Are we being too timid?

Strong stuff from Elaine Byrne and Fintan O’Toole in today’s Irish Times. The latter berates the Irish people for lacking the ‘political viagra’ necessary to push through true political reform; whereas the former throws a punch directly at blogs such as this for ‘pouring cold water’ on the question of fundamental constitutional overhaul.

Fair points? Perhaps, yes. As the previous posting (on last weekend’s UCD Law conference) observed, there are differing views in the wider academic community about whether we need change and, if so, just how much change.

I am of the view that major change is, indeed, needed as part of the general process of renewal, of making a fresh start. I know that this view is shared by some of the other colleagues who make regular postings to this blog. But perhaps we now need to express these views more forthrightly? Perhaps we need to tease out more precisely where we all stand?


11 thoughts on “Are we being too timid?

  1. It’s not strong stuff at all from Byrne. She is pointing out that we’d rather tweet than march on the Dail. There’s another chance tonight in Dublin but hey, there’s Eastenders to catch up on.

  2. To use Elaine’s football analogy, demands for reform are akin to those demanding a change of manager when a football club is faring poorly. Rather than focusing on what we can do to fix our country (if it is broke), constitutional reform seems to be the easy option and a form of passing the buck, i.e. it’s not our fault, it’s the rules.
    I think up to 16 clubs in Italy’s Serie A changed managers during the 2009-10 season, but one of the few that didn’t won the Scudetto.
    Of course, one could argue that Inter would never have won the Champions League if they had not sacked Roberto Mancini in favour of Jose Mourinho. Remember though, Mourinho was the 33rd manager hired since Inter last won the old European Cup in 1965, ie the 32 previous models failed. I don’t think we can afford 33 attempts to get things right in Ireland.

    In any case, I for one don’t feel that I have a mandate to demand change. What we can do on this website is to discuss the various implications of proposed changes, perhaps informing the public and the policy makers and then let those who have the mandate make a decision regarding such changes. The role of academics in other policy circles is usually to advise government/parliament on the implications of proposed policies. In fairness to the Dáil they have done likewise on this matter, via the Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution.

    Elaine refers to a demand for a Second Republic. I invite anyone to download a copy of the constitution from and search for a reference to the 1st Republic.

  3. @David,

    You raise some interesting and pertinent questions, but I don’t think the burden of taking the lead in advocating some badly needed reforms should fall exclusively on those with knowledge and competence in the academic sphere. However, I believe there is a pressing requirement to forge a broader and more coherent consensus on a diagnosis of the problems.

    In my view the fundamental problems revolve around the acquisition, exercise and retention/deprival of political power. I think there is a broad consensus that, among all EU member-states, the UK and Ireland exhibit executive dominance to an almost excessive extent. Once a government is elected by parliament and can maintain a parliamentary majority, only minimal restraint may be exercised on the programme of policy and legislation that it chooses to pursue using the entire machinery of government. And this increasing consolidation of executive dominance has been accompanied (again, particularly, in the UK and Ireland) by increasing centralisation. (Devolution in the UK was a clever Labour ruse and the less said about the perverse decentralisation – perhaps, acentralisation – in Ireland the better.)

    Executive dominance and centralisation provides a focus for lobbying by corporate and other vested interests that completely bypasses parliament. Governments, however, have become adept at concealing this dominance and centralisation by establishing a plethora of regulatory and quasi-government functional agencies. Ostensibly these bodies were being devolved some power and responsibility independent of government, but governments were comfortable that the functionaries they appointed would implement, either explicitly or implictly, government policy.

    In this context it is, perhaps, not surprising that we are mired in the current economic and financial debacle – and that the rest of the PIIGS, which exhibit similar failures of democratic governance, are also mired.

    I have been banging on for some time about the pressing need to ensure an effective separation of legislative and executive powers and to resource and empower parliament to scrutinise policy, to hold the executive to account and, perhaps, to initiate legislation as a matter of course.

    Unfortunately, it is ultimately for the political classes to initiate reforms of this nature. Most voters are content to elect public representatives periodically (who then elect a government) and expect them to get on with it. But political parties in power – or within touching distance of power – are pathologically incapable of pursuing any reforms that would curtail their executive powers.

    This is the Catch 22. In most established democracies, reforms of this nature generally are enacted following major upheavals (e.g., US War of Independence, Germany after WWII, Spain, Portugal and Greece in the transition from autocracy).

    I fear we will end up, as usual, muddling through. The means of driving through reform does not exist; nor does a clear vision of the changes required. One would expect that the current near certainty of losing a decade (similar to the GUBU decade from ’77 to ’87) should galvanise some response, but there are few signs of this happening.

  4. Timid perhaps, but also sensible. Political institutions take time to bed in. Notwithstanding the current crisis, Ireland has a long continuous democracy that has worked reasonably well. OK, we have performed poorly economically for most of our history, and the political system is far from ideal, but the point that I’d make is that there are quite a lot of reforms that can happen that don’t require constitutional change. And perhaps some, like the Kenny report on building land, could be tried out and then the courts can decide whether they require constitutional change. Governments often take the most cautious approach to constitutional interpretation – the refusal to impose the pension levy on judges is a case in point.These are reforms the Green party, which is in a remarkably strong position in government should be pushing for now.

    For the critics of ‘conservatism’, it might be useful to have concrete proposals rather than slogans. Elaine’s call seems to be ‘Reform, Now!’, but what reforms and how?

  5. I would have to agree with Liam, in most cases I don’t think that we have much legitimacy as any sort of ‘voice of the people’ with regard to political change.

    In any case, the term ‘academic consensus’ is more often than not an oxymoron. It’s the nature of the job to pick flaws and holes in arguments and proposals.

    Where we can contribute is in terms of detailed knowledge of how our own political institutions are working, and of the advantages and pitfalls of alternatives elsewhere. The tendency to look only to the UK and the USA for points of comparison in public debate for me represents a real problem that we can address here. For example, Liam’s article on how PR-STV operates in Tasmania gives us some highly valuable insights into choices for improving our voting system.

    I think that the site so far is good at putting reform options in layman’s terms and inviting readers to debate them and authors defend their position.

    To re-hash the football analogy, we could advise Inter on the managerial records of Mourihno versus, say, Ancelotti – or we could bring their attention to an up-and-coming manager in a lower league. Put simply, I think that we can help the public and politicians to make better-informed choices about whether we should reform and what the reforms would entail – but we cannot tell them what their preferences should be.

  6. While I too believe I have no mandate to tell people what to do I see no reason why people on this site should not put forward their own point of view. Paul Hunt’s contributions are, I believe, extremely valuable and certainly measures to increase the separation between the executive and legislative and thereby reduce executive dominance would do much to pass the current litmus test which appears to be “would it have prevented the policy failures which led to the current crisis”. There are, of course, many ways this could be achieved without changing the Constitution but I would, for starters, point to article Article 27.1
    “A majority of the members of Seanad Éireann and not less than one-third of the members of Dáil Éireann may by a joint petition addressed to the President by them under this Article request the President to decline to sign and promulgate as a law any Bill to which this article applies on the ground that the Bill contains a proposal of such national importance that the will of the people thereon ought to be ascertained.”

    If this were one third of the Senate and one third of the Dáil the Oireachtas would surely garner a good deal of power. The decisions in September 2008 spring to mind, it is likely surely that these would have put to a referendum without the majority Senate provision. In terms of the overall thrust of the Constitution, as Liam says, there is no mention of the word Republic in the text, nor is the word “her” used, there is however mention of the Most Holy Trinity and to a woman’s place in the home.

  7. Liam Weeks,

    “constitutional reform seems to be the easy option and a form of passing the buck, i.e. it’s not our fault, it’s the rules.”

    I don’t believe so. Constitutional reform would set an agenda for revitalisation of the broader system. It could be used as a basis for further reforms – all seen through the prism of the new constitution – through out our system. I believe such broad reform is necessary – though not necessarily massive reform of every element of society, but most parts are in need of some repair – hence I believe constitutional reform is necessary.

    For one thing, our current constitution is loaded with references and veneration of the Catholic church. Will we stick with that despite the vast majority of young Irish people having nothing but distrust for that institution. If now is not the time to change it, when will be?


    I find it bizarre that you feel you have no mandate
    to demand change. How can this be? Are ‘academic’ and ‘citizen’ two mutually exclusive descriptions? You have as much right to demand change and argue for change as any other member of society. And are – for the most part – more qualified, like it or not. Is the issue more to do with stepping on people’s toes?

    This thinking that academics should view everything in a completely dispassionate way is unhealthy. It feeds into the conformism that Elaine Byrne writes about.

    • “mandate for change”
      Well said, Mark.
      There is a difference in the cast of mind that thinks in terms of the rights of the citizen as opposed to cosidering the liberty of the subject.

  8. @Jane Suitor,
    Many thanks for the kind words. However, I would be reluctant to throw even more pressure on the Constitution. We have a parliamentary democracy that, as Eoin O’Malley points out, has stood the test of time; the challenge is to make it work more effectively in the interests of citizens.

    (In passing, I accept that the Constitution needs to be rescued from the corporatism and Catholic social teaching of the ’30s, but I see this as a more measured, less time-constrained task. That it seems easier to amend the Constitution than to enact sensible legislation is evidence to me of a failure of parliamentary democracy. And we should also be sceptical of politicians advancing eye-catching proposals such as abolishing the Seanad, electoral reform or major constitutional reform as the intent often is to deflect attention from any demand for a reduction in the executive dominance they aspire to enjoy.)

    Although the focus here is on political reform in Ireland, we need to take heed of the emerging situation in the EU. In my view executive dominance associated with capture by vested interests goes a long way to explain the economic and financial crises the PIIGS are experiencing. A new generation is emerging in Germany that is less concerned about assuaging any residual war guilt by financing and supporting increased EU integration and also less reticent about advancing the German national interest. Germany is in a bind as it abandoned the Deutschmark without securing popular consent on the basis that the Euro would be managed with similar monetary and fiscal discipline. The instinct of the political classes is to continue supporting the Euro as a primarily political project (and, slyly, bailing out its banks and pension funds that bought sovereign and bank bonds in the PIIGS without exercising due diligence). But a popular urge is increasing to exit the Euro and to let the PIIGS stew in their mess. To head this off the German government is being compelled to impose a severe deflation on the PIIGS and to push for powers to exert strict fiscal discipline on them in future. Greece, effectively, has lost its fiscal sovereignty – and we, in Ireland, should not be excessively sanguine about our ability to retain ours.

    Politcially, it is difficult to see how bondholders (who, ultimately, are those on higher than average incomes consuming much less than they earn or those with “nest eggs”) can continue to escape unscathed while all citizens and residents bail them out. And, economically, it is difficult to see how the debt servicing capacity of these countries may be maintained.

    That is why I believe reform of the system of democratic governance, particularly in the economic, financial and fiscal areas, is urgent.

  9. I think that reform of governance structures and political culture are needed. I also think that reform of the Constitution (including religious references, to be sure) would be helpful. What I am cautious of (as a self-identifying constitutional law geek!) is populist reform (think citizenship referendum…who loses in populist constitutional debates? the weak, the marginalised…not the powerful) and of what I consider to be unsubstantiated calls for complete constitutional overhaul (i.e. starting from scratch). I don’t think that’s a conservative view in a negative sense. It may be a cautious view, but the Constitution is important: we ought to be cautious about it!

  10. Pingback: “No confidence” – The Story

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s