The Irish State is seen by voters as an enemy and oppressor

22 August, 2011

Peter Mair, who died recently, was a leading political scientist, well known in Ireland and Europe. The Irish Times last Saturday published an edited version of his recent address to the MacGill Summer School. Part of it dealt with the Irish electorate’s attitude to the State and with our dysfunctional voting system.

The problem here is that we don’t respect our State. We have never respected our State. We have never had a sense of belonging for our State. If anything we have viewed the State as the enemy, as an oppressor, as something not to be trusted but to be taken advantage of.

That’s the culture of the cute hoors, the strokes, you get away with it and getting away with it against the State is getting away with something which is not us and doesn’t belong to us but belongs somewhere out there and it is not ours . . . We have in Ireland an electoral system that you might call amoral localism – which is that you do anything you can to benefit your locality and your constituency and your district, and your TD will do anything he can to benefit your locality and your district and your constituency and, in a sense, damn everything else…..

We have been so busy as citizens in ensuring the representation of our own interests and those of our constituencies that we have lost sight of the broader, collective interest, we have lost sight of that a long time ago. We exert great control over our TDs [but] have never sought to exert any control over our governments.

And the result is a huge vacuum in terms of responsibility and in terms of authority right at the centre of the stage of government. As citizens, we never held our governments accountable for their policies – we are too busy holding our TDs accountable for their local activities.

Mair said the first change that was needed is a change in our electoral system (which of course is one of my hobby horses).

From my point of view there are at least three things which should be done. These are small things and relatively easy to do but if you look across Europe, maybe important things to do.

The first is we need to reform our electoral system. What sort of electoral system we get instead is more open to question but we need to get away from this multiseat constituency competition which ensures great representation of Irish voters but also leads to amoral localism and this aggregates our voices. Michael D Higgins once said that Irish politics disaggregates the poor – it doesn’t just disaggregate the poor, it disaggregates everybody except the special interests.

I’m not sure that I agree that changing our electoral system is a small thing and relatively easy to do: firstly, turkeys are not accustomed to voting for Christmas so the present incumbents are likely to oppose change in a system which has worked well for them; and secondly, when alternative systems are proposed we find that they are shot down as not being perfectly suited to Irish conditions – as Voltaire supposedly said, “the best is the enemy of the good”.

I have posted on this subject a number of times, for instance here and here.  Good to see that the late Peter Mair was of the same mind.


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