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12 September 2002 Edition

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The best democracy money can buy

BY ROBBIE MacGABHANN


Redundancies, rising unemployment and electricity charges, a health service in chaos, an economy clearly not generating enough tax revenue to meet important spending commitments and then the small matter of a referendum. The Fianna Fáil and Progressive Democrats government have a lot on this month.

Rest assured, the coalition have taken all the important issues on board, including special cabinet meetings, long discussions between Mary Harney and Bertie Ahern, not to mention the appointment of a five-strong committee empowered to consider all the alternatives and produce firm proposals.

This week, we finally got the white smoke. There will be no Bertie Bowl. Forget all the problems we face economically in terms of jobs and unemployment, socially in terms of the quality of health and education services, not to mention the issues of investing in new electricity facilities, public transport, telecommunications, housing. It's an incredibly long list. Inconceivably, the government have been agonising over whether or not to build a 'national' stadium.

Welcome to democracy in the Fianna Fáil republic. Bertie Ahern has said he wanted the stadium to be a symbol of the Tiger economy and it is - rushed, massively over budget, endlessly hyped and never delivered. €200 million has already been wasted on the project.

Now the business community are being asked to make contributions to finance the project. This is an excellent proposal. Using this logic, we could get private sector companies to build us the hospitals, schools, train lines, power stations, ports, roads, houses that are badly needed.

This really then could be the best democracy money can buy. If you are a member of Ireland's rich and powerful, don't worry, it will never happen. Democracy here is not actually about the dictionary definition of the "common people, considered as the primary source of political power". It is about something much more insidious.

Take the past week, for example. Willie O'Dea, minister of state at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, introduced an ESRI report that shows massive inequalities for women in the workforce in terms of wages, education and childcare. O'Dea has launched a website to highlight an Equality for Women Measure project which spent €8.7 million last year promoting equality for women. Bertie Bowl project costs have run up 22 times that already.

Other action taken by O'Dea is the promise to look at "the gender balance of state board members". Value of this must be deemed priceless.

Last Thursday, 5 September, US-owned telecommunications company Tellabs announced the closure of its Irish operations with the loss of 400 jobs. The reason given for the closure is the 'international downturn'. It is also just one more example of how Irish democracy works, where external rather than domestic forces control the economy.

Unemployment figures released last week show two other alarming trends - a sharp drop in industrial employment and unemployment rising by 16% over the last 12 months. The only increases in employment have been registered in the public sector and now, in the post election period, cutbacks and budgetary constraints are going to lose many of these jobs.

It seems that in Bertie and Mary's democracy they were able to hire lots of public sector workers in the run up to election day and begin laying them off in the weeks after. They have this power and we have none when it comes to try and get them to focus on tackling the real job issues.

Another example of a decision taking with no democratic input was the announcement of ESB price hikes of over 13%. Bizarrely, the increases are to make electricity generation more attractive to the private sector and the market more competitive. Sinn Féin TD Seán Crowe pointed out that this was a clear case of "fattening the pig for market". But his voice and ours don't count on this and many other matters.

Maybe though, it is because we don't know any better. Former Fine Gael leader Garret FitzGerald used his weekly Irish Times column to tell us why he didn't think it was a good idea for Labour Party members to pick their new leader. This should be left to TDs and senators who "best know the parliamentary strengths and weaknesses" of candidates.

FitzGerald thinks that having referenda is "less than ideal" and that the "populist tendency" to deem parliament and government as untrustworthy is "dangerous". There you have it; we are dangerous fools.

FitzGerald's comments are interesting, as he and Ahern are, over the last 20 years, next to the quickly forgotten emperor Haughey, the longest serving Taoisigh in the 26 Counties. Their collective disdain for people having even the notion of exercising power has been exposed this week. We don't have a democracy. We have a sham.

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
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Ireland
 

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