Monday, May 11, 2020

Virtual Government

“Teacher Can’t Wait To Use ‘Calculated Grades’ To F*** Over Prick Student He Hates”
  —Headline (slightly edited) on the Irish satirical newspaper website Waterford Whispers, May 8
Here are a couple of questions that come to mind as the pandemic persists. Is Ireland turning into Singapore? Are governments even necessary?

The first question is prompted by the inevitable police-state-style trappings that accompany emergency situations like quarantines and lockdowns. Of course, in typical Irish fashion, when Taoiseach Leo Varadkar addressed the country via television on March 24, he described a lockdown while at the same time saying he preferred not to use the word lockdown. In other words, we aren’t forcing you to stay home; it’s just a helpful suggestion. With time, though, the shutdown has become more stringently enforced. TV news footage on a bank holiday weekend showed traffic jams on major roads as officers of the Garda Síochána stopped cars at checkpoints to decide on a case-by-case basis whether each car’s travel was essential. Reasonable people certainly support law enforcement breaking up large gatherings and people crowding into public spaces, but anecdotal word-of-mouth accounts have also described gardaí stopping people walking alone on beaches and in uncrowded parks and inspecting people’s groceries to determine if their shopping was essential.

There may be a law-and-order silver lining to all this. Newspapers recount incidences of gardaí catching smugglers of drugs and illegal weapons because of the lockdown-enforcing checkpoints. Another silver lining may be—depending on your point of view—the cancellation of the Leaving Certification, the battery of state exams that graduating secondary school students endure for the sake of college placement. Instead students will be awarded “predictive” points based on past performance and evaluations by their teachers and principals. One hopes this system will work better than predictive text when typing on one’s mobile phone.

Of course, it is only reasonable to expect to have your liberty and economic well-being curtailed in a life-or-death emergency. Previous civilian generations have sacrificed much more in wartime and in the wake of natural disasters. What makes it a bit unreal in the current situation, though, is that the emergency has a strangely virtual quality to it. We mainly know how bad things are because of statistics flashed on a screen or printed in a newspaper. In the visible world around us, nothing seems to have changed except for the way everyone is behaving.

Adding to the Singapore effect here is the fact that the dominant source of news is the state broadcaster. RTÉ is in the tricky dual role of official dispenser of government information and journalistic enterprise. Hosts of all public affairs programs on the TV and radio are clearly expected to be generally supportive of the government’s measures and by extension the medical opinions underlying them. After a while—especially to someone used to the clashing ideological news sources in the US media landscape—it starts to feel a bit Big-Brother-ish.

A further complication is that there is currently no government here. By an accident of timing, the pandemic happened at the same moment as an inconclusive general election. Given the results, forming a new government was always going to be a challenge. Because of the emergency, negotiations are competing with even more serious distractions than normal. So Varadkar continues as a caretaker head of government along with his outgoing ministers, some of whom actually lost their seats in the election. In a Catch-22-like situation, the caretaker government cannot pass legislation because that requires a full Senate, and there won’t be a full Senate until there is a new Taoiseach because only the new Taoiseach can complete the Senate with his own appointments, and there won’t be a new Taoiseach until a new government is formed. I wonder if all those politicians who once talked about reforming or abolishing the Senate wish they had actually done something about it when they had they chance.

As of this writing, the two major parties which have always run the country are in what seem to be final negotiations with the Green Party, which appears riven by the prospect of another go as a minority coalition partner. Not only does a sizeable portion of the Greens look to be alienated by the likely result, so will be a big chunk of voters who gave the major-change party Sinn Féin a plurality of the popular vote.

Reassuringly, the lack of a government has not stopped the caretaker ministers and professional civil service from dealing with the pandemic. Whatever they need to do, they just do—whether by written orders or edict or fiat or whatever. They are also spending (actually, borrowing) a ton of money to get through the crisis. You can’t really blame them. After all, what other choice do they realistically have?

It is, however, what prompts the question I asked above. Are elected governments even necessary?

My concern is for when Sinn Féin eventually finds itself in the position of being able to answer that question.

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