A moment’s consideration will reveal the connection between the Garda penalty points affair and the Patrick Nulty affair.
Were you the kind of person who knew how to get their penalty points wiped? Would you have had the sense of assurance and the personal acquaintances that would have got you off the hook? Maybe one of the Guards you could rely on for that kind of thing is a friend of your father’s. Maybe you invited him along to give a talk at your Residents Association meeting, about the need to install burglar alarms and lock your tools in the shed. You can never be too careful with burglars.
I’m not that kind of person. I don’t know any Gardaí. If I got done for a motoring offence that got me penalty points, it wouldn’t even occur to me to approach the police to get the points wiped. This isn’t because I’m one of the good guys, it’s because I don’t trust the police.
Now, maybe if I had a guard for an uncle or something, I might have a different view of the police, and of my chances of getting penalty points wiped, and I might have a different sense of entitlement, too. However, I don’t. And the thought of going to An Garda Síochána to get penalty points removed brings with it the following: what would they want in return?
What they want in return may not be much. Most likely they will not say they want anything at all in return. All part of the service. So this is what you say happened, sir? Well, who are we to disbelieve your account. Points wiped. But this willingness to believe is a gift, and it is not a gift bestowed on everyone who crosses the path of An Garda Síochána. That’s one of the reasons they bug people’s phone calls.
David Graeber’s Debt has a telling quote, taken from Peter Freuchen’s Book of the Eskimo: “Up in our country we are human!” said the hunter. “And since we are human we help each other. We don’t like to hear anybody say thanks for that. What I get today you may get tomorrow. Up here we say that by gifts one makes slaves and by whips one makes dogs.”
What happens when an institution of the State makes you a gift in the form of wiped penalty points? How does that change the relation between you -the ‘citizen’- and the State official? By gifts one makes slaves and by whips one makes dogs.
In this place, do you know where you stand when it comes to the police? How about doctors and consultants? Do you know what your rights are? Would you be confident enough to quote your rights and stand up for them? Could you do it even when there are lots of people standing around who, as far as you can see, think the police are great fellows altogether, or that the gynaecologist is beyond reproach because he delivered all my children, or that the politician at the meeting is on our side because he sorted out my mother’s pension entitlements?
A lot of people criticise Ireland’s political system because it is clientelist. A lot of this criticism comes from the bien pensant, socially liberal but economically conservative, extreme centrist core of the Irish middle class.
This criticism expresses haughty disdain both for the people who vote the same candidates in time and again, and for the grubby, self-seeking politicians who use constituency clinics and the like as a way of buying votes.
What this criticism usually hides from view is the fact that people are forced to rely on the intercession of political representatives because Ireland does not have public institutions that operate in line with principles of democratic citizenship and guaranteed rights. Instead, it has institutions that make sure you’re well looked after if you’re rich and might do you the odd favour if you’re not.
And this situation is getting worse, or better, if you are a privateer. Under the auspices of the Department for Public Expenditure and Reform, Irish government departments are doing away with the word ‘citizen’ altogether, and replacing it with ‘customer’. Thank you for your custom: ‘custom’ implies payment. Your rights, hence, are what you can pay for. If you look at Ireland’s constitution, it says that institutions should operate on the basis of charity. Charity, not rights. By gifts one makes slaves…
Patrick Nulty’s behaviour was stomach churning and reprehensible, but it didn’t happen in a vacuum. Why should a woman who has been the victim of physical and sexual abuse be forced to make her case for increased rent allowance to a male TD? The woman who attended Nulty’s office seeking help said her detailed account of the abuse she had suffered was “just another story I had to tell another total stranger because I thought I had no other option”.
Nulty’s own abusive behaviour in this case shouldn’t blind us to the fact that he was able to operate in the expanses of a vast grey area established by the Irish State, where gifts and favours and nods and winks take the place of enforceable rights, and of institutions that correspond to those rights.
This world of sleazy informality and bogus intimacy is not the exception to the rule of law: for the intents and purposes of those who matter in Ireland’s kleptocracy, it is the rule of law.