Meteors, Dinosaurs and Political Reform

David Farrell (December 20, 2010)

Political systems are very sticky. It takes a lot to uproot and alter them. This is why very few of the world’s established democracies have experienced the sort of radical reform that websites like this are calling for Ireland. The fact is that political systems are hard to change: once established the norm is to prefer the status quo.

There are instances of major change in established democracies, but they’re rare enough: France’s Fifth Republic; Italy’s reforms at the start of the 1990s; New Zealand’s new electoral system also in the early 1990s, and so on. It would be wrong to suggest that political change is common, easy to produce, or, indeed, always successful.

But it can and does happen. And what we know from previous experience is that one vitally important ingredient for change is a major political shock: a large-scale crisis that causes citizens to question the very institutions of state. The more cataclysmic the event the greater the impetus for change.

Could what we are currently going through be more cataclysmic?

22 thoughts on “Meteors, Dinosaurs and Political Reform

  1. The problem with the examples for France and Italy (I don’t know about New Zealand but it’s less corrupt than European countries so their changes probably did work) did the changes you mention result in the establishment people changing? No, so even if Ireland did put through all the changes that are needed, won’t it still be the same maybe 3000 who make up the ‘establishment’.

    Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore are meant to be the btter alternative but how are they different to Cowen and Lenihan in the things that matter. Kenny would still be earning a huge salary and pension, his party still refuses to explain how it is funded, no FG elected rep provides receipts for the expenses they claim, then Eamon Gilmore’s wife took hundreds of thousands for the sale of land and he didn’t feel this was data the public ought to have known, he saw no conflict of interest.

    The issue that is more important than governance policy is how FG and L will reform the establishment, there is total silence from them on reforming judges pay and pensions, or of clearing out all the boards of the banks, ending and clawing back the golden gooodbyes, the publication of all remuneration of the top levels of the public sector etc etc.

    There is no reform on offer from the opposition to change the mindset of people in the public sector, so that, be they the President, a judge, a department secretary or a TD, that they spend time in the public sector knowing full well they are giving up the chance to earn more money in the private sector.

    So would a 2nd Republic really make much difference if the the same people are in its establishment as were in the failed 1st Republic?

    • Look neither FG or Lab caused the mess we are in right now. In the first instance FF/Greens/PD and some clever Independents caused it. In the second instance we the electorate caused it. We need to realize that it is not in the public interest to have any one group in power for so long. They lose touch with the people and thats when the trouble starts. One of the things we need to do in this country is to have term limits on public offices. If nothing else this would stop politicians retiring on obscene pensions. We also need stop this idea of “disappointment money” being paid to politicians who lose their seats.

  2. Hopefully all the current desire for political reform will come to something. If it ever does get that far, IMO it would be worth putting some kind of ‘reset’ mechanism into the constitution, so that perhaps once a generation, maybe every 25 years, everything in the constitution would be up for discussion. A mandatory referendum would be put to the people asking if they were happy with the current constitutional status quo. If they weren’t, then some form of constitutional assembly, parallel to the ordinary structures and bodies of government, would be automatically called (perhaps a citizen’s assembly as discussed elsewhere on this site, or maybe a directly elected body). This assembly could meet for up to one year and would have the power to draw up and directly put constitutional amendments to the people, or even propose an entirely new constitution. I’m glad we have the legal protection of a constitution that can only be changed via referendum. But it’s also the source of a lot of inertia. We really could do with a mechanism to shake things up every so often.

    • Finbar
      “‘reset’ mechanism into the constitution”

      I fully support this idea.
      The mechanism I suggest is to embed a Swiss-style citizens’ initiative into our Constitution – to cover all legislation including the Constitution.

      We can do this by adding the following to Article 6 of our 1937 Constitution, replacing Article 27 (which has never been used)and adding another changes to Articles. I set out how this might be done in order to advance discussion as I did in 1987 and 1996 – see below

      “Art. 6.3.1 The people may initiate proposals for changes to, or complete replacement of, this Constitution and ordinary legislation.

      Art. 27. This article specifies the form of citizens initiative provided for in Article
      1. Such initiatives consist of a request to introduce or set aside or modify this constitution or national legislation or generally binding
      administrative measures or specific sections of such legislation.
      2. An initiative may consist of a general proposal or a complete draft legislative text.
      3. Such requests shall be supported by the signatures of not less that two and half percent of those entitled to vote in the last general
      election, of which not more than fifteen thousand shall be voters in any one constituency.
      4.1 If a majority of the Dáil agrees with an initiative, it must, within ninety days of the request being submitted, pass legislation to
      bring the proposal into force forthwith.
      4.2 If a majority of the Dáil disagrees with an initiative, it may prepare its own proposal for decision by the people in a referendum along with the original proposal
      5. Each such petition shall be in writing and shall be signed by the petitioners whose signatures shall be verified in the manner prescribed by law.
      6. The Oireachtas shall set up a body to oversee the operation of measures introduced to give effect to Article 6.3.

      Art. 47.2.1 Any proposal submitted to the people under the provisions of Articles 6 and 27 of this Constitution shall enter into force within ninety days if it has been approved by a majority of citizens casting a vote.”

      The detailed arguments for this change are set out in a 1987 a paper – which you can find p.89-112 here

      In 1996, I included the proposed wording set out above in a submission to the Oireachtas All-Party Committee on the Constitution see p.27-30

      I see this as one of the checks and balances that we need to limit the scope for excess by the powerful – be they public or private, elected or appointed – so that our government, at all levels, is both competent and moderate.

      Freedom of Information is also part of a series of mutually-reinforcing mechanisms that we need to overcome the inertia you mention.
      I set out my arguments for this in a thread here on 21 June last

      Your call echoes a 1986 call by John Carroll in a Presidential Address to the ITGWU (now part of SIPTU)
      “He called for a new element in Irish politics: “an ongoing monitoring mechanism acceptable to the people which will measure performance and pass immediate judgement. We have to get back to
      three-monthly or six-monthly assessments through which politicians had to account for their actions…This was done elsewhere in the
      world and there was nothing to stop us learning from others and perhaps improving on their ideas.”
      as reported in the Irish Times. 28 May 1986

      • Yes, I’d be very much in agreement with having citizens’ initiative mechanisms. It’s a real pity these were eliminated from the Free State constitution. Otherwise we might possibly have developed a Swiss style initiative tradition here. Of course from the viewpoint of a sitting TD in one of the established parties this would be very threatening indeed. The electorate could potentially pull the rug out from under them at any time, and bring in some different and unfavourable electoral setup. TDs might be persuaded to bring in a 25 year constitutional review mechanism, but perhaps only if the next review was in 25 years time! :), so they’d be safely retired or nearly so. Or even bring in a citizens’ initiative mechanism, but only if there was perhaps some similar 25 year “transitional” ability for the Dáil to override threatening initiatives (perhaps a 2/3 Dáil majority could override). Turkeys and Christmas and all that. Something of a mini-revolution would really be needed. Otherwise, perhaps the only way such provisions might be introduced would be if they were designed to really only came into full effect so far down the road that they wouldn’t really affect sitting TDs personally.

  3. A shock doctrine for political reform that isn’t about enshrining more inequality and poverty? Pretty doubtful to be honest.

    I’ll fly the flag for change but I’m skeptical. Power and status is at stake and turkeys don’t vote for Christmas…

  4. @David Farrell,

    I think I understand your sense of puzzlement that there is isn’t a major popular push to reform the system of political governance, since most people now seem to accept that its was gross failures in this area – and cross-infections into major economic sectors – that created this mess.

    What I sense, however, is a public recognition of the extent to which sovereignty has been ceded to external institutions – both political and economic; the arrival of the Troika merely confirmed a further loss of sovereignty. Why should people become energised about reform of governance when its exercise is circumscribed by external forces in almost every respect? In fact, I suspect that many people are quite reassured by the extent of external governance, since the home-grown variety has proved so inept and damaging. (And this is something I have found over the years in the southern peripheral EU member-states.)

    But I still remain convinced that there are significiant areas of governance where Ireland retains considerable sovereignty and the efforts to implement reforms are worth while. I don’t often find myself in full agreement with Fintan O’Toole, but his piece in today’s IT:
    eloquently confirms my conviction that changes in the procedures of the Oireachtas should be the focus of reform. We have to make bricks out of the straw we have.

    • “changes in the procedures of the Oireachtas should be the focus of reform.”
      IMO, this will be a WOMBAT – a waste of money, brains and time without a complete separation of the Dáil from dominance by the government – something that Fintan O’Toole and others seem to miss or overlook.

      “We have to make bricks out of the straw we have.”
      Where is the straw? Apart from elections, we have no straw with which to make bricks.
      Until there is a complete separation of the Rialtas/Government/Executive from the Dáil/Legislature/Representative Assembly, we can make little effective progress in devising the checks and balances we need to limit the scope for excess by the powerful – be they public or private, elected or appointed – so that we can have government, at all levels, that is competent and moderate.

      • @Donal,

        I don’t think we are in disagreement – WOMBATs or not. Constitutionally the Dail has enough power to make the rules of the game – and the first rule would be to evict the Cabinet from the Dail, have them replaced by alternates and have them account to the Dail on any issue and at any time the Dail decides. And the schedule of Dail business would be agreed between the Dail and the Cabinet. Further, Dail Cttees would be empowered and resourced to conduct effective hearings.

        Why not kick it off from there and see what else might improve things?

    • @Paul Hunt
      There’s no doubt some of the suggested improvements to Dáil procedures (such as those made in FG and Labour’s policy documents, e.g. strengthening of committees, compellability of witnesses, secret election of the Ceann Comhairle etc.) will all help to some degree. But I would also feel we’d be much better served by a fuller executive/legislature separation. But if reforms are destined to be relatively modest, one suggestion that I haven’t seen in any of the party policy documents that might actually make a limited but nonetheless appreciable difference in Dáil functioning would be a “constructive vote of no confidence” mechanism, such as exists in Germany and Spain and some other countries. The 1996 Constitutional Review Group chaired by T K Whitaker actually recommended the introduction of such a mechanism (see pages 86-88 in for their proposals and wordings). Currently the government requires the support of a majority of the Dáil to continue governing. Under such a mechanism, a government could only be removed if a majority of TDs voted against it in a vote of no confidence. The “constructive” part means that a vote of no confidence would only be allowed if the name of an alternative Taoiseach is attached to the motion. In the event of the vote succeeding that person becomes Taoiseach and could appoint a new cabinet. This setup would greatly reduce the need for a government whip (only really truly needed in no confidence votes, the loss of an ordinary vote wouldn’t cause the government to fall), and would probably strengthen the Dáil in relationship to the Taoiseach/cabinet. Not as good as full executive/legislature separation but still likely an improvement on what we have now.

      • @Finbar,

        This looks like a useful suggestion. When it comes to institutional and procedural reform, I tend to be a Fabian. Many people seem to favour the ‘big bang’ approach (each with thier own varieties and policy agenda) or to focus on reforms that fail to get to the heart of the matter. I favour small incremental steps – mainly because there is a big constituency to be convinced and the inevitable unintended consequences tend to be limited and may be addressed quickly and easily.

  5. I think it probable that over the course of as little as two general elections Ireland will witness seismic political/ideological change. Whether that change will transform or reform the political system, culture or institutions will depend on the strength, or lack of it, of the essence of democracy in the emergent dominant ideology. That is what gives this discourse on political reform pre-eminence.
    The discourse needs to start at the beginning, at the fundamentals-what do we mean by democracy?. How can we design democratic interventions that are relevant, impactive and which are real time interventions? The discourse cannot ignore the elephant in the room, which is how such democratic principles and practice can best inform our relationship with Europe.

    • @Vincent,

      I’ve been discouraged previously from straying into the area of EU governance refrom, but you raise a very valid point about Ireland’s need to reform so as to engage more effectively with the EU.

      I would contend that what we are seeing in the last decade is a major shift from a European Germany to a German Europe. Having gone through the economic pain of reunification and the further pain of labour and product market reforms during Schroeder’s chancellorship (and consolidated during the CDU/CSU-SDP coalition), Germany is developing a coherent economic strategy for the EU in the context of the rise of the BRICs. It’s not just the Mercs and the Beamers; Germany’s mittelstand is powering ahead to produce the high value capital goods (with high knowledge content) to tool up the BRICs. Most of its neighbours (Netherlands, Luxembourg, the Scandinavian memeber-states, the Baltic states, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Slovenia (even Poland)) are aligned with this strategy. France has no choice but to go along and Italy and Belgium (traditionally indulged by the other founder members) are also on board. Hungary is struggling, but the Balkan states are trying to shape up to join in. Britain, of course, stands aloof. This leaves the peripherals who decided to indulge themselves for the last decade.

      And this is also a divide betweeen member-states that are well-governed (or seeking to improve their governance) and the peripheral member-states where governance has varied between inept and disastrous.

      And that’s why I believe the initial focus should be on the reform of politcial governance by starting on reform of the process and procedures in the Oireachtas. It doen’t matter if the flavour of the resulting policy-decisions reflect left, right or centre stances, once the policies are subject to full public scrutiny and the decisions reflect the will of the people as expressed by their elected representatives.

      We might then be able to participate more effectively in the EU.

  6. “Could what we are currently going through be more cataclysmic?” In 1958 France there was war in Algeria and the very real threat of a coup in Paris. So, in truth, the situation there probably was more cataclysmic to the extent that these things can be measured. I take your basic point, though.

  7. @Robert
    re. France in 1958. The question is to what extent the Algerian war and the threat of a coup were the result of failure of governance since the end of WW2.

    We have clearly had a catastrophic failure of governance here over recent years (say from about 2000) without the threats of war and coups.

    We need to address what John Travers termed overall systemic corporate responsibility and failure (in his 2005 report on the Department of Health & Children charges for persons in long‐stay care in Health Board institutions. (

    The necessity of EU-ECB-IMF intervention show just how far this overall systemic failure of fiduciary responsibility has gone.

  8. I have read through all your views,it seems to me you are thinking within the current accepted norms.Cut through all the bullshit. As I see it, as a nation we suffer from arrogance and corruption at every level. Do we want a nation that works for the betterment of its society, if so seperate the legislature from direct control of the nations economy ,allow economic activity to work within legal principles (company laws). instead of imposed taxes let the state (society )fund a share in any viable economic enterprise via an agency such as the NTMA or central bank. In short we need less big brother control, more honesty , openness , separation of authority accountable to a true democratic republic.

  9. @Finbarr
    re. Citizens’ Initiative as a threat to TDs.
    “Of course from the viewpoint of a sitting TD in one of the established parties this would be very threatening indeed. The electorate could potentially pull the rug out from under them at any time, and bring in some different and unfavourable electoral setup. ”

    Apart from the fact that all TDs are incumbents and thus prone to Machiavelli’s comment about such interests, I fail to see how their positions would be easily threatened by the proposal for a Citizens’ Initiative that I outlined above.

    The first case it applies to legislation (including statutory instruments) and the Constitution.

    If one applies the signatories required to the 2007 General election, it means that just 77,000 signatures have to be collected from at least 6 constituencies.

    2007 election
    Electorate 3,066,750
    2.5 % 76,669
    Constituencies @ <15,000 each 6

    Compare that to the average quota that each of the 165 TDs elected (ignoring the automatically returned Ceann Comhairle) got

    Total Valid Poll 2,045,829
    Average Quota @165 TDs 12,399

    The 15,000 signatures is more than a fifth greater that the average quota. for all TDs elected in 2007.

    Given the scale and implications of what the governing classes has brought upon us, it would take some nerve for any TD (regardless of whether in Government or not) to suggest that this form of citizens' initiative is a threat to their position.

    IMO, the collective inertia of the governing class (TDs, senior public servants, others) has now posed a major threat to us, the citizens of this Republic who own the power which we delegate to TDs and Councillors, as set out in Article 6 of the 1937 Constitution

    "Article 6
    1. All powers of government, legislative, executive and judicial, derive, under God, from the people, whose right it is to designate the rulers of the State and, in final appeal, to decide all questions of national policy, according to the requirements of the common good.
    2. These powers of government are exercisable only by or on the authority of the organs of State established by this Constitution."

    It is time we took that power into our own hands by means of a Citizens Initiative.

    • “IMO, the collective inertia of the governing class (TDs, senior public servants, others) has now posed a major threat to us, the citizens of this Republic who own the power which we delegate to TDs and Councillors”

      Couldn’t agree more. But there’s also the collective inertia of the electorate. As the OP says major political change is rare but has happened on a number of occasions. The current crisis should have made the major flaws and deficiencies in our system apparent to everyone. And it’s a crisis that probably has a long way to run yet. This should be a major opportunity for radical reform. But if this crisis isn’t sufficient to overturn the inertia in the voting public, then I don’t know what will.

      Current TDs won’t vote for anything but a fairly neutered citzens’ initiative mechanism (e.g. FG’s fairly toothless citizen’s petition proposal). Currrent TDs won’t vote for anything that might lead to a drastic cut in their own numbers.

      I strongly feel that the addition of citizens’ initiative mechanisms into the constitution would rank as the greatest single political reform that could be made. That would be a fundamental game changer and all kinds of other reforms would inevitably follow. But I also happen to think that the one and only way we’re going to get a powerful citizens’ initiative mechanism into the constitution is if the Irish electorate votes a sufficient number of TDs into the Dáil with that aim. Nothing less will suffice.

      • “But there’s also the collective inertia of the electorate. ”

        If there is such inertia at present, it may be that the electorate are not happy with the options being offered to them.

        I would not underestimate the electorate
        Note that from 1969 to 2002, no outgoing Government was returned to office.
        Just think of the economic events that happened during that 33 year period eg.
        1970s – oil crises and poor Irish response
        1980s – economic crisis arising from 1970s
        giving rise to
        FG coming with 5 seats of FF in the Nov 1982 election;
        the PDs getting 14 seats in the 1987 election;
        Labour’s “Spring” tide in the 1992 election.

        Let us see what emerges.

  10. @Finbar, This looks like a useful suggestion. When it comes to institutional and procedural reform, I tend to be a Fabian. Many people seem to favour the ‘big bang’ approach (each with thier own varieties and policy agenda) or to focus on reforms that fail to get to the heart of the matter. I favour small incremental steps – mainly because there is a big constituency to be convinced and the inevitable unintended consequences tend to be limited and may be addressed quickly and easily.

  11. @Sharron
    “small incremental steps – mainly because there is a big constituency to be convinced and the inevitable unintended consequences tend to be limited and may be addressed quickly and easily.”

    Surely the events that made Fabianism very influential were the social effects of the two World Wars had on British society – particularly WW2 – which led to the introduction NHS and the expansion of education with the 1944 Education Act?

    This suggests that applying such thinking and action here would be very nice – in normal times. But the EU-ECB-IMF intervention is a clear indication that these are not normal times for this Republic.

    This intervention is the result of the same cast of mind in dealing with our largely self-induced economic crises – small incremental steps in dealing the situation of the banks.

    On the Saturday after the bank guarantee was put in place in Sept 2008, I suggested that one “small incremental step” (a Fabian-type step) to avoid a property-based crash was not been taken – by any government in the previous 35 years ie. implemention of the Kenny report on the control of development land
    “This is the least the ruling class can do now that we, through the Government, have given huge guarantees to sectors that have over-reached their abilities. We do not deserve the hard landing that the self-satisfied networks of Government, financial institutions and property development have now made for us.”

    Another example is the reform of the Senate. In 1979, we – the electorate – voted to give the powers-that-be the constitutional freedom to extent the electorate for the 6 University Senate seats (ie. 10 per cent of the total Senate) to more than two universities ie. TCD/University of Dublin and NUI.

    The “big constituency” was convinced.
    The “inevitable unintended consequences” would have been extremely limited -by any stretch of the imagination, given the way 90 per cent of the Senator obtain their positions.

    Delay, even for such incremental small steps, is the deadliest form of denial of the need for serious institutional reform in how we govern ourselves.

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