Democracy and happiness

June 19, 2007 in General, News

Edmond Grace SJ’s book, Democracy and Public Happiness, was launched last week in the Rotunda of City Hall, Dublin Castle, by Eamon.

PREFACE: A reflection on the democratic process, based on the proceedings of the Dialogue on Democracy Seminar, Dublin 2004-2005

One of the hallmarks of Irish political heritage, on both sides of the Atlantic, has been a capacity to devise new and imaginative forms of opposition. The peaceful mass meeting, the boycott and the tightly disciplined party were all pioneered in Ireland and all had the same objective – to ensure that people on the margins of power had a more effective say in government. These strategies posed a direct and peaceful challenge to the political institutions of the English-speaking world and the readiness of those institutions to respond to that challenge became the measure of their democratic legitimacy.

At this point in our history, we Irish are at a moment of unprecedented achievement. Having been chronically poor, we have become one of the wealthiest nations in the world. From being the home of an emigrant people, Ireland has become a magnet for people from other countries. Ireland and all things Irish enjoy a level of respect from other governments and peoples that would have been inconceivable even in the recent past. Yet all this achievement – and the human benefits that have yet to be fully drawn from it – will be overturned if the conflicts in other parts of the world unravel the global network of peaceful cooperation on which this country depends and from which it has drawn such great benefit.

Against this background of the fragility of global peace, the Constitution of Ireland commits the elected leaders of this country to the principle of the pacific settlement of international disputes. The challenge of this principle rests not so much in the truly noble ideal that it represents, but in the need to devise enduring structures which will undermine the appeal of armed struggle to so many people, in so many parts of the world, who live with the burden of unheeded political grievance. The fundamental task of democracy is to persuade aggrieved people to forgo, willingly, the option of armed insurrection.

Truly democratic government can be recognised by its openness to vigorous advocacy, uninhibited debate and strident opposition, but there is a further task which faces all democratic leaders. The health of the democratic process requires them to reflect on the nature of democracy itself, on its underlying values, on how it works and fails to work in practice, and on the relationship between the ideal of government by the people and the complex realities of power in every society.

In this context we are happy to associate ourselves with this reflection on the democratic process in contemporary Ireland and in the wider world. In particular, we note the manner in which it came to be written. The author set up a network, known as the Dialogue on Democracy Seminar, which was made up of Oireachtas members, senior public servants and experienced leaders in the voluntary and community sector. They met to discuss drafts of each chapter as it was written and, in that way, the combined experience of this group of people has been brought to bear on the outcome. This process should of itself guarantee attention and respect for the chapters that follow. It is worthy of emulation by other groups of prominent figures around the country.

This book does not in any way constitute an agreed statement nor does it seek to present a specific political programme, but it does present food for thought about the democratic process. In particular, it invites us to reflect on employment in the public service of the state as an expression of citizenship and as a form of participation in the political process. This invitation is timely – and not just for Ireland.

As with every great human tradition, parliamentary democracy must pass through moments of crisis and potential creativity. In earlier times, Ireland played a role, not only in provoking those moments, but also in providing the creativity and imagination that has helped to resolve them.

Once again we face such a moment. The elaborate bureaucracy of the modern state has become a barrier between elected leaders and ordinary citizens, yet within that perceived barrier lie the means of restoring popular trust in public life. The achievements of parliamentary democracy would never have been possible without the effective implementation of decisions by the bureaucratic process. It would never have commanded the trust of the people, if that same bureaucratic process was not sustained by the honourable tradition of conscientious service to the state.

Underlying this tradition is a dedicated commitment to the democratic process. By coming to a deeper understanding of this commitment, which is bound up with basic human dignity and with the universal nature of human rights, we can develop skills and procedures which will ensure that all are included, and see themselves to be included, in public decision-making.

This book shows how innovative responses to real human dilemmas can be effective in securing worthwhile outcomes that enhance and confirm the democratic process, such as the social partnership model and the Northern Ireland peace process. Sustained reflection, within the political process, on the implications of faithfulness to the underlying motive of public service is not just desirable, it is a political necessity in a world where peace is fragile and where people need to be convinced that those who govern them are motivated by the desire to serve. This book provides stimulating and challenging material for just such a reflection, and deserves to be read by all who value our democratic inheritance.

An Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern TD
An Tanaiste, Michael McDowell TD
Enda Kenny TD, Fine Gael Party Leader
Pat Rabbitte TD, Labour Party Leader
Trevor Sargent TD, Green Party Leader

February 2007