From Wall Street to West Cork, Dublin to Dubai, the figureheads of Irish government have become well known faces courtesy of the boom, the bust and ultimately the bailout. Indeed as 2010 draws to a close it would seem that bailout is the buzzword. The country has arguably descended into what could only be described as collective puzzlement. Amidst the confusion there seems to be one certain truth: the legitimacy of the government’s mandate and the wisdom of their governance is being questioned by the Irish people.
A Red C Poll published in the Sunday Business Post on November 21st of this year indicated that support for Fianna Fáil is once again at a record low. The poll was conducted amongst 1000 voters nationwide. It indicated that support for Fianna Fáil has dropped to 17 percent of those surveyed, down 1 percent on the previous poll, and a record low for the second month running. Meanwhile support for the Green Party was down to only 3 percent of those surveyed. It would seem that the people have little faith in their government.
It is a well publicised fact that students and the government have enjoyed a far from harmonious relationship over the past few years; the issue of fees has proven a pivotally antagonistic point of contention between them. Though it could be argued that in the current climate the answer to the question is a ‘no-brainer’ it is still prudent to ask the generation who will inherit the Ireland of tomorrow, do you trust the government?
‘The only adequate response to that question at this point in time must be derisory laughter’ laughs final year History and Politics student Julianne Pigott. ‘If there is a single student on this campus or a citizen in this country who expresses faith in Cowan and Lenihan at this point I suspect they may have been living under a rock for the last number of months.’
Third year Physiology student Barry O’Donoghue has little trust in the current government either. ‘There are just too many scandals coming out’ O’Donoghue explains, ‘I think they were in power for too long and they just got comfortable.’
Fearing a rise in registration fees and cuts to a grant is the only support which allows some students to remain in college, students took to the streets in their thousands to vent their collective anger at the government’s prospective policy decisions only last month. Until the Budget is released on December 7th students will not know if their efforts have proven successful. As they anxiously await the Budget for 2011 do students believe that the current government can be trusted to provide the foundations for a fruitful future?
“No, they won’t” O’Donoghue states matter-of-factly. “My grant is late and this sudden introduction of the €800 is too quick. You can’t expect someone just have another €800 in a year’s time. A lot of people aren’t working and a lot of students aren’t working because there are no jobs and no part-time jobs for students. When there are, the wages aren’t great and the hours aren’t great so I don’t agree with them introducing it. The introduction of fees will probably have to come in eventually but whether it’ll come in now or later is anybody’s guess.”
However at this stage it would seem that for some students the issues of trust and faith in the government seem to extend far beyond fees. A feeling that the government are simply failing to communicate and connect with the people is proving central to the decline of trust in their governance.
“They’re talking down to the electorate. They’re telling people that this is too complex for you to understand so don’t worry your pretty little heads about it and we’ll sort it out, the reality being they haven’t sorted out this is now going on in excess of two years” Pigott comments. “It isn’t that complex, it can be explained to people and if you were getting honest information and you could have a sense, any sense that they were sharing with you what they knew when they knew it, the suspicion that we’re in some way being misled might be alleviated. People think that it’s an intentional ploy on the part of the government to mislead them, therefore they must be hiding something.”
O’Donoghue also believed that this lack of information was contributing to the distrust, though he did not believe that the government were being condescending. “I think it’s just such a complicated situation that they don’t know themselves” he said.
“I think they don’t want to give out too much information or they’ll freak everyone out, which I think by not giving out information they’ve done anyway. I think they were damned if they didn’t and they were damned if they did.”
A feeling that the government have failed to pay sufficient attention to the electorate has raised issues surrounding trust in their governance not only on the national stage, but also in the international arena. As representatives of the International Monetary Fund and European Union come to Irish shores for negotiations can the government be trusted to adequately argue on the international stage and represent the national interest?
“No” Pigott states. “I think that Lenihan will be going cap-in-hand at this juncture. I think that it’s simply too late, that the European leaders must be looking at our Taoiseach and our Minister for Finance at this point and wondering 1. How they were elected? 2. How we haven’t taken to the streets like the French and evicted them from government offices? It seems ludicrous that when every media outlet in the country is questioning the legitimacy of their government, their moral authority, their capacity to change or to improve our living standards, they just, they have no credibility when they go to Europe at this point.”
O’Donoghue seems to have some degree of trust in the government’s capacity to negotiate at the European level. “I think that Brian Cowan and Brian Lenihan are quite smart and that they can argue and I think they do know what might be needed, but I don’t know if they’ll be able to do it. I think what they think needs to be done might not be the best thing.”
But of course there mere fact that the EU and IMF are gracing our shores has lead to a growing sentiment that the government have simply lost control of the country. The issue of accountability is consistently debated in cafés and conference rooms around the country: students are not excluded from this debate. “I happened to be sitting at a dinner table with friends” Pigott explains, “and one said “why can politicians never answer a question straight?” You’re sitting there thinking we’re in the depth of the worst crisis this nation has ever faced and we still have a Taoiseach who bullies Brian Dobson into submission when he tries to ask him straight questions and get straight answers. It’s just a deficit of democracy at this point.”
With by-elections looming the government’s majority in the Dáil is predicted to decline. This considered, has the time come for the Taoiseach to pay a visit to Áras an Úachtaráin and dissolve government? Should the government allow the citizens of Ireland to go to the polls in order to elect new leadership?
O’Donoghue believe that “ it is time, but whether before or after the budget is another thing, because basically whoever is in power is going to have to bring in the same or similar measures that are going to make everyone annoyed. Whichever government we have is going to bring in similar measures, you can argue around that but basically it’s going to be very similar measures. Whoever is in power, I think maybe the budget should come in and then they should go.”
Pigott also believe that the time for change has come. “I don’t understand how anybody could consider that this government retains any shred of credibility in dealing with this crisis. Leaving aside issues of political blame and who brought this about or why this came about in the first place, that’s incidental at this stage. There’s a vacuum of political leadership at the heart of government. I’m not saying that Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore will have any more immediate credibility with the European Leaders or indeed with the electorate but something has to give at this point. At least, there is a sense that with a new government we might get honest answers.”
Students seem to feel that the country now faces an uncertain future. Will a new registration fee be introduced in September 2011? It is too early to tell. Will fees be introduced? Nobody can truly know. Will the IMF and EU decide the fate of the nation? There is widespread fear that they ultimately will. Amidst the fear and confusion there is arguably only one thing that students are certain about: they do not trust the government.