GIVEN the turbulence and utter toxicity of politics at the moment, particularly in the United States and Britain, Irish politics seems to be in a relatively serene state.
We seem to be living in an era when British and American politics consists of a rollercoaster of perennial crises. However, roller- coasters severely skew our capacity to make balanced judgments. Furthermore, a sense of perennial crisis can drain all of us of hope.
In respect of Ireland, it is worth considering for a moment that we would not in our wildest imaginings expect to be disappeared by the state because we challenge government policy. We do not envisage that newspaper offices will be raided by state forces because of editorials in this or other newspapers calling on the Taoiseach of the day to resign. We hardly give a thought to one cabinet being peacefully replaced by another.
With the exception of major rallies, protesters gathering outside Leinster House hardly catch our eye. Institutionalized parliamentary opposition to the cabinet of the day inside Leinster House is we assume how politics should be organised.
We exercise our franchise via a secret ballot in a matter of fact way and are accustomed to vibrant debates and the exchange of ideas in the public sphere. Furthermore, citizens mobilise via civil society on issues of collective concern daily.
Such are the benefits of living in a consolidated 21st century liberal democracy, a synthesis of democratically-elected representative institutions and constitutionally-protected civil rights. It should be emphasised that this synthesis is only a century old. In reality, Irish citizens take their liberal democratic rights and the norms that underpin them for granted. These rights and norms have become part of our political DNA.
Counterintuitively, taking these rights and norms for granted is a sign of a healthy liberal democracy as it means they are culturally embedded. It is not sufficient that liberal democratic rights are de jure protected.
Political culture is of critical importance because it means citizens individually and collectively have taken ownership most likely, unconsciously, of these rights. As such, political culture can be described as the de facto oxygen of liberal democracy.
Two recent reports concluded that Irish liberal democracy is in a very healthy state. The Economist’s Democracy Index for 2018 placed Ireland in the top tier of just 20 full democracies. These 20 contain 4.5% of the world’s population and 12% of its countries.
Globally, Ireland was ranked joint 6th with Canada out of 167 countries surveyed, both receiving a score of 9.15 out of a maximum of 10. In the Western European category, Ireland did even better, receiving a ranking of fifth.
Norway, Iceland, Sweden, New Zealand and Denmark occupy top five standing in this global ranking. Particularly noteworthy is the fact that France and the United State are not categorised as full democracies. Categorised as flawed democracies, they achieve a global ranking of 25 and 29 respectively.
A particularly positive indicator is that Ireland received the maximum score of 10 in spheres of civil liberties and political culture. At the other extreme, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Syria and North Korea were categorised as authoritarian and ranked 165th to 167th respectively. North Korea and Syria received a score of 0 for civil liberties. A total of 53 countries were classified as authoritarian.
Ireland’s top tier status remained firmly intact under the Freedom House survey for 2018. Receiving 97 out of a possible 100, it was categorised as one of the world’s 88 free countries, putting Ireland on a par with Denmark. Bear in mind that just three countries received an ultra impressive ranking of 100, namely Finland, Sweden and Norway. The Netherlands and Canada were barely shy of full marks, with a score of 99. On the other hand, Tibet, South Sudan and North Korea barely registered on the 100 scale, receiving derisory scores of 1, 2, and 3 respectively. Syria did not register at all, with a score of 0.
In Ireland, we seem to be unable to give ourselves credit for our democratic achievements. Why is this so? First, frustration and disillusionment with politics can make us angry. When we witness abject failures in public policy such as child poverty and overspending on state projects, we are entitled to be angry. And when public policy failures hurt vulnerable family members and friends whom we love, this anger becomes personal.
Second, collectively we seem to get trapped into a self-perpetuating public discourse of total negativity about Irish liberal democracy. It is not that this public discourse sees Ireland’s democratic glass as half full; rather it sees the glass as empty.
It has been my consistent experience for over 30 years that it is very hard to get a fair and balanced hearing in respect of this country’s democratic positives. In rare moments of despair, I have concluded that we seem utterly determined to give ourselves a permanent fail grade.
Of course, it should be emphasised that some on the political spectrum such as the far left and far right actually want liberal democracy to fail. Freedom of expression, assembly and association, for example, are self-evidently incompatible with authoritarian political arrangements, whatever their political hue. Opposition, dissent and a free press are an anathema to dystopian visionaries. Ireland has fortunately been largely spared from such forces so far.
There have been many decisive moments in the history of Irish liberal democracy. The granting of near universal adult suffrage in 1918 has received well deserved attention recently. And getting to this position where we enjoy top tier global rankings was hardly a foregone conclusion. In particular, Ireland’s civil war (1922-23) might have proved to be an insurmountable obstacle to democratic consolidation.
Given the nature of contemporary politics in Britain and the United States it is therefore both timely and appropriate to generously acknowledge our democratic successes.
Given the re-emergence of populism in Europe and the U.S, these successes should not be undervalued. Nor do our current top tier ratings afford us any room for complacency.
Dr Anthony O Halloran is author of the The Dail in the 21st Century published by Mercier Press, Cork. He studied American politics as a Fulbright Scholar in Southern Illinois University, Carbondale.