Don’t give up on democracy just yet

Below, my article from the November edition of Village magazine, looking back on the historic proceedings of the Citizens’ Assembly:

It’s been a bad couple of years for democracy. The Brexit fiasco was the most humiliating British retreat from Europe since Dunkirk, but this time, entirely self-inflicted. Yet, rather than a wake-up call, Brexit instead turned out to be a blueprint for the bloodless US coup that followed, where right wing extremists, aided and abetted by assorted foreign powers, seized the world’s most powerful political office.

Some 95 million Americans didn’t vote in November 2016. “One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors”, is how Greek philosopher, Plato presciently put it.

And while not riven by such gaping wounds of xenophobia and extremism, Irish democracy is also profoundly dysfunctional, and nowhere is this clearer than in it record of abject failure on climate policy. A decade ago, it looked like Ireland was beginning to get its act together, yet by the time Enda Kenny led Fine Gael into power in 2011, the environmental agenda hadn’t so much been scrapped as bleached.

Fast forward to 2017. Ireland is now the third worst per capita greenhouse gas emitter in the EU and one of only four countries certain to miss its 2020 targets. Massive EU compliance fines are looming, and our only plan is to try to weasel out of paying, rather than tackling our underlying carbon pollution crisis.

It didn’t have to be like this. Prof Andy Keen of Edinburgh University told the Citizens’ Assembly earlier this month how Scotland, with cross-party political support, in 2009 set the highly ambitious target of cutting its national emissions by 42% by 2020. This is more than twice Ireland’s 20% target for the same period.

While we will struggle to achieve a maximum 4-5% cut, Scotland actually hit its 42% target in 2015, five years ahead of schedule. It is now pushing hard to achieve 100% renewable electrical production by 2025, and will likely succeed. Scotland has no natural advantages over Ireland. That’s the difference between politics that works and politics that is broken.

Any notion that Irish people are innately unconcerned and indifferent to climate change were well and truly scotched by the outcome of the Citizens Assembly, which sat over two weekends in October and November, under the gimlet legal eye of Justice Mary Laffoy.

Instead of the usual circus of lobbyists and their client politicians, the Assembly instead only heard from disinterested experts, and its round-table format allowed the 99 citizens to discuss what they had heard among themselves, and then ask searching questions of the experts.

I sat through almost eight hours of presentations and discussions on a Saturday in early November, and watched these volunteer citizens, young and old, urban and rural, drawn from all walks of life, as they engaged with the process for hour after hour. No fiddling with phones, dozing or absent-mindedly gazing into the distance. This is what direct democracy looks like up close. In a word: inspiring.

Even more impressive was that the citizens agreed and then voted in a secret ballot on 13 meaty recommendations and, incredibly, all were carried – in most cases, by thumping majorities.

Everyone knows Irish people won’t accept paying new carbon taxes. Wrong. This idea was carried by an 80% majority. Everyone knows that agri emissions are a special case. Wrong again. Some 89% of Assembly voted in favour of taxing carbon-intensive agriculture, and rewarding farming methods that cut carbon.

On industrial peat burning, a whopping 97% of citizens voted to end all State subsidies supporting this madness. And despite our supposedly unbreakable love affair with the private car, 92% of citizens voted for the State to favour developing public transport ahead of new road infrastructure at the rate of no less than 2:1. A recommendation allowing micro-producers of clean (solar) electricity to be allowed sell their surplus back to the grid was backed by 99% of citizens.

Meanwhile, ‘Climate Action’ minister Naughten, has once again excluded small-scale rooftop solar from even being considered in the national consultation on renewable energy.

The Citizens’ Assembly may have been set up by the government in the hope it would become another dull talking shop. If so, its radical recommendations, first on abortion rights and now on climate change, have shown that, given half a chance, we Irish are entirely capable of sober civic engagement with complex issues. Who would have guessed?

– John Gibbons is an environmental commentator and legend and tweets @think_or_swim

ThinkOrSwim is a blog focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
This entry was posted in Global Warming, Irish Focus, Sustainability and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Don’t give up on democracy just yet

  1. Jack O'Sullivan says:

    Depressing on the one hand (Brexit and the lack of action on climate by our Government); but, on the other hand, very inspiring (Scotland and the Citizens’ Assembly). Now the task must be to swing the balance in favour of positive and inspiring actions, and to sideline the political-industrial lobbyists. There is hope, but we need a carefully thought-out strategy.

  2. Michael Clarke says:

    Brexit was a victory for democracy over an elite trying to create a federal Europe that no one in Britain (or Ireland). No one in Continental Europe, bar a tiny elite, wants it either. IrExit will follow Brexit unless the EU (a very weak organization and getting weaker) evolves intelligently. Talk of a European army (PESCO) and a federal constitution (Schultz) will lead to a lot of people growing up fast. Incidentally, if the establishment here had not rejected the results of two constitutional referenda (Nice 1 and Lisbon 1) they would not now be engaging in an orgy of criticism of Brexit (caused by guilt at betraying the State and the Constitution) and we would not be in the position of having to follow the UK out of the EU. As for Trump, he is better than HC would have been (OK, that is not saying much but as it happens he could be a change President and the US needs change badly). His rejection of the Paris Agreement was a rejection of a meaningless document (climate change is serious but governments are not taking it seriously – they just play around with figures at conferences in exotic locations). By walking away from the Paris Agreement, Trump is putting the spotlight on the hypocritical approach of governments, which is to commit to all sorts of targets and then walk away from them. You indicated in a recent article in the IT that one of the things we needed to do to reduce emissions was to reduce air travel. I strongly agree with you but what government will agree to put mass tourism on hold for a generation or two? What chance a sensible suggestion like that making it into a document like the Paris Agreement? So, nature will take its course and we will all learn the hard way (when, say, Ranelagh becomes beach front property).

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