Saturday, November 27, 2004

Ireland at the Crossroads

I'm was in Dublin yesterday attending a Democracy Commission event in Liberty Hall, Dublin: Ireland at the Crossroads - Democracy in the 21st Century. The Democracy Commission, which is exploring issues surrounding democracy in Ireland, north and south, was set up by Democratic Dialogue in the North and TASC in the Republic. It was a very interesting event, although there was a little bit too much kvetching about politicians to my mind. Poor old politicos. Anyway, I thought I might report on a few thoughts that struck me through the day.

The most interesting thing for me was that very many people made an explicit link between democracy and poverty. Ireland is of course one of Europe's success stories, moving from the being one of the poorest three countries in the EEC (as was) to being one of the wealthiest. In a generation. I'm one week older than Ireland's membership of the EU, so I've seen most of that change. And a change for the better it is. Unfortunately, Ireland's wealth has not been spread evenly amongst the whole population, so as well as being one of the wealthiest countries in the Union, it is also one of the most unequal. Extreme urban poverty is obvious to anyone who's visited Dublin in the last few years. They have an enormous heroin problem (12,000 people I think I've heard, although I'd love to be corrected); homelessness is through the roof, so to speak. Dublin is quite simply a rough, poor city.

Actually, and this is a side comment, Dublin is the only place in Europe I know where it is impossible for the middle classes to hide from poverty. Even the residents of the Vico Road, the poshest, and most beautiful, part of suburban Dublin are only ten minutes walk from Ballybrack, one of the city's poorest neighbourhoods. And the city centre is very poor. Belfast, on the other hand, is almost completely segregated (in so many senses). When I read the Save the Children report on Child Poverty in Northern Ireland that was reported in the Guardian and on Slugger O'Toole last week, I was actually surprised. I knew that Belfast is poor, but the fact is that if you stick to the wealthy slice of south Belfast, you quite simply never encounter extreme poverty. In Dublin, on the other hand, staying ignorant is simply far more difficult. And that's just in Dublin.

Anyway, the link between poverty and democracy was generally articulated in terms that no true democracy would abandon 15 percent of the population at a time of spectacular economic progress. Or rather, would continue the abandonment of 15 percent of the population. Some people also spoke passionately about the fact that people in poverty quite simply cannot employ the tools of democracy. They are not empowered to have their interests represented in the fora that the articulate take for granted.

Which links to another theme - the connections between democracy, citizenship and literacy. It was striking how much people spoke about education. Some of the schoolkids at the event raised their dissatisfaction with civics classes as they are taught, saying that it is no surprise to them that people despair at politics when their introduction to it is so weak. But, more importantly, people pointed to the fact that political literacy requires, well, literal literacy. Without that, there is no access.

A third theme across the day was the status of Ireland as a pluralist society, with new groups and belief systems represented in the country. While some immigrants at the meeting expressed some hostility to the concept of multiculturalism, regarding it as ghettoising people, there was a real desire for new arrangements to be developed to represent Ireland's new members.

I should just mention a couple more things that could be traced through the day - first that a lot of expressions of social justice were articulated through a link to Irish patriotism. I'm not sure I'm entirely comfortable with the link, but neither am I entirely uncomfortable. This sort of talk reminds me of Richard Rorty's Achieving Our Country. But this would require another post in and of itself. Second, that people felt profoundly alienated from politics, but not apathetic. As one of the students said 'people are still very political. It's parties that aren't political.'

All in all a worthwhile day. More details and an online forum at the Democracy Commission's website, I think.

Update: I really should be writing a paper, but instead am messing with the damn blog. Silly me. Anyway, Mel makes an interesting point in the comments. Ta Mel!

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