Facing an uncertain future, budgets and a bailout, Roberta Cappieri and Sarah Doran investigate whether students truly trust the government
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. Naturally, the wisdom of their governance is being questioned by the Irish people.
Over the past few years, it has become a well-publicised fact that students and the government have enjoyed a far from harmonious relationship; 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,” says 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 Cowen 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 also has little trust in the current government. “There are just too many scandals coming out,” he says. “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, students took to the streets in their thousands to vent their collective anger at the government’s prospective policy decisions. Now that it has been confirmed that the registration fee will rise and that grants will be cut, student faith in the government will likely plummet.
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. The 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,” says Pigott. “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 [and it] is now going on in excess of two years.”
She continues: “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 believes that this lack of information was contributing to public mistrust, though he does not feel that the government were being condescending. “I think it’s just such a complicated situation that they don’t know themselves,” he says. “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.”
The 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 (IMF) and Eu ropean 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,” says Pigott. “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 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 European level. “I think that Brian Cowen 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, the 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 and students are not excluded from this debate.
Given that it is certain that a general election will happen in January, do students believe that we are long overdue a chance to head to the polls?
O’Donoghue believes 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.”
Similarly, Pigott feels 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.”
Postgraduate student Evin Joyce also feels the current government’s position has become untenable. “Trust means confidence. I don’t think you could put much confidence in the government,” he says.
According to Joyce, it is the continued deceit from our public representatives that worries him: “For example, over the weekend three times [in] three days, one after the other, the government tries to reassure people there’s going to be no need for a European bailout and then front page of the Independent, Brian Lenihan is pictured after meeting with the IMF,” he says, before adding: “When they can’t give an answer on something so important yet so simple, you can’t trust them. They’re like a bunch of monkeys.”
When asked what issues matter to students, masters student Aine Lynch says: “At the moment, because I’m a student, I suppose I’d be looking to the student fees. I think it’s on a lot of people’s minds, because education should be a priority at the moment in getting the country back up and running, and if you’re going to deny that to people, it’s just going to make problems worse.”
Speaking in relation to the IMF/EU bailouts that have been given the green light by the government, Joyce says: “I think that if it happens, it will be necessary.” Lynch agrees with him, saying: “I don’t think they can afford not to take the bailout, but it is worrying the fact that they will have the power to control our next budget.”
All of this indicates a very mistrusting and aggravated student population. To some, by not holding byelections needed throughout the country, the government lost their democratic legitimacy to govern. Lynch for one believes the current government no longer have the right to be sitting in Leinster house. “It’s ridiculous what they’re doing, it’s like a dictatorship. They can’t cope with the strain and yet they’re unwilling to put the seats up for election, because they know they’d be out of government.”
Students seem to feel that the country now faces an uncertain future. With the IMF and EU now to decide the fate of the nation, anxiety is widespread. Amidst the fear and confusion there is arguably only one thing that students are certain about: they do not trust the government.