Fintan O’Toole: “Power corrupts, but so does a sense of powerlessness”

Bearing in mind some of the moral issues raised by the proposed boycott of the Household Charge, Fintan O’Toole nails a few home truths in his Irish Times column (h/t to the peerless and sainted Olivia O’Leary on RTE’s Drivetime this evening):

We can’t take refuge, either, in comforting explanations for this deep-rooted amorality. The pat answer would be to link it to the decline of religion and in particular of the authority of institutional Catholicism. But the facts don’t support this thesis: Haughey came to power in 1979, when church control was still in its prime. He, Reynolds and Ahern governed as conservative and devout Catholics.

So what does account for the amorality? Powerlessness, surely. Power corrupts, but so does a sense of powerlessness. Civic virtue comes from a belief in both rights and responsibilities, but too many Irish people don’t really believe they have either the rights or the duties of citizens. They don’t have the right to public services – so they wheedle with TDs to get them. Why, then, would they demand high standards of probity from those politicians? If they weren’t cunning enough to pull strings and extract favours, what use would they be?

What it all means is that there’s really no point in making one or two cosmetic reforms in response to Mahon. Systemic corruption demands systemic change. And the purpose of that change has to be the wholesale reinvention of Irish democracy. Irish people won’t stop wheedling and nodding and winking until they believe they really have the power to shape the public realm in which they live.

Powerlessness has made us a nation of chancers. It lets us off the hook – someone else is always in charge: the Brits, the church, Fianna Fáil, Frankfurt. The one chance we’ve never taken collectively is the risk of believing that we have full responsibility for ourselves and each other. Unless we demand the creation of a real republic – built the hard way, from the bottom up – we will breed many more Berties.[Emphasis added]

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty