This column published in Irish Times, 'Rite & Reason' on 24th July 2012
Trust & Politics
‘If the people cannot trust their government to do the job for which it exists - to protect them and to promote their common welfare - all else is lost.’
Those are the words of the then Senator Barack Obama as he addressed an audience at the University of Nairobi, Kenya in 2006. The context of his speech was the ongoing and widespread corruption which was undermining the future of Kenya, but it could just as easily have been Ireland where politicians of every hue have been put under the magnifying glass of public scrutiny and found wanting.
As more and more public representatives disappoint us with revelations of their dishonest and questionable behaviour our cynicism grows and our capacity to trust those in positions of power and authority is diminished. Politicians are becoming the lepers of 21st Century Ireland.
Even the great hope that we placed in the new breed of independents elected at the last general election is rapidly waning. We have come to expect the worst of our public representatives and increasingly they are living up to our expectations.
Our response to this systemic failure is not just disappointment and anger. In the face of deepening austerity we are determined that these same politicians should be punished for their abuse of our trust. We demand a curtailment of their wages and expenses, and a level of transparency in their financial dealings that requires every last paperclip and ink cartridge to be accounted for. Accountability and frugality are good but one wonders how long it will be before the Taoiseach is expected to trade in his official car for a Dublin Bike and his mobile phone for a carrier pigeon? I exaggerate slightly but perhaps it is time to draw breath and consider where all this is leading us.
Politicians are not just a necessary evil and indeed their profession was once considered a noble one. In a democratic society they are an essential component for society to function in a way that protects the interests of all its citizens. Equally, where there is no trust in our politicians then our politics and our society is doomed to failure. That is where we are headed in Ireland today. We are becoming a nation of people with no hope, no faith and no trust in people in authority to do the right thing.
This despair is spilling over into begrudgery, one of our nations most unattractive traits, and one which will ensure that the very people we need to enter the political sphere will stay well away.
Without trust we are trapped in a cycle of political negativity which must be broken if we are to progress as a nation. So much of our political energy today is taken up with inquiries, tribunals and Dail committees whose increasing frequency is a direct reflection of our inability to trust those elected to serve the people of the State.
Equally indicative of that lack of trust is the constant recourse to referenda, which demonstrate how aware our politicians are that we don’t trust them to promote our common welfare. We are cynical and they are paranoid and this is no recipe for success.
So how do we break this cycle and rehabilitate our politics? The past must not be forgotten and must serve as a lesson to prevent us repeating our mistakes in the future. However we must move on from the blame game if we are to build a better future.
The failure of our institutions, be they political, corporate or religious does not mean that we do not have need of individuals and organisations that we can trust to look after those things that are beyond our competence or immediate concern. If we cannot trust others then we shall be crushed under the weight of the World.
Trust is not just a response to good behaviour but it can also be the catalyst for good behaviour. It was Ernest Hemingway who said “the best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them”. If we can learn to trust again – to make that leap of faith, then just maybe people of integrity will step forward to accept that trust.