I was listening to a podcast about political reform recently (I know, I know) and what struck was how utterly depressing it was. It had the standard format: a load of non-politicians had one of those summer school discussions about electoral reform et al. It then finished with the reality: our political class of whatever party just don’t want to change it or themselves.
The truth is, political reform in a meaningful sense is never going to happen through conventional politics. There are literally too many vested interests within the system.
So what’s an ordinary citizen to do?
There is one power left, that politicians haven’t control over.
The power to not vote.
The what, says you?
When you are faced with a political system that is incapable of offering real change, the next logical step is to remove its legitimacy. At the moment, the Dail, as a body, can say with genuine conviction that it is the forum of the Irish people, and that the laws it passes are legitimate. It would be right, because in 2011 70% of registered voters cast their ballots for it. Likewise, it can legitimately claim that even unpopular water policies are legitimate, as are the Gardai enforcing those policies as the public order wing of the Irish people.
But what happens if less than 50% of registered voters vote?
Then you’re in a different ball game. Then the Dail is no longer the moral voice of the Irish people, just another vested interest, albeit one with the power to actually take money from your pocket and with an army of uniform enforcers at its disposal.
Suddenly, a demonstration of 100,000 marching on the Dail is no longer a challenge to “the country” because a Dail elected on a turnout under 50% doesn’t speak for the country. Suddenly, the Gardai are no longer fellow citizens we have given special powers to, but just the organised heavy mob of a section of the country. Legitimacy matters.
That’s outrageous, says you. The Dail would still have legal authority, regardless if what percentage of the Irish people vote.
That’s true. That was also the argument the British used in 1916. But Dublin Castle and the Royal Irish Constabulary went from being the legitimate legal order in the country to a force ordinary people were willing to shoot dead in the streets because they lacked legitimacy. Suddenly a crowd breaking through the gates of Leinster House and beating up Gardai or dragging the Ceann Comhairle or cabinet from the chamber are not a mob. If a Dail gets less than 50% turnout, that mob becomes just another vested interest competing with the vested interest Dail.
When you make the point about turnout to people in the political class they sneer and say it doesn’t matter what the turnout is. That’s what the British thought. That’s what Ceausescu thought. That’s what the Stasi thought right up to the moment a Stasi card went from being a tool of power and privilege to a piece of evidence. But when a crowd believes it has moral legitimacy it also believes that the prevailing order doesn’t, and suddenly a Garda uniform means much less.
Does this amount to a hill of beans? Probably not. A majority of the Irish electorate will vote legitimacy in the Dail at the election, and therefore it is legitimate.
But that tool always remains available to us all, the power to withhold legitimacy.