We are led to believe that we live in a modern democracy, that our multi-party system is far superior to the dictatorship of single party systems in communist states like China, Cuba, the old Soviet Bloc – or fascist states like Franco’s Spain or Salazar’s Portugal. We are led to believe that the system we have is in the best traditions of modern European democracy with the citizen exercising ultimate control over policy and the system. But it just doesn’t stack up.
In almost every European state citizens regularly move left-wing and right-wing parties into and out of power, and the skies don’t fall. In Ireland, on the other hand, we move seamlessly from one conservative-led government to another conservative-led government, and have done so for 90 years without exception. In a situation where both main conservative parties, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, are ideologically inseparable this amounts, effectively, to a single party system.
We are unique in Europe of never having, to date, the real possibility of electing a left-wing government, and that won’t change this time out. We must be a conservative people, as we are constantly told – to justify this hegemony of the right. But that is not true. We do not carry some genetic trait that determines our political leanings.
Our DNA is stamped with rebelliousness stretching back into pre-history and includes being among the first people in Europe to embrace with an attempted revolution the ideals of enlightenment republicanism in 1798. We created the first revolution in Europe in the 20th century, in 1916. Our feminist movement at that time was the most advanced in the world. James Connolly, who commanded the revolutionary forces in Dublin in 1916, was an internationally renowned socialist philosopher and agitator. The model of the Irish Republic in the Proclamation is essentially Connolly’s radical socialist Workers’ Republic.
Something changed. That ‘something’ was a classic counter-revolution in the 1920s with the creation of a conservative coalition of the Catholic church, a reactionary governing party Cumann na nGaedheal with quasi-fascist traits, and a right-wing main-stream press. Progressive men and women were silenced, often labelled as subversive and/or communist, or forced into exile.
Little has changed since then, other than the overt extremism of the dictatorship of the right. As Catholic church power to influence public opinion diminished in recent decades it was replaced by a commentariat in the printed press and on radio and television, themselves formed by the conservative culture in which they grew, and serving their own bourgeois class interests – with very few honourable exceptions. The political, economic and social status quo suits media owners, managers and journalists perfectly, it suits the main political parties, it suits the professional class of which journalists and commentators are members, and it suits the business class, but it does not suit society.
We are also unique in Europe in the distinct lack of diversity in the media across the political spectrum. Fix that major flaw, make available to Irish citizens a broad range of views in a fair and reasoned way and a proper Public Sphere can flourish. And with an effective Public Sphere in which real reasoned debate on ideas among all citizens is possible the spiral of silence is broken, the hegemony of the right is ended and genuine democracy can flourish. That, even more than tinkering with political institutions, is the immediate challenge.