Intellectuals against ideas

Posted by Dan O’Brien
Reading this blog in recent weeks and Elaine Byrne’s piece in Tuesday’s Irish Times, it strikes me that while anti-intellectualism has long been a feature of Irish life, it seems that even the intellectual class in Ireland is hostile to ideas. Some thoughts.
First, last weekend a conference was held on constitutional reform in UCD. One of the organisers, Eoin Carolan, stated on this blog that it was organised “partly because we wanted to allow people an opportunity to respond to a lot of the patent nonsense on the Aftershock programme”. Quite apart from the fact that serious people ignore “patent nonsense” (there’s far too much of it about and they have better things to do), the description of the ideas, including reform of the voting system and the method of executive formation, as “patent nonsense“ is very strange.
Second, I find it astonishing that an event organised “partly” to respond to specific ideas does not invite the people who have put forward those ideas (I was not approached and Justine McCarthy only received an invitation on the day of the event without reference to the show). This is more reminiscent of academic life in the Soviet Union circa the 1960s than that of an inquisitive, questioning free society today.
Finally, one of the two suggestions I put forward in Aftershock was to change Ireland’s very unusual method of executive formation. It seems the matter was not discussed at the event in any depth. Much more widely, neither the political science nor constitutional law communities shows any real interest in this issue. This is very puzzling. To ignore the relationship between executive formation and government performance would, in economics, be akin to ignoring the relationship between, say, capital formation and economic performance.
Almost no other democracy has so little separation between the executive and legislative branches. That this issue, and its implications for the quality of governance, receives so little attention suggests, if not a hostility to reform and re-evaluation, then at the very least a lack of interest in them.

10 thoughts on “Intellectuals against ideas

  1. @Dan O’Brien,

    Despite having attended the conference I will hold my counsel on your first two observations as I expect the organisers are well able to respond, but I would echo your call for a greater focus on the separation of the executive and the legislature – since I view this as fundamental. However, you might also wish to take note of my comment on the previous post (re Department of Finance) which highlights the extent to which economic and fiscal sovereignty has been – and is being – stripped from the PIIGS – and the extent to which Irish citizens appear to be resigned to this.

  2. There is certainly a very strong argument for further separation between the executive and legislative. Eoin and others in the past have pointed to the potential for removing ministers from their constituencies. That is either Ministers could be recruited from outside the system or could be forced to resign their constituency seats on being appointed. That is the practice in the majority of PR systems across Europe. This of course would be extremely difficult to persuade any party to go for.

    Other suggestions for delinking the two include strengthening local government, reversing the Abbeylara Supreme Court decision, strengthening Dail committees and allowing input from the Oireachtas into Bills prior to drafting. Changing Article 27.1 of the Constitution to allow one third of the House to call a referendum on an issue of national importance would also weaken teh power of the executive to drive through dubious legislation.

  3. I think you’re a bit unfair in your analysis – It’s not anti-intellectual or anti-new ideas to question the validity of the arguments used for some political system changes. As you probably know most policies fail and those that appear to succeed sometimes do so by coincidence. I’m sure some one in the Rock the Vote movement in the UK will claim that their campaign succeeded in increasing voter turnout in 2010, but 2010 probably represents a regression to the mean – it would have happened anyway. So we might be wise to have a starting position of being sceptical of the effectiveness of any intervention.

    If we’re going to spend a lot of political time and resources on constitutional changes we should make sure they are the right ones. We don’t want to think that we’ve fixed the system only to discover in thirty years and another crisis that we got it wrong because proposed constitutional/ institutional changes weren’t subject to the scrutiny they should have been afforded. Most are very much in favour of reform, some are wary of some of the more big ticket items currently doing the rounds, i.e. new constitution and new electoral system. I’m in favour of broadening the pool for ministerial recruitment and my talk last Friday was specifically about separating the parliamentary and executive functions to provide for greater oversight.

    Of course we can and should be open to change and innovations in the way we are governed, but it seems to me that the constitution should be reasonably stable and only touched when it is shown to fail, or when there is a major shift in people’s attitudes. So the changes in Irish society in the last twenty years might lead us to remove the references to religion in the constitution and update it to reflect the (hopefully) now equal role of women.

    I’d be interested in hearing what you think about the performance of Finance and the suggestions for reform in these areas – it seems to me that you don’t need big ticket changes to make a difference here.

  4. Justine McCarthy has just called to say that the information she had given me earlier was not correct. Having checked her in box, she received an invite on May 17th. I rechecked my in box and can confirm that I didn’t receive an invite.

  5. Would seem unfair as the ‘patent nonsense’ and cliche ridden commentary came from others such as Justine McCarthy, not yourself.

    I always find your economic comments well thought out and sensible. My criticism of your aftershock suggestion would be who selects the list, its order and accountability of the people on the list

  6. “Finally, one of the two suggestions I put forward in Aftershock was to change Ireland’s very unusual method of executive formation.”

    I think a very useful follow up to the recent constitutional reform colloquium would be a day around this topic-would the constitutional group be the right place to host such an event?

  7. Might be something for the forthcoming annual conference of the Political Studies Association of Ireland, in Dublin this autumn. We’re already planning one or two activities at the PSAI conference, and this could possibly be one of them.

  8. Might I ask that any such event in future be given some advance notice and publicity (cheap even to the point of being free) to people who have an interest but are not part of the political science academic community. A post on or would be a simple means to get the word out there. I’m sure people with blogs and a readership would also be only too happy to include a post about the event.

    This needs to be a wider discussion.

  9. @ Paul Hunt and Eoin O’Malley
    The Dept of Finance provides just one of many examples of the inertia in the Irish system. An excellent comparative perspective is to be found here

    Click to access publication338_en.pdf

    Pages 130-139 show that Ireland was/is furthest from best practice in its budgetary management mechanisms. If you fall asleep at the wheel you will eventually crash.
    One might have thought that the scale of the crisis would have resulted in a willingness to change, but as Eddie Molloy has so incisively set out elsewhere, Finance seems very pleased with itself. A further example is the extreme hostility within the Dept to any suggestion of depoliticising some of the more technocratic aspects of the finance function to an independent fiscal council, as others have done or are doing.

  10. Should ministers be appointed from outside parliament? As has been observed (John Coakley in particular has been making this point for twenty years or so, and recently Dan O’Brien has been advancing the same argument), the recruitment of ministers virtually exclusively from the directly-elected house of parliament is one of the most unusual features of the Irish political process. The most recent figures I saw suggested that about 75 per cent of ministers across Europe were present or former MPs, ie most ministers are ‘politicians’ in the broad sense, but only in Ireland is being a current MP an essential qualification for becoming a minister.

    This suggests strongly that broadening the pool from which ministers are selected would be a good idea, and I think it is. The obvious place to start would be for Taoisigh to use the power already given to them to appoint two ministers from the Seanad (which together with their power to appoint 11 senators gives them power to make any Irish citizen a minister).

    There are counter-arguments. One is that ministers need political skills as much as policy expertise (the latter can, in principle anyway, be ‘hired’ from policy advisers or from the civil service), and that a minister’s job is to ‘sell’ a policy to the stakeholders and to the public rather than simply to devise policy. Another is that it may now be too late to make this change in this country, in that the public has come to expect ministers to have some kind of personal mandate from the electorate and that there may be legitimacy problems for unelected ministers trying to put through unpopular policies. This political cultural expectation applies a fortiori to members of the parliamentary parties, who see government positions as steps on the promotional ladder and would react with considerable displeasure to the sight of ministerial positions being given to ‘outsiders’, with the prospect of such ministers meeting considerable resistance when they try to secure support from the parliamentary party for their plans. The fact that it is already possible for two non-TDs to be appointed to cabinet, and yet this has happened on only two occasions since 1937, shows us that the barriers are to be found in the unwritten rather than the written part of the constitution.

    Such an experiment might not work, but the cost of one or two unsuccessful appointments would be low, and if the right individuals were appointed to the right positions the results could be very positive and build support for the idea. However, given that it is hardly likely ever to be made compulsory for the Taoiseach of the day to appoint a certain number of non-TD ministers, I think this development would require a change of culture more than a change in the rules if it is to occur.

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