With an eye on the US, it's hard not to frame the controversies of the past week in the context of insiders vs outsiders. There are three events to consider in all this:
1. New restrictions
3. Customs House protest
I’ve seen friends and party colleagues characterise the outcry as general frustration with COVID-19 or lockdown or the govt. I think that misses the wood for the trees: this week told a powerful story about loss of faith in authority and the different ways to react to that loss.
Issue 1: New restrictions
The newly-announced restrictions were incoherent, introduced so rapidly that there was little thought given to how to distill it into a succinct message for the public. When the press conference wound down, many viewers reported resentment at being talked-down-to by a tetchy manager, not cajoled along as part of a joint effort.
The commentary talked of individuals and especially the over-70s being "punished" for the spike in cases - while ‘insiders’ like the conglomerates running Direct Provision centres were free to let outbreaks keep happening on their watch.
Lesson 1: If “we’re all in this together”, our leaders need to act like it. Show empathy, show humility, and show us where this is heading. That means acknowledging perceived gaps in compliance and telling the public what you’re doing to address them.
Issue 2: GolfGate
The arrogance and lack of perspective shown by holding the Oireachtas Golf Society event and dinner ONE DAY after a press conference that lambasted Berlin Bar... simply beggars belief. This has all been articulated already, and by better writers than me. But the anger is not solely the usual (justified) rage at hypocritical politicians breaking the rules with apparent impunity - because “insiders” were already being seen to follow different rules.
Think of all the causes célèbres that have generated public outrage since the spring. Keelings Fruit workers. The Kildare meat plants. Direct provision. Anger is the response when our expectations aren't matched by what we see.
To make matters worse, the political response to GolfGate was drip-fed to the public, so sanctions only seemed to escalate as outrage spread. As late as Friday morning, Dara Calleary TD thought he could remain at Cabinet with (no doubt genuine) apologies on national and local radio. However, outside the Leinster House bubble, the writing was on the wall far earlier and it was clear he would need to stand down. It remains to be seen if others will have to walk away from high office.
Lesson 2: Public figures - particularly those involved in government, whichever branch they belong to - have to be seen to adhere to the guidelines to the letter. Apparently that does not, in fact, go without saying!
In a crisis like this, leaders should be making it clear to their own supporters what the consequences are for breaking public trust. When breaches happen, the reaction should be decisive, strong, and clearly-communicated at the outset. A swift stern statement from the Taoiseach and Tánaiste on Friday morning would not have soothed public anger (nor should it), but maybe it would have laid the groundwork for moving ahead. Instead, the lack of serious accountability is only becoming more and more glaring.
Issue 3: Customs House protest
Finally, let's talk about another group of outsiders, who are able to gather strength as more and more people lose patience with the privilege of insiders, vested interests, lobbyists and untouchable politicians.
I'm sure there were principled people with genuine concerns in attendance. I'm sure many of them would be horrified to see the backs of their heads in the background of a far-right group's photo op, congregating around an "Ireland for the Irish" banner.
Conversations about civil liberties are always worth having - but what on earth do civil rights activists have in common with those who think the whole pandemic is a hoax? Very little, apart from the fact that in this context, they all feel like outsiders: locked out of the societal/political consensus with nowhere to turn bar other outsiders.
If the government can't get its messaging right, can't bring the public along, can't convince people that we really are all in this together (no exceptions), then that group of outsiders is only going to grow. It's fertile ground for mistrust of all kinds to cross-pollinate.
Many of us already felt locked out before the pandemic. We were locked out of economic security, locked out of affordable housing, locked out of social mobility, locked out of a sustainable future for the next generation. We wanted that to change. How is it that COVID-19 changed every aspect of our lives, but still left so many of us feeling like outsiders in our own society?
Lesson 3: Instead of rushing to get us 'back to normal', our leaders must acknowledge the inequalities that COVID-19 exposes.
We can't look at EU states re-opening their schools and yell at Irish teachers to speed up: they're carrying the injury of chronic underinvestment.
We can't gridlock our towns with car commuters and shrug about public transport capacity - the issue is that living a walkable distance from work is impossible when renting/buying is so costly, and poor infrastructure makes telecommuting impossible in much of rural Ireland.
Don't run back to business as usual: 'usual' wasn't sustainable. Open the floodgates. Put an invitation on airwaves. Empower civil society, elected reps, local people, and ask how we build back better - and then take their advice. Bring as many people as possible "inside".