The maturing of Irish democracy
By Michael Hennigan, Founder and Editor of Finfacts
Feb 28, 2011 - 6:07 AM

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Taoiseach-elect Enda Kenny pictured with his son Ferdia outside the polling station in the St. Patrick's Boys National School, Castlebar, Co. Mayo, Feb 25, 2011.

The crushing defeat of  Fianna Fáil in the General Election is a clear signal of the maturing of Irish democracy in the aftermath of a largely self-inflicted economic collapse.

It also signals the death of the model of machine politics which the Irish had perfected in urban America in the 19th century and it surely gives the new government a mandate for radical institutional reform.

The 31st Dáil will have a diminished Fianna Fáil presence; a record number of 23 women were elected, which may rise to 26 from 166 - - still very low compared with for example Sweden; Leinster House will see the welcome return of Joe Higgins as well as a few additional like-minded communists. It's important that the Dáil  reflects the broad span of public opinion and former advocates of terrorism (i.e. people who use civilians as pawns of war) will also have increased representation.

It's easy to take democracy for granted and just last December, 26-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi, living in the Tunisian provincial town of Sidi Bouzid, had a university degree but no work. He began selling fruit and vegetables in the street without a licence - -  which likely required some bakeesh. When the police broke up his stand and confiscated his produce, he set himself on fire and immortalised himself in the Arab world.

Forty-two years ago, there was a similar event in the heart of Europe.

The Funeral Oration of Pericles from The Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, was delivered in Athens in 431 BC and while it may be partly aspirational, it illustrates how enduring the concept of democracy has been in the history of man: : "Our form of government does not enter into rivalry with the institutions of others.

Our government does not copy our neighbours', but is an example to them. It is true that we are called a democracy, for the administration is in the hands of the many and not of the few. But while there exists equal justice to all and alike in their private disputes, the claim of excellence is also recognized; and when a citizen is in any way distinguished, he is preferred to the public service, not as a matter of privilege, but as the reward of merit.

Neither is poverty an obstacle, but a man may benefit his country whatever the obscurity of his condition. There is no exclusiveness in our public life, and in our private business we are not suspicious of one another, nor angry with our neighbour if he does what he likes; we do not put on sour looks at him which, though harmless, are not pleasant.

While we are thus unconstrained in our private business, a spirit of reverence pervades our public acts; we are prevented from doing wrong by respect for the authorities and for the laws, having a particular regard to those which are ordained for the protection of the injured as well as those unwritten laws which bring upon the transgressor of them the reprobation of the general sentiment."

Eaten bread is often soon forgotten. When Ireland joined the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973, military dictatorships ruled in Spain, Portugal and Greece; Italy was in danger of control by hardline communists allied with Moscow while the Iron Curtain divided Europe.

Eastern Europeans risked summary execution by leaving their country without state permission. When Czech tennis player Martina Navratilova, played Chris Evert in the 1978 Wimbledon final, her parents had to watch on television near the German border, as their daughter was branded a "defector" by their Russian-dominated government.

Ten years before, Russian tanks moved into Prague to oust a reforming communist government and in January 1969, a student, Jan Palach, set himself on fire in Wenceslas Square, not directly in protest at the Soviet occupation but because of the "the demoralization which was setting in," among the public.

Ireland's historic General Election last Friday was held on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the airlifting of Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos from Malacañang Palace in Manila, by a US helicopter on Feb 25, 1986. I was in Manila that night and Philippine democracy has had its good and bad days in the interval but there is cause for optimism.

It's well to remember when expecting overnight miracles elsewhere that it has taken Ireland a very long time to get to its current still far from perfect state.

How long brutal dictatorships will survive in places like Burma (Myanmar), North Korea and Belarus, nobody knows; true democracy will surely come to China some day, Vietnam, the Arab world, Iran and other places that could be termed works-in-progress.

There will be difficult days ahead for Ireland but the first steps have been taken in the long march back to self-government.

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