“We have a politics that treats people almost as infants to be sold policies rather than actively engaged…”

Every year, the MacGill Summer School gives us under exercised political anoraks a moment to resolutely focus on Irish public affairs. Last night the subject was trust between the governors and the governed, a title none of the three speakers were particularly comfortable with.

And it invoked some biting, cynical wit on Twitter…

There’s a wider sense of ennui about the whole reform agenda which is getting into the mainstream commentariat it seems.. Miriam Lord, who left Glenties yesterday on the 7am bus according to Sean O’Rourke…

It would have been a terrible tragedy for the organisers had Fine Gael’s promised “democratic revolution” come about. Reform is their bread and butter. Although there’s always Europe, thank God.

Lise Hand noted of Monday’s contribution from Stephen Donnelly…

“I’ll bet you, if you dropped a TD from 1940 into the Dail today, or into a parliamentary party meeting, he’d probably look around and say, ‘what are all these women doing there?’. But apart from that, he probably wouldn’t see much has changed,” he said.

If there’s a sense of deja vu, perhaps it’s because the current government’s reform agenda has already shot through its own highly limited buffers [too little time spent in opposition planning for government, perhaps? – Ed] leaving it effectively out of any new practical ideas to enact.

With a new government as little as a year or 18 months away, there’s not a huge amount to talk about until we see which colours the new administration will fly under.

Still, there were some gems worth recounting, not least this from Micheal Martin, on lessons to be drawn from the ill fated Seanad referendum…

We’ve already moved beyond the Seanad referendum and it is now rarely commented on. This is a mistake because it actually proves that the public’s view of politics and politicians is far more complex and mature than is understood.

The polls said that 80% supported the abolition of the Seanad. Fine Gael is reported to have carried out extensive research over four years confirming the idea that there would be a stampede in favour of a cull of politicians.

Backed by their colleagues in Labour, as well as by Sinn Féin, many left-wing parties and a substantial part of the media, this was seen by many as a close-to unlosable proposal.

It was also a proposal which summed up what is wrong in how government works in this country. It should be a case study for the flaws of the current system and how the public is way ahead of the elite in understanding the need for reform to rebuild trust.

Having carried out its polls and focus groups the Government decided it didn’t need to consult with anyone about the reform of our national parliament.

The Constitutional Convention, established with the supposed purpose of public debate, was expressly denied the right to discuss it. The amendment was finalised without debate and the passage through the Oireachtas was held at the last minute and guillotined.

There was no White Paper on reform and changes to Dáil procedures were produced in the dying days of the campaign rather than as part of a total package.

Comprehensive and independent costing of the proposal was not only not allowed, government refused to admit clearly false statements about costs.

Finally, there was the small matter of the head of government refusing to debate the proposal in a forum where he didn’t control the rules.

The now all-consuming and ever more corrosive dominance of spin meant that this referendum was promoted through empty slogans and exaggerations rather than a mature argument.

Ultimately the people could see that this was a proposal to make a grand gesture but leave the core structure of government in place. Worse than this it would have had the effect of further concentrating power in the hands of the executive.

Leo Varadkar, as you might expect took another view

Although I have great respect for Deputy Martin and Deputy McDonald as individual politicians, I have serious concerns about how their parties operate and have operated in the past. And here we have examples where trust has blinded us to the reality, and Irish life was damaged as a result.

When another former leader of Fianna Fail, and another former Minister for Health – Charles J. Haughey – was in power, few questioned the source of his wealth. We were prepared to take on trust that it had been secured legitimately, even though the evidence suggested otherwise, and all our instincts should have demanded that we speak out.

There was a collective failure of the media, politicians and the public. But the guilt was greater for those in his own party. Instead of exhibiting a healthy anxiety of trust, Fianna Fáil suffered from an anxiety of truth, and preferred to believe its own fictional narrative rather than face the reality.

And with an elegant pivot…

We have all decided to do what must be done for the sake of continuing peace on this island – and that is the right decision – but until Sinn Fein trusts the people with the truth about its own past, it can never expect a majority of the people to trust it on the key political issues of our time.

Otherwise we are signing up for more false leadership, based on evasion, rather than a genuine idealism, and this country has had too much of that. Sinn Fein’s lack of trust in the Irish people is also mirrored in the divergent policy positions it takes North and South. But I shall speak about that another time. [emphasis added]

Unfortunately Mary Lou’s speech is the only one that’s not been made public, so I have to work off my own imperfect Twitter notes, but her main pitch seemed aimed at separating what she called the political class from ordinary people.

She also talked about the state’s instinct to minimise its response to ordinary citizens, and of an instinct amongst the political class to deny rather than acknowledge harm done by the state.

She was adamant that the state must get on with “answering questions”, saying that “acknowledging wrongs done to citizens is always the right thing to do.” She concluded that “the system remains fundamentally resistant to change”, and then – rather depressingly in my view – added that the new dispensation in Northern Ireland shows what can be done.

All good knockabout stuff, even if it didn’t always linger too long around the nub of the problem. And one of the things worth looking at is whether trust is actually on decline or not.

In a fairly recent TED talk at the House of Commons, the crossbench peer Onora O’Neill made this telling observation

The people who were mistrusted twenty years ago, principally journalists and politicians, are still mistrusted and the people who are highly trusted twenty years ago are still rather highly trusted like judges and nurses.

Politicians and journalists, by the nature of their jobs, must compete for power or sales, they contend in the public space with their own agendas, and seek to polarise opinion (thus dividing trust in the overall category).

O’Neill goes on to argue that the quest for more trust is in itself a pointless misadventure. The more important judgement is for the public to make, which she brings down to a fairly simple question: are they trustworthy?

That judgment requires us to look at three things. Are they competent? Are they honest? Are they reliable? And if we find that a person is competent in the relevant matters and reliable and honest will have a pretty good reason to trust them.

The current Irish government did not start with deep wells of trust (though in its own enmity to the previous administration it might have persuaded itself at the time that it did). The truth is that it is hard to use O’Neill’s trustworthiness test if the government is not initiating policy, or simply doing things.

Micheal Martin concluded…

The Irish public is known for its level of interest in the news. Unfortunately we have a politics which makes no use of this and which treats people almost as infants to be sold policies rather than actively engaged with.

Changing this requires us all to have a commitment to valuing independence and expertise. We need to change the balance of powers within politics to allow all public representatives to play a constructive role – and equally to be held to account.

As those great social entreprenuers, the MacSheains of Bothar Seoighe might say, ná habair é, déan é

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