Is the Left being slowly being displaced by a new form of ‘Irish Poujadisme’?

Before I draw in for the weekend, there’s a very good piece by Noel Whelan in the Irish Times (€!) from yesterday which is well worth mentioning… It’s on the nature of protest, and its legitimate limits.

In the tail of the piece he also raises another more political question, which he directs at the left-led protests against the installation of water meters in the Republic: which is about the protection of workers going about their business.

First Whelan’s take on the precise nature of the judgement this week which sent four citizens to jail for contempt of court:

The court found some of the incidents were being carefully orchestrated to generate and provoke civil disobedience, in contrast to the actions of the many people who have carried out peaceful protests against water charges.

The court said video evidence showed “distinct small groups of people persistently move in around and encircle the workers who are attempting to install water meters”.

Again this week the judge offered those imprisoned the opportunity to be released by purging their contempt.
These four were sent to jail not because they protested against water meters or water charges but because they harassed workers.

They remain in jail only because they refuse to give an undertaking not to continue to do so.

Then he goes on to muse:

One would expect politicians of the left to welcome this court decision as a vindication of the rights of ordinary workers to go about their jobs without undue interference. Such is the convoluted logic of some of those now most prominent on the left wing of our politics, however, that the opposite has been the case.

Now, there is a tradition particularly on the left though not exclusively so, that unjust laws may be resisted using otherwise unjust means. Whole nations have broken away and set up their independence because of the unjust nature of taxation.

Is the water charge unjust? Well, of course that’s a matter of perspective.

The government has been forced to set it so low it’s hard to see it as burden. In fact it is so low that it cannot possibly cover the enormous cost of the capital expenditure needed to modernise Ireland’s crumbling water infrastructure.

Paradoxically, this induces a cynical response in a population whose marginal tax rate is already a massive 52%. Water charges are the classic straw breaking a lot of impatient backs.

I suspect the underlying problem is cultural, and twofold:

  • One, as a small independent nation less than 100 years old Ireland has had to live on its wits, and has barely had the time and resources, never mind the democratic space to ‘think’ collectively ahead.
  • Two, the country’s pre EU solution to economic infrastructure problems, by and large, was to ignore them, since for the most part it didn’t have the resources to invest in them.

With the Tiger years, expectations have grown immensely. As have the major centres of population.

It’s no longer a case of bringing isolated farms onto the grid (many of whom are already serviced by local water schemes which run independently of Irish Water) but making sure the established network doesn’t fall apart under increased demand in the urban growth centres.

Here’s the puzzle for me. For all the often pious talk of making Ireland more like Sweden, where tax rates are high and public goods freely invested in, there appears to be no practicable political plan forthcoming from those who advocate such for how to make it so.

Indeed much of the angry leftist activism which led these men to be jailed has a strange gloss (actually more than a gloss) of French rightist Poujadisme, in which the Irish state is projected as “rapetout et inhumain” (“thieving and inhuman”).

Which prompts the question of who, if not the left, will take up the task of establishing a popular compact for building a new set of sustainably Irish public goods?

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