee: “It would be very easy for me to say sorry, but the cause of our problem was global so I couldn’t say sorry with any degree of sincerity and decency but I do say thank you [to the Irish taxpayer].”

 

Patrick Neary, the financial regulator, was rewarded with an early retirement golden handshake of €630,000. Irish Nationwide’s Michael Fingleton retired with a €27 million pension fund and a €1 million bonus.

 

Seán FitzPatrick enjoys a large pension and got a €400,000 golden handshake. Former Anglo chief executive David Drumm went to Cape Cod with a €659,000 bonus. Anglo doesn’t expect €109 million of some €155 million owed by former directors to be repaid.

 

In order to renew the Republic, we must never forget the sense of hopelessness, helplessness and paralysis that this week has mortgaged our futures. The total of the recapitalisation, nationalisation and Namaisation should be ring-fenced into our tax system through an annual bank levy. We must find a way to remember if we genuinely want to move forward. Such a symbolic and meaningful recognition of past mistakes would echo more powerfully than hollow apologies without consequences.

 

The series revealed that there are no quick-fix solutions to help us turn the corner but rather a cocktail of measures which will stimulate successes and failures in a long and hard learning process. There is a growing consensus for fundamental political reform but this is complemented by an uncertainty of how to go about it or what specifically those reforms should be.

 

Ideas are not enough sometimes. Public apathy and cynicism, a lack of coherent leadership and selfish inertia is logical in its resistance to change. Change is as much about emotion as it is rational reasoning.

 

Helena Kennedy, the chair of Power 2010, suggested that the only way forward was for citizens to take ownership of the reform process through a rolling experiment in deliberative democracy. Something like that proved essential for Iceland. David Farrell and Fiach Mac Conghail proposed similar processes here. Shane Fitzgerald remarked it was a damning indictment of our younger generations that it was the over-70s pensioners who struck the most fear into the Government and threatened to cause major instability with their medical card protest.

 

Two-thirds of Ireland’s population, some 2.8 million Irish citizens, are younger than the Taoiseach and most of his Cabinet. Where is the educated young generation that Jim Glennon and John Bruton believe will influence political action and seek to restore Irish economic independence?

 

In the last week of March in 1800, Henry Grattan gave his final speech to the Irish House of Commons to protest against the loss of Irish legislative independence.

 

“The constitution may for a time seem lost. The character of the country cannot be lost . . . Yet I do not give up my country. I see her in a swoon, but she is not dead . . . I will remain anchored here; with fidelity to the fortunes of my country, faithful to her freedom, faithful to her fall.”

 

Grattan’s statue, obscured by trees on Dublin’s College Green, points towards his old parliament – now occupied by a bank that we, the people, partly own.

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