Democracy in Ireland: A Response to Fintan O’Toole


‘A few drops of fear are always handy for consolidating democracies’

This is a response I left on the Irish Times website to an article by Fintan O’Toole titled ‘Repression shaped our past’ (but not our present, sub-editor?).

Fintan O’Toole says the Irish system of institutional incarceration was ‘extreme for any democratic society’ but stresses that he isn’t suggesting Ireland was a totalitarian dictatorship on a par with Stalinist Russia. Fine. But this raises the question for me of the criteria used to classify Ireland as a democratic society.  

 It strikes me as nigh on impossible to describe any society that installed such brutal measures in the interests of religious, social and moral “purity” as democratic, whatever the claims made by such a society’s political institutions. North Korea officially designates itself as a democratic republic, but few people take this claim seriously, for obvious reasons. So why should we take the description of Ireland as a democratic society -or, as a democratic state, as its constitution puts it- at all seriously? 

 If you look at the recent history of the other PIIGS countries, you see dictatorships and long periods of rule by reactionary conservative forces. In Ireland, there is no formal dictatorship (even if the main ruling party has roots in fascism and even if there was strong support in Ireland for Francoist Spain). But there were ‘institutions of confinement’ as ‘the most prominent buildings in many Irish towns’, as the author puts it. 

 Should we assume, then, that in Ireland there was democracy operating in its political institutions at the very time that such a brutal carceral regime was in force? With any other country, I think most Irish people would give the answer a resounding ‘No’. But with their own country, with the State that they are supposed to give some service, as the popular refrain lifted from Othello puts it, they think the parliament is a legitimate democratic institution, and that if ruling politicians heaped a mountain of illegitimate private banking debt on the population, and strip away whatever provisions there are for a modicum of dignified living in order to do so, well, that’s something up with which we just have to put. Because that’s democracy.  

 Or is it adaptation?

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