We are lucky to live in a democracy and we must protect it

It’s a miracle. So much so that I think the government should declare a unique national holiday to celebrate the extraordinary milestone we have just reached. Give us all an extra day before summer ends and call it the 5 Mill Day.

I come from an emigrant family, some of whom never returned after leaving Ireland. When I was six, the population of Ireland was less than 3 million and it continued to decline for some time after that. For much of my adult life, Ireland was a country to leave, not a country to return to. I never thought we would be as big, as strong and as dynamic as we are.

But last September, I wrote here about the Central Bureau of Statistics’ prediction that our population would soon surpass the 5 million mark. And last week, the CSO confirmed it. We are now 5,123,536. That’s quite a jump.

We are ahead by 360,000. Just under half of that is due to what they call natural increase – more births than deaths. And the rest is due to internal migration – many people coming to live in Ireland for the first time and many Irish returning home.

Duller, catholic and white

And would you watch us? Not just a large and growing population, but more boring, Catholic and white. When we get the detailed census results we will find that we have around half a million non-Irish people living here, all of whom contribute enormously to our landscape and our future.

We are a much more open, diverse and inclusive society than at any stage in my life, although in some areas we still have a long way to go.

Of course, a growing population brings challenges, but also enormous opportunities. And the detailed data we’ll get in time means we have no excuse for our inability to plan.

When you think about how far we’ve come, I think we have every right to feel lucky. And not just in terms of growth, but also in other ways. Despite all our problems, it is a strong and stable democracy. We have leaders that we are free to criticize — and we do that all the time — but they are serious, hard-working people.

We’ve flirted in the past with at least one leader, a venal, money-hungry hypocrite who was willing to devalue our democracy for his own ends, but we eventually let him off.

We disagree, often sharply, about things, but we’re not so polarized that we can’t see any good in people we disagree with. We know this is a place where power can and will pass peacefully, and we are not ruled by charlatans.

But when I think of luck, there’s one thing that often comes to mind. In 1984, a man named Patrick Magee planted a bomb in his hotel room at the Grand Hotel in Brighton. When it exploded, around three o’clock in the morning, it killed five people. Her intended target, Margaret Thatcher, escaped – and became a hero when she opened her party’s conference six hours later looking perfectly groomed and composed.

The bomb at the Grand Hotel in Brighton in 1984 killed five people.

In the aftermath of the bombing, the IRA issued a statement acknowledging responsibility for the bomb. It included the following lines: “remember we only have to get lucky once. You always have to get lucky. Isn’t that the truth?

To the east of us, there is a madman who is waging a terrible war against his neighbor. His actions have probably already killed thousands of people, including his own soldiers. And it has caused untold and possibly irreparable damage. The economic toll has been huge and has spread like a contagion across Europe.

Division in Europe

In doing so, he sowed the seeds of division in Europe. There is at least the possibility, without extraordinary leadership, that economic deprivation, accompanied by a massive influx of refugees, will trigger simmering resentment and the growth of polarization. There were signs of this in the two recent French elections.

Putin cannot win the battle against Ukraine in the end. We can’t allow it. But he can win the war to destabilize Europe and pit communities against each other.

Boris Johnson is a leader who has won power and seeks to cling to it by dividing his country.  He is a leader whose own narcissism blinds him to the damage he is causing.
Boris Johnson is a leader who has won power and seeks to cling to it by dividing his country. He is a leader whose own narcissism blinds him to the damage he is causing.

Much closer to home, another war of hearts and minds is taking place in the UK. This unfortunate country is ruled by a charlatan who cannot, it seems, be easily deposed. He clings to the hope that what are now called the culture wars will allow him to cling to an alienated and embittered base.

There are dozens of examples of how far Brits have already drifted apart. Perhaps most striking is the support from parts of the community for a barbaric plan to send thousands of refugees to Rwanda, and God knows where else in the end.

Johnson is a leader who has won power and seeks to cling to it by dividing his country. He is a leader whose own narcissism blinds him to the damage he is causing.

And then there is the United States. When Donald Trump lost office, I wrote here that the only things he accomplished were a major tax cut for the well-to-do and packing the Supreme Court. And I said in that article, “The good news, I think, is that soon we won’t ever have to think about him again.”

I was wrong, wasn’t I? America was a bitterly divided place before hearing about Donald Trump. It is now so polarized that there must be serious question marks over its ability to survive as a democratic entity.

The essence of the American model is a system of checks and balances where the three branches of government work in creative tension with each other.

From now on, the executive is paralyzed by a series of major problems (inflation, weapons, etc.), which are not its fault; the parliamentary branch is completely divided, with people unable to work with each other; and the judiciary apparently decided to start taking away rights that Americans thought were well established.

Trump’s Legacy

It seems clear that after invalidating the right to choose 50-year-olds, it is now possible that the Supreme Court will focus its attention on issues such as the equal right to marry. That’s half the legacy left by Trump when he filled the field.

Donald Trump didn't just incite a riot on January 6.  He was at the heart of a concerted and detailed plot to overthrow the democratically elected government of the United States.  Photo: AP/Jose Luis Magana
Donald Trump didn’t just incite a riot on January 6. He was at the heart of a concerted and detailed plot to overthrow the democratically elected government of the United States. Photo: AP/Jose Luis Magana

But the other half is being revealed, bit by bit, by the congressional committee charged with investigating the January 6 uprising in Washington. If you have followed the hearings and read what comes out of them, only one conclusion is possible.

Donald Trump didn’t just incite a riot on January 6. He was at the heart of a concerted and detailed plot to overthrow the democratically elected government of the United States.

January 6 was only the last roll of the dice, but astonishing efforts had been made to subvert the systems of government before that and bend them to his will.

So if we are lucky in the current strength of our democratic systems, and we are, there is a simple lesson to be learned from what is happening in the world around us. What we have, with all its flaws, is worth defending and protecting. We always have to be lucky.