Monday, June 23, 2014

Stephen Donnelly: Ireland's Ralph Nader

Nader was vilified and heavily criticised
at first, but his book transformed the car
industry in America.
The first Chevy Corvair launched in 1960 was a roaring success. Jack Kennedy was President, Elvis Presley was on the radio, and America was fighting the Communists in the dark corners of Eastern European cities. It was a sleek designed power grunt of a machine, with swing-axle suspension. That meant that it needed a significant tyre-pressure differential between rear and front tyres, which resulted in a dangerous amount of over-steer. In lay mans terms, that means that when you turn the car left, the wheels turn much more left than you had intended. There was a significant danger of 'tuck-under', where the left front wheel in a left turn could essentially flip under the car, causing an accident.  Many people died as a result, though the car industry was unperturbed - driver error, was the response. If you drive at a safe speed, you're fine.

Ralph Nader, a young lawyer and academic, published a book about this and several other examples of poor-safety practices in the car industry. Not only that, Nader said, but they knew how to make the cars safer, but chose not to because it was too expensive. He was vilified, hounded, accused of being unAmerican, but he continued on.  American car-owners were proud of their cars, and of their car industry.  They didn't want to hear that big-Auto was cutting costs and killing people as a result. Nader persisted, and ultimately the car industry was transformed.

Stephen Donnelly has been criticised for his stance on the Oireachtas, and outlines further the reasons for his decision not to participate in the banking inquiry today. He broadens his argument, however, suggesting that the Oireachtas itself, as currently constituted, is not fit for purpose.  No doubt people will criticize that too, if they give his article oxygen, or they will try and kill the article by acknowledging the need for reform, and then point to a dozen measures undertaken that have no substantive bearing on the administration of the country.

Donnelly needs to be supported and encouraged.  Not only are those in power concerned with the preservation of their power - and therefore in resisting fundamental change to the status-quo - but there is a pride in our institutions that is as misplaced as our pride in Ireland as a Catholic State thirty years ago.  Our institutions are broken.  They don't work.  They are oppressive, anti-democratic, and the people of this country are poorer, discriminated against, and denied fundamental human rights (education, healthcare) as a result.  This isn't about banking any more.  It is about culture, society, and vision; the first two have to change; the third needs to be found. 

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