Climate Change and Depolitisation in Ireland

This piece is from a section I wrote for my 2014 thesis – Power, Society and Climate Change: A Social Critique of the Public Receptivity to Climate Change in Ireland. It illustrates how State and Civil society relations shape the public and their role in climate change mitigation.(1) The chapter this section is from is centred around establishing how climate change fits into the symbolic order of Irish society. The “symbolic order” (Bourdieu, 1994: 14) is that projection of everyday reality wherein much of the world appears to operate in a sort of self-evident harmony. In such an order unexamined notions of priority and ways of being are supported by how they are complimented by the existing objective structures. The school system, for example, reproduces the separation of the disciplines into distinct school subjects, sheering them of inter-relational interdisciplinarity, appearing as a self-evident part of the natural order by not being seen at all. The chapter argues how the order supports a reformist version of climate change. This position seeks change within the current institutional and economic system rather than recognising climate change as a product of that system.

The state-endorsed response to climate change, which has entered much of Irish civil society, in many ways mirrors the pre-existing economy of practices and classifications of that society. The ensuing objective relations of a heavily centralised democracy and a largely depoliticised civil society favour an economy of practices where commitment to social change, political protest and engagement is minimal. The relations veer instead towards the paradoxically elevated positions of solidarized (English, 2000: 88-9; Kirby, 2010b: 10) and individualised configurations of responsibility (Cronin, 2009; Allen, 2010: 29), sectoralism, the poor visibility of class and an emphasis on service provision rather than actual social change (Meade, 2005; Varley and Curtin, 2006). These objective relations of public depolitisation are visible in the top-down arrival of climate change, the Power of One campaign and the total avoidance of a class narrative.

Trade union density is low relative to many other countries. Political party membership was found to be at 2% of the population – third lowest out of 20 countries in Western Europe (Murphy, 2011: 174). While recent figures on membership of environmental NGOs is lacking, older surveys place the rate at under 4% for 1993 and again for 2002 (Tovey et al., 2007: 18).(2) There is a significant level of volunteering (Murphy, 2011: 174); however this veers more towards service provision rather than political advocacy. The 1987 social partnership arrangements (along with those of 1996 regarding the community and voluntary sectors), which the government sold to the NGOs and unions as participative democracy and a collective bargaining tool for the fruits of economic growth, subjugated much of the civil sphere to the interests of that growth. The arrangement appears to have diminished and restrained active citizenry. Through such instruments as skewed funding the state manipulated associational life towards service provision rather than redistributive justice and social change (Kirby, 2010b). Funding arrangements favoured organisations that withheld from criticising the government: the latter coming under the phrase of “‘non-adversarial partnerships’” used by the NESC in 2005 (ibid: 15). Meanwhile these co-opting (3) developments appear to have quelled radical dimensions to the majority of the trade union movement. Private sector unions failed to mobilise against the “abysmal” ratio of private sector pensions, longer working life than the EU average, and fewer holidays as of 2005 (Allen, 2010: 27). Furthermore throughout this period the expansion of union membership failed to keep pace with rising employment: falling from 53% in 1995 to 32% in 2007 (ibid).

This union suppression is part of the wider history of depressed class politics in Ireland (Tovey and Share, 2003: 181-182; Kirby, 2010b; Murphy, 2011). Class has also been denigrated at the level of academia as evident in the tendency towards individualizing frames of equality of opportunity and rewards as often applied in research by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) (Share et al., 2007: 162, 169). The dominant Irish treatment of climate change repeats this symbolic pattern through bearing no recognition of the conspicuous emissions of the wealthiest. There is a general absence of class-based statistics on emission rates with state agencies opting instead for the more decontextualising per-capita averages or national figures.

The social partnership has ceased since the Celtic Tiger’s implosion and class-related grievances are more in the limelight due to austerity policies and the excessiveness of developers and bankers who contributed to Ireland’s economic downturn. Yet this depolitisation of civil society largely continues. Furthermore despite the electorate’s response to the downturn resolutely ousting the historically dominant Fianna Fail (FF) party – responsible for much of the depolitisation – they replaced it with Fine Gael, its closest equivalent in Irish politics, along with a centrist Labour Party. The resultant political landscape offers little by way of real systemic change.

The disempowerment of civil society extends to local governance which, under a centralised Irish state, is historically weak (4) by Western European standards. They lack serious tax raising capacity (Flynn, 2007: 128), restricting the room for local policy development and implementation (Davies, 2005: 26). Furthermore unelected county managers (Coakley and Gallagher, 1999: 354) often successfully overrule councils and their professional planning staff in planning matters (Flynn, 2007: 110). Local environmental policy implementation is similarly weak. Local Agenda 21 (LA21), part of the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit agreement on sustainability, involves “local plans for environment and development that each local authority is meant to develop through a consultative process with their population” (IPCC, 2001: 378). However, LA21 is under-resourced and encouragement of local empowerment has been relatively minor (Murphy et al., 2012). Local Energy Agencies, setup to assist community energy conservation initiatives, have received less funding than their European counterparts (Davies, 2005: 28). Under such circumstances it is not surprising that in 2011 very few councils had published a local climate change strategy (McGloughlin and Sweeney, 2011).(5)

Ironically the state’s delegitimatization of the local in favour of a centralised national perspective has possibly contributed to a partial subjugation of would-be national issues to a constituency-based regionalism.(6)A post-2002 national general election survey revealed the greater importance of a candidate being “good for the area”, as opposed to contributing to national politics (Marsh et al., 2008: 186-187).

Such candidate-centred-politics reveals voter dispositions that are not strongly based on the more nationally oriented party policies and therefore liable to undermine the recognition of policy-related issues, such as climate change, negotiated and implemented at the national level. Moreover, Ireland’s undervalued local political system signifies a disconnection between the potential of global and national decarbonisation and the merit of local support and effort. The resultant local/national dichotomy is likely resistant to multi-scalar – or glocal – representations of global environmental issues and to local ownership of the climate change issue. This in turn mirrors much of the alienating spatial qualities already encouraged by dominant climate change constructions.

A strong civil society would potentially create the social conditions favourable for developing a citizenry equipped with more politically empowered dispositions, and an ability to see themselves as part of an empowered collective. Potentially this would provide citizens with a capacity to claim a stake in climate change debates and influence policy, should they find themselves concerned by the issue. Instead weak class politics, low activism and weak local governance offer perfect conditions for creating expectations and dispositions that reflect political alienation and community disempowerment. This state of depolitization contributes to a dominant Irish symbolic order which projects an image of classlessness and a weak Irish citizenry that is very much incapable of radical social change. Consequently it has provided easy access for a reformist, top-down and individualised climate change representation to take a firm foothold in Irish society.

1. Much of the data used to support the arguments hails from pre 2010 which was just fine for the thesis which set out to analyse the responses of participants that were interviewed in 2010. At any rate Ireland’s local governance still remains week while the state maintains strong co-optive effects on civil society especially through its relationship to NGOs. Also as human beings are dispositional the legacy effects of state influence are bound to persevere in society for some time.
2. Being higher than the figure attributable to party membership is likely due to the survey’s standard error and increased willingness of environmentalists to partake of a survey on the environment.
3. Union bosses collected salaries that located them in the upper echelons of society (The Irish Times 2009). Moreover union management bureaucracies mythologized claims of equal partnership with business and government and ‘consensus’ support amongst union members for social partnership (van Dyk, 2009).
4. Until amended in 1999 the Constitution was void of any section on local government (Flynn, 2007: 128).
5. In addition no public representative in the form of a non-executive director exists in the EPA to deal directly with locals (Lowes, 2011).
6. Although national politics appears to be infiltrated by localism it is not necessarily a reflection of local or ontological hierarchy dominating establishment hierarchies. Rather the pro-growth agenda of the dominant order gets assimilated into the hierarchy of the local thus legitimating entrepreneurs and politicians associated with stimulating the local economy (Gallagher and Komito, 1999: 214). Thus the continual constituency support for figures discredited in the eyes of the nation state is likely inspired by relations of domination of the establishment symbolic order – e.g. sole credit for job creation granted to local politicians.


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