Monday, July 04, 2011

We the Citizens: Let's Hope for the Best

Some citizens, yesterdayWe the Citizens are trying. They have that in their favour. An Spailpín was disappointed but not particularly surprised when the Mr Haversham of Irish journalism attacked We the Citizens from his lonesome eyrie on one of the back pages of the Sunday Independent some weeks ago. Anything that gets the people talking about where the country is going is, by definition, a good thing. Just because it’s not a march on the Winter Palace doesn’t mean it’s pointless.

And it’s thrilling, genuinely thrilling, that We the Citizens have gone as far as they have with their idea, as opposed to the pathetic rubbish we got from Fintan O’Toole and the Democracy Not Just Yet fiasco. Seeing O’Toole and Eamon Dunphy squirm under Elaine Byrne’s clear contempt for their retreat from involvement in the last election on RTÉ’s Eleventh Hour program was one of the highlights of the campaign.

But for all that, there must be something concrete to show for all this, and this is where the worry sets in.

We the Citizens have spent the past month or six weeks holding meetings around the country to gauge the public mood, and then followed these up with a focus group that met last weekend in the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham. An Spailpín wasn’t in the Royal Hospital but I did attend the We the Citizens meeting in Blanchardstown.

As such, seeing the results of these meetings and focus groups is instructive and depressing in equal parts. For instance, Doctor Byrne remarked in her Sunday Times piece yesterday that a narrow majority of the focus group was in favour of gender quotas in elections, and this is headline news on the We the Citizens website.

That majority figure is 51%. 51% is technically a majority, but it is a split-down-the-middle number to any reasonably minded person. Or anyone that hadn’t decided how he or she would like the vote to go in the first place.

We the Citizens' vote in favour for the retention of the voting system is another source of concern. Anyone I’ve ever met who’s been involved in politics has told me the hardest fight of all is within the constituency party. Spending that level of energy fighting people whose views you share makes no sense. 74% of the We the Citizens focus group seem to think it’s worthwhile.

The whole shooting match will be debated later tonight on Prime Time, but An Spailpín is nervous. Prime Time hasn’t exactly been Athens in the time of Pericles when it comes to standards of public debate lately.

The house style on Prime Time (and the Frontline too) has been to start with twenty pointless minutes VT of some goon looking over the new Sean O’Casey bridge in Dublin or likewise landmark before turning to the camera and solemnly intoning: “Ireland. Joyce called her the old sow that eats her farrow. In the light of the loss of economic sovereignty, will we now have to actually consume our own children just to survive?” And so on and on and on and on.

Twenty minutes of this, twenty minutes of tu’pence ha’penny opinions from the floor, and then Miriam chairs a head to head between Elaine Byrne and Leo Varadkar. Byrne is bolshy and touchy. Varadkar displays his gift for condescension, which is considerable. Miriam tells them we have to leave it there, but join us next week for the very human story of a Haitian refugee who worked in a Magdalene Laundry in Two Mile Borris and now dreams of a better life as blackjack croupier for Doctor Quirkey.

Please God I’m wrong. This country needs top to bottom reform, and a level of citizenship that is much more in keeping with Kennedy’s famous demand that people ask not what your country can do for you but you for your country. Maybe this will be sparked on Prime Time tonight, and the country will never be the same again. I really hope so.

But my God, I really doubt it. The best hope is still that a Gorbachev will rise in Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil and reform the system that made him or her from within. This will come almost certainly at the cost of his or her own career, but it will be for the greater good of all. I just hope there’s somebody left on the island when that Irish Gorbachev rises.