Brain dead politics

Politics is no more now than a game show. Personality and style with an agenda stacked against fairness and democracy. By Vincent Browne


Its official, politics has become the new light entertainment, the latest version: ‘Politics You're a Star'. The contestants – Bertie Ahern, Enda Kenny, Pat Rabbitte, Michael McDowell, Trevor Sargent and Gerry Adams – perform in front of cameras, the judges/commentators have their say and then the jury gets to vote, not just on the overall presentation, but line by line as they go.

No substance, no issues, no debate on anything that matters – just performance. Boring performance, lightweight performance, credible performance, folksy performance. The jury gets to decide. Except in ‘Politics, You're a Star' the jury is a studio audience equipped with handheld mini computers that record their every sentiment and response. In the real You're a Star the jury is the television viewers. More democratic that.

And so it was on the special The Week in Politics on Sunday 3 December. An American pollster, Frank Luntz, renowned for spinning anti-environment messages and Iraq-war soundbites for the Republican Party (see panel), was flown in to assemble a focus group from Dublin, Meath and Kildare, have them view snippets of speeches by the party leaders and then pronounce on their responses.

What was astonishing was that the commentators assembled – Terry Prone, Noel Whelan and Ivan Yeats – all treated the outcome with seriousness.

Not one of them said this was a load of old cobblers, that one could not possibly extrapolate from such a tiny sample the views of the electorate as a whole. Not one of them said what are we doing here? Why are we examining if there is any significance to whether this tiny group thinks Michael McDowell is boring, or Enda Kenny too lightweight? Not one of them asked why are we not examining the state of Ireland today, how various groups live, what their problems are and how it is proposed to address those problems?

When such issues do intrude, they do so through a narrow prism decided by the cognoscenti.

The debate on Budget 2007 centred entirely around how generous Brian Cowen was on the disbursement of the €2bn-plus surplus he had. There was the familiar and entirely pointless pre-budget speculation, all within a tight ideological framework, captured in a market-research survey published by the Irish Times the previous Saturday.  

One of the questions asked was: “The Minister for Finance will have around €2bn to give away in the budget. On which one of the following would you most like to see the minister spending money?” It then listed five items: more money into public services, cutting stamp duty to help first-time buyers, widening tax bands and increasing tax credits, spending more on social welfare payments and reducing the top rate of tax from 42 per cent to 40 per cent.

The ideological underlay of the questions is revealing. First the opening assumption: the Minister for Finance will have around €2bn to give away in the budget. The idea conjured up here is that the Minister for Finance had a treasure trove to dole out, as he and/or his government think fit, to one sector of society or another.

What was in fact happening was that a redistribution of €2bn took place – moneys already contributed by the public or to be contributed by the public – and the question was how should this be redistributed: to what sectors of society should this be given. It would have been open to the government to redistribute far more than this €2bn if it chose to raise taxes – maybe €5bn or €8bn.

But the underlying assumption is that there was just the €2bn there to redistribute and the ideology behind that assumption is that it makes no “common sense” to raise more money in taxes now or that this is politically not on the cards or no party is “mad enough” to contemplate that.

So the choices offered to the respondents were constrained from the outset by the assumptions underlying the questions. And these assumptions precluded, for instance, the option of a radical transformation of wealth and income distribution to make Ireland a much more equal society.

On radio and television programmes and on media commentaries, the discussion is entirely within the constraints of the invisible but secure ideological strait-jacket, with perhaps a few fleeting concessions to other views.

There is now an opportunity to use the huge wealth that has been accumulated in the last 15 years to transform Irish society in a way that would make it fairer, healthier and, for many people, happier. A way that would confront endemic problems and go a long way towards resolving them.

Just a year ago, the CSO released data on poverty here that got almost no coverage. The figures show that in 2004 almost one fifth of the population (19.4 per cent) were at risk of poverty, by which they mean one fifth of the population were living on household incomes of €9,680 or less (€186 per week or less).

The report stated: “Excluding social transfers (such as unemployment benefits, child benefits and pensions), the risk of poverty rate would have been close to 40 per cent (of the total population).”

The report, EU Survey on Income and Living Conditions, stated: “Members of lone-parent households and persons living alone were found to be among the most at risk in both years [2003 and 2004], with over 48 per cent [of lone-parent households] and 36 per cent [of persons living alone] at risk of poverty in 2004.”

The report went on to state: “When the risk of poverty is combined with an element of enforced deprivation, the survey shows that almost seven per cent of the population were ‘consistently poor' in 2004, as compared to almost nine per cent in 2003.

The report states that, without social transfers, nearly all old people (87 per cent) would be at risk of poverty. The risk of poverty was higher for women than for men. The report notes a slight increase in the scale of inequality from one year to the next.

And yet poverty features not at all on the political agenda. None of the main parties speak about it, the opinion-poll surveys don't ask about it, the television programmes on politics don't feature it. It is a non-issue and yet for one-in-five of the population it is a major issue.

Housing is another major issue that also features not at all on the political agenda. Property is the preferred topic.

According to a survey, Out of Reach: Inequalities in the Irish Housing System, there are almost 106,000 households, or 250,000 persons, in need of appropriate housing. The government is making only token gestures in dealing with the issue and, in selling off public housing into the private sector, it is depleting the stock of houses to deal with the crisis.

This is a hugely wealthy society now. The per capita income of €36,000 (that is for every man, woman and child) is a colossal amount. There is no social problem we could not solve with that income – deprivation, housing, health, education, whatever. And there would be lots to spare. Why is there an unwillingness to harness that huge income in the service of people most in need?

The Institute of Public Health has published two reports on inequalities in health. One dealing with inequalities in mortalities shows that for all the major diseases those in the lower occupational groups die much earlier than in the higher occupational groups. This is not just because of inequalities in health care, although that certainly is a factor. It is also because of huge inequalities in education, nutrition, housing, income and influence.

The second of these reports, Inequalities in Perceived Health, shows that those with lower incomes are 52 per cent less likely to be satisfied with their health and 51 per cent are less likely to have a good quality of life. It shows that 82 per cent in the higher income bracket have excellent or good health, compared with just 49 per cent in the lower income bracket. It says: “Generally speaking, the likelihood of good health increase with social class... There is a strong income gradient in the likelihood of good health.”

How is it that when issues such as traffic have such a high priority on the political agenda, matters to do with life and death, and to do with quality of life and health, rate not at all?

There are a myriad of other major issues that hardly feature at all:

Sexual abuse

The incidence of child and adult sexual abuse is enormous. The government-sponsored authoritative research on this shows that one-in-five women have had contact sexual abuse in childhood and more than one woman in 20 was raped as a child. Also that one-in-six men were abused as children and one-in-35 were raped.

The same survey shows that one-in-10 women experienced sexual abuse in adulthood and one-in-10 were raped, and that three per cent of men were raped in adulthood.

These figures seem almost unbelievable and were it not for the reputation of the research company that undertook this work (The Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland) the results would be dismissed.

But not a single one of the political parties – all of whom joined in the hyper-alarm last summer on the release of a single sex offender from prison – have addressed this issue. There are tens of thousands of sex offenders at large in this society. Hundreds of thousands of children, men and women have been abused and still it does not rate with traffic as a concern.

Road deaths

All of the parties express alarm with the scale of road deaths. None confronts the major issues: that over 100,000 people are driving lethal vehicles on public roads having failed driving tests; car companies are permitted to market and sell cars that have capacities to be driven far in excess of the maximum speed limit; there is no effective enforcement of speed and drink driving.

Another 30 people will be killed on the roads before the end of 2006, another 30 families devastated. The state has the capacity to curtail this drastically but none of the parties has the will to confront it.

Suicide and mental health

Even more people die by suicide than die on the roads. It is a symptom of a mental illness epidemic. Yet resources for mental health have been curtailed, the proportion of expenditure on mental health of total health expenditure has declined drastically in the last decade and the person in charge of government policy on mental health, Tim O'Malley, lacks elementary credibility in handling the issue.

Old people

The incidence of poverty among old people, is especially high. Increases in the old-age pension have helped but deprivation remains a major issue. Allied to that the state oversight of the treatment of old people in nursing homes, including even in the homes owned and run by the state, has been shown to be woefully inadequate. Even since the shocking revelations about Leas Cross there still is no credible investigatory mechanism in place, no resources, too few personnel, no guidelines.

When it was discovered two years ago that the state had been illegally taking the welfare payments of old people in state-run residences, the response of the minister, Mary Harney, was to give retrospective legislative sanction to that illegality. Only for the Supreme Court, that further abuse of old people would have occurred


It has now been established beyond debate – the government acknowledges this is so – that Shannon has been used to facilitate CIA aircraft engaged in the illegal kidnapping of terrorist suspects in Europe and elsewhere and their transportation to undisclosed places of detention (the fact that such places are undisclosed adds to the suspicion that torture and other abuses of human rights take place in such centres).

The line of the Department of Foreign Affairs now is that, because there is no proof that any kidnapped person was actually on board such aircraft when the aircraft went through Shannon, there is no complicity in the malpractice. The actual facilitation otherwise of such practices is not an issue for any of the major parties, nor for the media.


The idea of democracy is that the people in a state are both the sovereign and the subjects. They agree to obey the state because they are the sovereigns of the state, which means they run the state, take the democratic decisions on policies and how the state is run.

But democracy has been degraded by the emergence of a parliamentary system which sub-contracts democratic decisions to a political class and offers popular involvement in the process only once every five years and through a mechanism (choosing from a variety of very similar job-lot policies) that is crude and undifferentiated. Only in the most peripheral sense could this be seen as democratic. But the process is even further devalued by the surrounding circus of elections – the personality parades, the avoidance of many of the main issues, the construction of the debate and agenda.

Brain dead politics.