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Column: Our crisis was caused by too little democracy – not by too much

One TD has launched constitutional challenge seeking to reassert the right to vote on state spending – here’s why, Vincent P Martin writes.

Vincent P. Martin

OUR CONSTITUTION STATES that Ireland is a sovereign, independent and democratic state.

What does this mean in practice?

Well its supposed to mean that the people, from whom all authority comes, elect the members of Dáil Éireann who in turn elect a Taoiseach and the Taoiseach appoints a government. The government runs the country but is subject to two very important limitations.

Firstly, the government must obey the law and the law is created by the Houses of the Oireachtas (the Dáil and Seanad). Secondly the government has no money of itself – it must be given it by the Dáil. So in reality the government gets all its powers from the Dáil which in turn is elected by the people.

The basic idea is simple enough. The government, being like a board of directors, take the day to day decisions and is responsible to Dáil Eireann. Vitally, the laws are made by Dáil Eireann and Dáil Eireann holds the cheque book.

This is not unique to Ireland. Ever since medieval times when democracy began to emerge as the system of government in the Western world, it was recognised that the tax payer should ultimately decide on where his taxes were to be spent. This was done by giving the House of Representatives (Dáil Eireann) the power of the purse.

In 2008 everything changed

That works well in ordinary times but when the collapse of 2008 happened everything changed.

The Banks came begging to the Taoiseach and he caved in to their demands. On one night in September 2008 he agreed to guarantee the full liabilities of the Banks – an amount that even the government United States would have grave difficulty in meeting. Crazy stuff!

Since September 2008 the government has given the banks over €64 billion and our country has been bankrupted.

But, I hear you ask, what about the Dáil – it is supposed to have the cheque book!

Amazingly, the Dáil has been completely sidelined. It was never asked to vote, nor did it ever vote, to give the banks such enormous sums of money. Instead, the Minister for Finance, having consulted with a member of the governing council of the European Central Bank, made the decision that you and your children will pay these amounts to private investors in compensation for deals that went wrong.

It is a scandal of epic proportions.

The scandal is not only that the money was paid (though that is pretty horrific of itself) but that the people who must pay were not given a say. They were not consulted – their view was not considered.

Theft is defined as taking without consent. Your money has been taken and your elected representatives (the Dáil) did not consent – you have therefore been robbed!

But that is not the worst.

The Constitution has been undermined

The worst is that the democratic nature of the State – enshrined in Article 5 of the Constitution has been undermined. And that has led directly to the bail out and to the Troika where our independence and our sovereignty have been compromised.

I have said it before and I say it again – this crisis has been caused by too little democracy not by too much. The laws of the State which demand that parliament decides who gets paid were set aside and the people’s representatives have been neutered.

This must be understood by people generally so that the wrong can be put right. People have a sense that they have been duped, that the wool has been pulled over our eyes, that we have been robbed, but a sense is not enough. We need to understand what went on.

There are those who may claim that the system has ben always corrupt and that the strong dominate the weak. While there will always be corruption of one sort or another the fact is that up until 2008 we were a democracy and our elected representatives had control, for better or for worse. The State survived the 30 years of troubles in the North and before that survived intact as a democracy as much of Europe fell to tyranny.

But in 2008, and for the purpose of bailing out the European financial system, Dáil Eireann was set aside and the supine Ministers did what they were told by Europe. That marked the end of effective democracy in Ireland.

But the position is not hopeless. The New Beginning group of lawyers helped frame a case which was heard in the High Court last week, where courageous member of our national parliament and plaintiff, Joan Collins TD, launched a constitutional challenge, seeking to reassert her right as a TD (elected on behalf of the people) to vote on state spending. The judgement is expected to be given in the coming weeks.

The heart and soul of democracy

In the future there must be new laws put in place so that this dreadful attack on our democracy never happens again. Dáil Éireann and its members must assert their independence from government. The members of Dáil Éireann are the elected members – they are our representatives – they are the heart and soul of democracy.

The idea of the whip is all very fine – but the members have a constitutional function as elected members to act as the people’s representatives. An Ireland that is properly sovereign, independent and democratic is a better Ireland and a better Ireland will make for a better Europe.

And we should not be afraid of democracy, as some in power would have us.
Time and time again it has proved to be the very best system – a system based on government of the people, by the people, for the people. Our ancestors, and those of countless others throughout the world, gave up their lives on the battlefield for this basic principle.

We too, in our time, must defend it.

Vincent P Martin is a barrister and co-founder of New Beginning, an advocacy group founded to campaign for Ireland’s recovery and seeks to find a fair and sustainable solution to the problem of over-indebtedness.

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Vincent P. Martin

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