Irish people have grown to expect a lack of compassion, bordering on belligerence from their government. As we seen inequality in Ireland continuously grow over the past number of years many of us have grown angry at what looks like a complacent government turning a blind eye to the suffering of poor and working class people. Why is it that the Irish state seems so unresponsive to the needs of the ordinary public, but can be decisive and immediate when it comes to meeting the needs of the financial elites? There is ample evidence to suggest that the government can act fast when it comes to a banking crisis but when it comes to a crisis like homelessness the state suddenly becomes slow and unresponsive. Surely it’s not too much to ask that the state show the same decisive and fast acting attitude to crises effecting ordinary people as it has been seen to do with crises of those on the top.
There are a number of reasons why the Irish state in general is so unresponsive to the public sphere, it has indeed been a hallmark problem in the Irish democratic project since the founding of the state. A complete analysis of how we got ourselves into a position where the people elected to govern us seem more interested in appealing to multinationals and rebuilding Ireland’s reputation as a neoliberal utopia in the eyes of the world, rather than responding to the needs and crises in public life would be an interesting and worthwhile project. I would like to add a few ideas as to how we got here as a way to get us thinking about the problem.
When thinking about the unresponsiveness of the Irish state the first thing to consider is the founding of the state. Although you might think that whatever happened at the founding of the state has well and truly passed by now the problem is that what gets built into the state at the very beginning has a way of lodging itself into the DNA of how the state is run, and can be very hard to change.
The modern Irish state was born out of an explosive rebellion, a violent war of independence and was immediately thrown into a bloody civil war. A new fledgling government in this environment was going to have to conduct its business in a very restricted way. The first governments of the Irish state met in secret, behind locked doors and armed guards. A government born in this manner was of course going to be closed off to the world going on outside it. The environment in which the state was created imprinted a cold and hostile relationship between the government and the public and the residual effects of this are still with us today.
Another factor to take into consideration is the culture among those in power. We have a new type of government now with a Fine Gael minority backed up by some independents and this new structure is still trying to find its feet and work through its teething problems. However we need to keep in mind that many of the individuals who hold the most powerful offices in the state are coming out of a time when they had the biggest government majority in the history of the state. It is uncontroversial and nothing new to suggest that this has breed a degree of arrogance and complacency among those in power who are used to being able to get their own way without having to pay much attention to public opinion. The practices of guillotining debates and pushing legislation through that we have seen over the life time of the past government has left many higher ups in Fine Gael with an attitude of ignoring the public which they are still carrying with them.
The final point I want to make is somewhat circular. The optics that suggest that the Irish government are only concerned with the wellbeing of the golden circle of financial elites has led the public to expect a certain type of behaviour from the state. We see the state sending members of the Gardaí to investigate welfare fraud while we haven’t seen anyone being seriously punished for the reckless behaviour in banks that led to the collapse that has left so many dependent on welfare. The optics of this has meant that many people now hold a hostile attitude towards the state and would rather stand in opposition to it rather than engaging with it. This is somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy. The public view the government as ignoring them and come to expect it. The lack of action taken by the public when the government bring in a measure which is deeply unpopular then allows the government to continue to ignore the will of the public. An example of this would be the household charge. This was a deeply unpopular measure among the public, but because we expect the government to do deeply unpopular things we failed to adequately challenge them. This tension grew and grew until the water chargers were introduced and the public exploded in opposition to them. Many people who marched against water charges were really marching with the pent up anger that came from years of unpopular government measures that were brought in despite the will of the public at large.
While this does not fully explain why the Irish state is so unresponsive to the Irish public, these three points are important pieces of the puzzle. The history of the state, the culture of those at the top and public expectations are all important reasons why the government appears to be so out of touch with the public.