Democracy so hard won should not be neglected or ignored.
This was the substance of a challenging editorial comment, under the above heading, in a recent issue of The Nationalist (May 30). It was written in response to the very low turnout of voters in the recent European and Local Authority elections. It was a comment which found many echoes in the national media and amongst concerned citizens.
It would seem that, in 2019 Tipperary, where we like to sing and boast about our “fight for Irish freedom,” we did not distinguish ourselves in fulfilling our constitutional responsibilities to the fundamentals of that freedom. After all, what is freedom all about if it does not involve our right to choose our own government and make our own laws through the medium of a free franchise? Yet, in the Premier County where our local anthem tells us that we “were the first in the field and the last to yield” in the attainment of that freedom, only a little over 50% of us voted.
The statistics, given in the same issue of this paper, are chastening:
Only 50.83% voted in Clonmel, less than 52.45% in the Cashel/Tipperary electoral area and 58.63 in Carrick-on-Suir and 58.39 in Cahir. In fact the voters in the former North Riding turned out in larger numbers - 60.6% in Newport, 62.1% in Roscrea, 60.33% in Thurles and 59.27% in Nenagh.
The right to vote, to universal suffrage, involved centuries of agitation and campaigning by brave and enligtened people, all in pursuit of democratic justice and a balanced equitable society. The campaign for the achievement of women’s suffrage took even longer. And the new Irish Free State was amongst the first in Europe to grant that right. In a climate of civil war, mass unemployment and emigration, and in the struggling near bankruptcy of establishing a democracy, this country granted universal suffrage to its citizens. Yet, in these affluent times, it seems that we just could not be bothered going to the polls.
Specifically, perhaps the very low voting participation in Clonmel may be explained by the loss of our centuries-old Corporation, which was abolished by the last government, without any reference to the wishes of the citizens. In the same way, many of the county’s Town Councils were also abolished. All of these councils reflected the particularly local problems and needs of the immediate communities even if their powers were very limited.
Indeed, those limitations are unique in the EU, where local councils have far greater autonomy over local issues than they do in Ireland. Here, the only two significant powers, that of finance and planning, are so circumscribed that they could hardly be described as powers at all. A Facebook contributor, quoted in this newspaper (issue May 30) stated that: “The real power is with the unelected staff who run the council.” And while this may be an overstatement, it is true that the executive has a very substantial influence in decision-making.
Despite those limitations, our elected representatives are precisely that: they represent us, the ordinary person in the street. They speak like we do. They are the conduits between us and the bureaucracy. They have access, and that is a most valuable tool in negotiating the boundaries between the public-relations- unfriendly section of this or section of that, of so much of our local government legislation. And, it would seem from their electioneering publicity that many of them are committed to campaigning actively for the restoration of our Corporation in Clonmel and the Town Councils in our Tipperary towns, and for the real democrisation of local government in Ireland.
The promise to campaign for the reform of local government was, in itself, a compelling reason why we should have voted in much larger numbers, especially in Clonmel. There is, however, something much more fundamental involved. The occasion of any election, be it National, European, or Local Authority, is the only opportunity which we, ordinary people have to influence the type of governance which we get. After that, it is out of our hands. We can complain and protest and march in our towns but these protests beg the question posed in this newspaper’s editorial comment: “People complain about inadequate housing, about the poor condition of roads, about repairs to council houses. Did they all vote on Friday to make a change?”
But the vote is even more significant that the opportunity to choose our governments, it is the essential nut and bolt of democracy. It has, indeed been hard won and the maintenance and defence of it has cost many millions of lives in the last century.
At the present time the D-Day landings on Normandy are being celebrated. It marked the final stage of the rescue of Europe from the undemocratic dictatorship of governments which deprived citizens of the right to exercise free democratic choice through the medium of the ballot. Stalin dominated that vast area of Europe described as the Soviets, and his tyrannical rule engulfed much of the Continent behind his Iron Curtain, until very recent decades. Hitler dominated Germany, Mussolini Italy, Franco Spain, Salazar Portugal. And the common denominator? The denial to citizens of the free, secret, democratic vote! We, in Ireland and in Tipperary should not forget!