27 March 1997 Edition

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Against the culture of privilege

The election in the 26 Counties is expected in May. Mícheál MacDonncha sees it as an historic opportunity.for republicans.

When the report of the Hepatitis C Tribunal was published earlier this month a senior legal source was quoted as saying that prosecutions of people were unlikely. ``There is no culture in this country of people being brought to book for this kind of thing,'' said the anonymous legal source who was prominently quoted in the media.

Top medical staff, administrators, civil servants and government ministers have all been guilty in this scandal which saw hundreds of people infected with a deadly disease by agents of the state. The report of the Hep C tribunal was referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions by the government but it is widely ackowledged now that there will be no prosecutions. The privileged sector which rules the state will escape the full rigour of the law. Conveniently for the Coalition government the full impact of the Hep C report was blunted within hours by the announcement by Mary Robinson that she will not be continuing as President for another seven year term.

While it would be wrong to suggest that Robinson deliberately timed her announcement to divert attention from the biggest medical scandal in Irish history, the media coverage of her move helped to obscure what should have been a very powerful message. Amidst all the adulation of a presidency which was supposed to have helped to transform Irish society, a lesson about the fundamental inequality of that society, and the culture of privilege which dominates it, was lost.

Remember the Beef Tribunal? That investigation into corruption in the meat industry cost taxpayers £35 million and enriched a flock of lawyers, but no-one was brought to book for wrongdoing. The only one prosecuted was the TV journalist who helped to expose the scandal.

The most famous tribunal before that was on the fire tragedy of 1981 which claimed the lives of 48 young people in the Stardust ballroom in Dublin. Criminal neglect of fire safety was exposed by the report but not one private citizen or public official was prosecuted. Like the Hep C sufferers, the survivors and relatives of fatal victims had to campaign for a hearing and for compensation. The only one hauled before the courts was singer Christy Moore whose song on the disaster was injuncted and banned by the High Court.

The higher up the business, medical and political ladders you go the greater your protection from the rigour of the law. What the presidency of Mary Robinson has provided is the illusion that we have left such crude inequalities behind us, that we are more comfortable with ourselves, more integrated as a people. Her rhetoric in favour of the excluded and the marginalised has often been impressive but it remains rhetoric. The reality is different. Successive governments have had their consciences salved by her powerful symbolism of inclusiveness. But they are the ones with the political power and they have shaped a society in the `90s where inequality is starker than ever.

When Ruairi Quinn announced his budget in February who was there to represent the have-nots of whom Mary Robinson is supposedly champion? Not the `left' in government, Labour and Democratic Left. Not the trade union leadership which had just pawned its independence again in return for Partnership 2000. Certainly not the official opposition and supposed alternative government of Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats.

The only coherent criticism which challenged the basic assumptions of government policy came from outside the corridors of Leinster House and the `social partners' - from Sinn Féin and from a group representing religious orders. The Conference of Religious in Ireland issued a major indictment of the government, especially of the so-called left within it. They pointed out that more people are living in poverty now than there were 20 years ago:

``There is something profoundly wrong with a society where resources are growing dramatically yet it refuses to give priority to tackling poverty, unemployment, and exclusion. Massive new resources which were coming on stream had been allocated to those who were already better off.

``This government had the resources to impact dramatically on poverty, unemployment and exclusion. It chose instead to allocate these resources to those who were already well off. Budget `97 marks the triumph of greed over need.''
This summer will provide voters with a chance to dent the smug, self-satisfied circle of power in Leinster House and vote for policies which challenge the culture of privilege and inequality.

The parties which made those choices for greed over need are now preparing to fight a general election. No coalition has stuck together so well as Fine Gael, Labour and Democratic Left and what was well nigh unthinkable a few years ago looks like coming to pass - a joint programme of those three parties to promote them as the next government.

Even if they don't sit down and agree a broad programme this alliance has a momentum which, barring major losses at the polls for Labour, can propel them back into coalition on the other side of the election.

The question for voters is how can they possibly influence such an outcome? Elections here have always been more about turfing out unpopular governments than electing new ones. But for the past decade the power to do that has been diminished. No-one elected the present government; it emerged from the horse-trading in Leinster House following the collapse of the Albert Reynolds-Dick Spring administration in November 1994. That Fianna Fáil-Labour coalition was not the choice offered to voters either in the November 1992 election. In fact Labour was stridently anti-Fianna Fáil and built its record `Spring-tide' vote in that election on the basis of its effective opposition to the Haughey and Reynolds governments.

Labour still talked then of becoming the main opposition party, driving Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael together. To do that it would have to remain out of government, building a real alternative to the right-wing parties. That is not Labour's way and it is the Labour Party more than any other, with its willingness to coalesce with anybody, which has diminished the power of the electorate to decide the composition and policies of governments. Repeatedly it has betrayed those who voted for it.

But voters still have the ability to send powerful messages and elect effective representatives. In 12 constituencies in the general election Sinn Féin will be standing candidates. This summer will thus provide voters with a chance to dent the smug, self-satisfied circle of power in Leinster House and vote for policies which challenge the culture of privilege and inequality.

The real prospect of a seat for Sinn Féin's Caoimhghin O Caoláin in Cavan-Monaghan offers the chance of a breakthrough and strong votes for the party elsewhere can mark a milestone in the development of republican politics in the 26 Counties. Coming after a period of unprecedented attention on Sinn Féin and the end of broadcasting censorship, it is an historic opportunity which must be seized.

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1