Joan Burton’s Formidable Attacks on Democracy

Aristocracy means the rule of the best. Democracy means the rule of the people. A well-known expression of the democratic principle was put forward by Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address: government of the people, by the people, for the people.

Historically, the matter of who exactly is included in this ‘people’, and who is left out, has been contentious.

Gender-based, race-based and property-based criteria are used by some people to keep others out. Such criteria still operate, explicitly in some cases and covertly in others, in any so-called democratic state that actually exists today.

Then there is the matter of how much the people should take part in their own government. Should it be once every four years, or continuous? Should democracy’s scope extend into the realm of control over economic resources and production? Or should all that be left to the rule of the market, to economic powers accountable only to themselves?

There is also the question of material equality among the body of citizens supposed to take part in this democracy. How can you talk about democracy when certain people hold economic power that allows them to shape the course of events, through political and social institutions, far more decisively than the average member of the population?

Abraham Lincoln’s formulation is also expressed in the manifesto of James Connolly’s Irish Socialist Republican Party.

It held that the

‘agricultural and industrial system of a free people, like their political system, ought to be an accurate reflex of the democratic principle by the people for the people, solely in the interests of the people’.

For this party, democracy was a

‘vital principle of justice’

and that

‘private ownership, by a class, of the land and instruments of production, distribution and exchange.. is the fundamental basis of all oppression, national, political and social.’

In recent weeks in Ireland, protesters against Irish Water who blocked the car of Tánaiste Joan Burton were denounced, by Government minister Alex White, as ‘anti-democratic’.

Both Burton and White are members of the party that proclaims itself as the political heirs of James Connolly. On Budget Day this year, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, led by Labour TD Brendan Howlin, tweeted the following image:

White said it was ‘anti-democratic to try to block somebody, to try to trap somebody in their car, to try to stop them going about their business’.

Is he not right? Who has the authority to detain anyone against their will?

One problem: the Tánaiste is not just somebody. She is a key member of the Government, and has been responsible for a whole range of cuts to public expenditure — unemployment benefits, maternity benefit, assistance for one parent families, child benefit- that deepen inequality in Irish society.

Another problem: as the head of a party that claims to represent labour, that is, the working class majority in society, she has presided over JobBridge, a scheme that undermines the principle of paid labour and allows employers to maintain profit margins by keeping wages depressed and disciplining the rest of the workforce.

The success of this scheme can be seen in part in the fact that wages fell by nearly 2% between July and September. Joan Burton is adept at producing good news on the jobs front, but from the bosses’ point of view. Joan Burton is, in fact, a militant against the ‘vital principle of justice’ of democracy identified by Connolly.

Now, Alex White and anyone else can invoke democracy to decry the detention of Joan Burton, such that Joan Burton is entitled to be treated like anyone else. But support for democracy and support for Labour Party policy makes you a conspicuous hypocrite — that is, by the standard of one of the figures supposedly revered by that party.

What is more, Joan Burton doesn’t act as if she is just anyone. Instead, she acts like an aristocrat. Her behaviour last week in the national parliament was the antithesis of democratic government.

A basic principle of democracy is that public officials are servants of the people, not the other way round. It is an abuse of public office to use a member of the public as a means to your end. So it is worth considering what Joan Burton did the other day in these terms, when Sinn Féin TD Mary Lou McDonald posed a question, on behalf of a member of the public.

Imagine: you are the victim of a paedophile rapist, someone who got away with the things he did because of his status in society. There are suspicions that the police force did not do all that it ought and that this may have affected others, like you. You find it hard to get information out of other official bodies and you learn that the details of an internal Garda inquiry will not be made available to you.

What do you do? As in many cases where people are faced with the failure of public institutions to respect their rights as citizens, and with a lack of other channels for resolving the issue, you contact a TD.

As a victim of sexual abuse you may be reticent, even fearful, of having your name mentioned in public. You may figure it is worthwhile to make yourself known because that’s what you have to do in order to get justice, in order to stop such things from happening again. So you consent to your name being made public, and being mentioned in the national parliament.

In this case, the TD contacted belonged to Sinn Féin. And since it was a member of Sinn Féin, and presumably since Sinn Féin is eating away at Labour’s public support, Burton appears to have thought that the raising of this person’s case was fair game, not only for adversarial needling but also for smear.

Burton could have kept the reply civil but non-committal, since it’s the victim whose needs here are paramount, and it’s the victim whom the minister is supposed to serve, not party interest. Instead, she sought to suggest that Domhnaill Ó Lubhlaí had strong associations with the republican movement, by which everyone knows she really meant Sinn Féin.

Burton furthermore objected to the fact that McDonald had sought to raise the issue, suggesting that McDonald’s motives might be questionable:

I am not in a position to respond on the detail of those allegations. I think she is very aware of that. If she is seeking to assist with the victims…

Democratic principles dictate that it is the duty of public representatives to ask questions on behalf of constituents. Equally, it’s a duty of government ministers to answer those questions. If a minister is unable to give a full answer to a question at any point, it’s simply a matter of saying so, and committing to giving a full answer in the future.

In the case of questions that come from victims of sexual abuse who are seeking justice, there is a particular onus on a public representative to ensure that nothing is said that might prevent other victims from coming forward. Burton sought to address Domhnaill Ó Lubhlaí’s significance in terms of his association with the republican movement. This was of no relevance to the question being posed on behalf of Ó Lubhlaí’s victim, but if anyone was weighing up approaching a Sinn Féin TD to act on their behalf in similar circumstances, and since there are plenty of people who trust Sinn Féin this is a definite possibility, Burton’s reply will have pushed them in the direction of staying silent.

One might also sense an element of protective whataboutery in Burton’s response: who was the Sinn Féin TD to question the integrity of An Garda Síochána given the republican movement’s own record? Again, the effect of such a response on the victim, or other victims who might be thinking about coming forward in other cases involving Gardaí, seems to have been very far from Burton’s mind. Are you more likely, or less, to speak up about your own experiences when you have seen a Minister reflexively leap to the defence of State institutions in similar cases?

One might imagine the uproar if a Labour TD, when asking a question on behalf of a victim of Catholic Church sex abuse, received a reply from a Sinn Féin Minister that referenced former Labour Party leader Brendan Corish’s declaration that he accepted the moral teaching of the Catholic hierarchy without qualification. Yet Joan Burton’s aristocratic contempt was seen in largely favourable terms by organs of respectable opinion. Stephen Collins in the Irish Times hailed Burton’s abuse of power as evidence that she is a ‘formidable performer’ in the Dáil. But it was the kind of performance admired and defended only by those who hate democracy with a passion.

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