SUSAN RYAN. Postcard from Ireland, a resilient democracy

Oct 11, 2017

It is heartening to see Ireland, so recently condemned as an economic basket case with social attitudes belonging in the middle ages effectively renew and redirect its democracy

On a recent visit to Ireland I was happy to observe that democracy in the Republic is renewed and dynamic. During the Global Financial Crisis, Ireland burdened by the massive national and personal debt brought on by Celtic Tiger inspired dodgy lending practices for housing finance, looked set to become a permanent mendicant member state, a drag on the EU. Not so. Firm leadership and the resilience of their continuing intellectual capital have together   allowed Ireland to repay its debt to Europe, grow employment, and turn in a world class performance in the export of IT and software products.

This is not only an economic revival. As a society Ireland has emerged from the horrors of the Catholic Church’s long and terrible child sex abuse history. The best proof of the society’s rejection of this terrible history and the social repression and political manipulation that went with it is the success of the same sex marriage referendum. Citizens of all backgrounds are proud of this massive social reform. From taxi drivers to former government ministers to party officials, the Irish talk to visitors enthusiastically about this reform. Personifying the new open democratic Ireland, is the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Leo Varadkar, an openly gay man, son of an Indian doctor. It is early days for this Taoiseach, who leads the centre right Fine Gael party in coalition, but the mood and performance are up.

The Irish will soon face another opportunity for reform, with the imminent constitutional referendum on the prohibition on abortion.

The abortion question will involve more complexities and arouse more deep-seated hostilities than what transpired with same sex marriage. While a majority of the population appear, according to surveys, to support dropping the blanket prohibition on abortion, there is not and is unlikely to be clear agreement among supporters of change about the conditions if any that should be attached to an abortion law.

It is heartening to see Ireland, so recently condemned as an economic basket case with social attitudes belonging on the middle ages effectively renew and redirect its democracy. This does not have to be a one off. Recent patterns across advanced democracies show a sharp decline in the traditional parties of government, and increased support for minority parties and individuals. Some of the latter advocate principled positions and perhaps could contribute to working coalitions. Others are ranting bigots with the thinnest grasp of economic and social policy.

We recognise all this in Australia at state and federal levels.

But it is worth Australians noting that Ireland, traditionally a two-party system with Irish Labour a fast disappearing third party, can and does form coalitions that work, though neither major party is yet keen to embrace the electoral replacement for Labour, Sinn Fein. Many representatives remain suspicious of Sinn Fein’s leftism and its history in the Troubles.

If the templates for parliamentary representation we have been used to for so long in Australia are inexorably breaking up, we could consider how coalitions of multiple parties can and already have delivered effective government elsewhere. We should also, with the results of the postal survey on same sex marriage apparently about to deliver a massive yes vote, note that citizens will engage in things that matter to them. That means citizens of all ages, including young voters, often dismissed as too disengaged to vote. It seems engagement depends of the issue.

If we do look to Ireland for some inspiration we should also note that all problems are not solved. A major one, housing affordability is looming large again.

Excessive and careless bank lending to individuals and  developers for building and buying housing was the main contributor to Ireland’s collapse in the GFC. While the worst of the GFC appears to be over for Ireland, house prices, particularly in cities where the jobs are, are rising rapidly again, leaving low income workers, young people, and older people unable to afford a roof over their heads. If this unwelcome return to the worst of the Celtic Tiger is not immediately restrained by government, their great social progress, while enduringly of value will not of itself sustain a democracy that works for everyone.

Australia is yet to do anything systematic and extensive about our affordable housing crisis. The Victorian government is increasing its attention to social housing and tenants’ rights. NSW has taken small steps and will spend a little more on social housing, but nowhere near enough to dint the demand or meet the need.

So, while intellectual capital, democratic social reforms advancing respect and inclusion, and a realistic and contemporary approach to the electoral landscape can make life better, failures in social and economic policy will drag us back.

Ireland is a small nation with a troubled history. But around one third of us in Australia claim Irish heritage, so we should take a good look at what they are doing. The current president of the republic, Michael D Higgins is about to visit Australia, giving us an opportunity to pay more attention to what works in a democracy of any size.

Susan Ryan AO was a minister in the Hawke cabinet. She recently concluded terms as Age Discrimination and Disability Discrimination Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission

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