Some of the ingredients for political reform, but still missing the most vital one

Posted by David Farrell (December 28, 2010)

To succeed, political reform needs three things to happen: a reason for the reform, leadership to drive it, and engagement by citizens. We have the first; there are early signs of the second; the third is still a long way away.

In an earlier post I pointed up the importance of a major cataclysmic event – such as clear and unimpeachable evidence of large-scale political failure – as a catalyst for political reform. There has to be a reason for a system to change and that reason is its failure. This is where we are now.

But reform also needs an agent – someone to drive it. And this calls for leadership from the top. Not only must the systemic failure be recognized and accepted, it is also very important that senior politicians are prepared to take up the challenge to fix the system. They do this in part because it is in their own vested interests to do so (either because they see potential advantage for themselves, or because they fear backlash if they don’t adopt the mantle of reform), but they can also do this because they see it as the right thing to do – in this debate it is fine time we moved beyond knee jerk cynicism and recognize that not all politicians are bad apples.

The signs of leadership on this issue are emerging, with Fine Gael so far doing most of the heavy lifting. The party has produced several policy documents on political reform (discussed here and here), and today the party leader has reiterated the significance he attaches to this agenda. Labour is also making the right noises, although we’ve yet to see much detail. And in Fianna Fáil there are hopeful signs that senior figures are moving in this direction too (though we’re far from seeing serious policy proposals from this quarter). So, there are early signs of senior party figures talking the political reform talk.

It is the third, most vital, ingredient that is still sorely missing – the citizens. Not that we’re short of plenty of pent up demand from that quarter. But, as we we’ve discussed in previous posts (such as this one), this demand needs to be harnessed by our political leaders; engaged with rather than ignored. Ultimately it will be the citizens who will decide on the fate of any reform proposals in a referendum, so the proposals will have a fairer wind if the citizens are given a real role in their design. Another reason for including citizens in the process is because it would send a signal – at a time when politicians really need to send it – of politicians being prepared to make sacrifices even if it might threaten their future, even of turkeys being prepared to vote for Christmas.

There have been some quite limited signs that politicians have accepted this point: Fine Gael’s New Politics document promised a Citizens’ Assembly to consider changing our electoral system (yet only yesterday the party leader appeared to signal a back track on this); a similar proposal was made (even if virtually ignored and now forgotten) by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Constitution; the Labour party has made vague noises about a constitutional convention whose membership might include ordinary citizens. The notion of some sort of citizen engagement is emerging, but so far it is very faltering.

A quick puff and this spluttering candle could so easily be extinguished.

46 thoughts on “Some of the ingredients for political reform, but still missing the most vital one

  1. David,

    You’re thinking very much in line with “Second Republic” – see – who are organising to campaign both constituencies you identify: (a) to build a movement from below and (b) to lobby on top.

    The aim of the campaign is to see established a “National Convention” (read “Citizen’s Assembly” or similar), independent of the Oireachtas, with an open-ended remit on reform.

  2. “But reform also needs an agent – someone to drive it. And this calls for leadership from the top. Not only must the systemic failure be recognized and accepted, it is also very important that senior politicians are prepared to take up the challenge to fix the system.”

    I feel that the system provides a comfort-zone for the careerist politician, especially
    in relation to gender-representation.

    It suits people to view Political life here as:

    i) A job for life
    ii) A job for the boys

    thats appalling to me, when I always imagined that politics were in a sense ‘vocational’ ,
    it appears not threatening that status-quo is the main aim of Irish politics and thats just
    hidebound to ossification and/or complete voter-alienation !

  3. I doubt if leadership for the kind of change envisaged is going to come from the established political parties. It just would not be credible.

    Someone like Declan Ganley (but not him) would better fit the bill. Or perhaps an ad hoc alliance of Fintan O’Toole, Ganley, David McWilliams, Elaine Byrne and Marc Coleman. Or similar.

    • If the named individuals (and other of that ilk) are prepared to contest the next general election and to secure the election and allegiance of like-minded public representatives with a programme of governance that will secure a Dail majority, all I can say is: off ye go. Given that this is highly unlikely, I’m content to accept whomever voters decide to elect.

      • To the best of my knowledge, both Fintan O’Toole and David McWilliams have said, publicly, that they will not stand.

        Marc Coleman has already founded National Forum I suspect that this group intends to put up candidates in the next election, but I may be misreading the group.

  4. @David Farrell,

    Your post and the previous post by Jane Suitor suggest this forum is getting into its stride and getting to the heart of the matter. The volume and, in general, the quality of political reform-related op-ed pieces – in particular, in the IT – is adding to the momentum. All this is very welcome. A further piece by Michael Marsh in today’s IT
    is a useful addition – even if it is spoiled a little at the end by special pleading for continued funding.

    I also welcome the focus on the requirement for political leadership. This is the vital ingredient to convert the widespread, but diffuse, popular desire for political reform into something of substance. Citizens will become engaged when their public representatives speak clearly to and for them. This, for me, is the key message of the op-ed piece by Maureen Gaffney referenced by Jane Suitor. Michael Marsh, however, gives a sobering and realistic assessment of the difficulties encountered by practising politicians, beset by political calculations to advance their faction at the expense of others and subject to the tyranny of the ‘parish pump’, to give voice to what is required.

    In addition to this encumbrance, three further, intertwined factors that hamper the effort need to be borne in mind. First, since 1998 Germany has been led by politicians born after WWII and these politicians have moved on from the concept of a European Germany to forge a strategic positioning of Germany and the EU – a German Europe – in the context of a multi-polar world that is increasingly defined by the G20 nations. EMU (and the Euro) was the last, and culminating, effort of the generation of EU politicians forged by the WWII – in particular, Mitterand and Kohl. The response by the current generation of political leadership in the EU to the current crisis is a distinct break from the past. Ireland, having prospered briefly as an ‘export platform’ for, primarily, US businesses and then blown all in a domestic property bubble, has placed itself on the wrong side of history. There is a pressing requirement for a revised economic model that reflects the new EU and global reality, but there is little recognition of this and the conventional wisdom is that Ireland must and will ‘export its way to recovery’.

    Secondly, the opinion polls suggest that a left/right divide, similar to that found in most mature, developed democracies, is beginning to emerge in Ireland. On one level, this is welcome – and is long overdue. On another it poses dangers as it blends a naïve perception of the ability of the nation state to resolve economic problems, a flawed understanding of the nature of international capitalism and an atavistic autarkic, isolationist, ‘sinn fein’ (as in the pre-WWI reaction of aspiring nation-states – a la Arthur Griffiths – to imperial capitalism) political response.

    Finally, the apparent widespread desire for political reform encompasses both a desire for reform per se and a plethora of specific policy initiatives. This diffuses the thrust for reform even more.

    In conclusion, and bearing these factors in mind, my view is that the agenda for political reform needs to be focused and limited. Ireland needs to make major strategic and policy decisions over the next few years. The nature of these decisions is very important, but what is more important is that the process for making these decisions – irrespective of what decisions are made – is fit-for-purpose and reflects the informed will and consent of all citizens.

    Despite demand for major institutional and constitutional reform my view is that the existing institutions are broadly sound. The problems have been – and are – with personnel and procedures. I have no desire to be accused of advancing the canonisation of Governor Honohan and financial regulator Elderfield, but this change of personnel at the top coupled with limited reform of theirs powers and responsibilities has dramatically reformed the process and reputation of bank supervision and financial regulation. At the risk of sounding like a broken record I would argue that changes in personnel and procedures are all that are required in the Oireachtas and in other institutions.

    • -“Despite demand for major institutional and constitutional reform my view is that the existing institutions are broadly sound. The problems have been – and are – with personnel and procedures. I have no desire to be accused of advancing the canonisation of Governor Honohan and financial regulator Elderfield, but this change of personnel at the top coupled with limited reform of theirs powers and responsibilities has dramatically reformed the process and reputation of bank supervision and financial regulation. At the risk of sounding like a broken record I would argue that changes in personnel and procedures are all that are required in the Oireachtas and in other institutions.”

      @Paul Hunt
      You’ve previously stated you are a Fabian, in favour of small incremental changes. And that would make sense if our institutions were basically sound and merely needed minor tweaking.

      Personally, I’d be in the opposite camp. It’s just that in my lifetime I’ve already gone through two booms and busts, sensible strategies in the 60s and 90s, followed by reckless good time policies in the 70s and 00s, followed by near or actual IMF interventions and shaves with national bankruptcy. And our record post second world war doesn’t seem all too inspiring either, protectionist policies carried on for far too long (and I’m sure powerful lobby groups benefiting from that). I’d be forgiving of mistakes made when the state was in its infancy and getting on its feet. But after that IMO there has been a long history of poor governance. The ICI debacle with some of the current opposition parties in the 80s reminds me all to much of current bank regulation failures. History seems to keep repeating itself. Perhaps our political setup hasn’t been the only factor. But as far as I’m concerned everything should be on the table at this stage. Even successful well run states should be constantly questioning themselves as to whether things could be done better. And we’re certainly nowhere near being in that category. We should be asking deep and searching questions of ourselves at this stage.

      I don’t want to have to depend on fortune or happy chance ensuring that the right personalities happen to have the reigns of power. There should be checks and balances, built in redundancies and compensating structures, so that our system isn’t so fragile that just one group of people can mess things up so badly.

      Obviously I do see problems with existing structures. These would include:

      As often has been pointed out around here: a Dáil woefully weak in comparison to the Taoiseach/cabinet.

      Lack of vetting/scrutiny of government appointments/patronage. The DPP and judiciary have great independence once appointed. But are we really expected to believe that political affiliations don’t matter in the selection of candidates? The rewarding of party loyalists with all kinds of appointments. Just likely a changing of the guard in the upcoming election.

      Police independence is even weaker. Senior gardaí depending on the whim of cabinet approval for promotions. The UK police are far more independent. Policing is largely financed by local government and supervised by independent local policing authorities. Not surprisingly Westminster politicians have at times been charged and even gone to jail.

      A two tier legal system. It seems to be that power or influence or money makes it likely that one can can get off with a fine or slap on the wrist. Otherwise you’d be liable to getting the book thrown at you. In our system you’ll probably get more harshly treated for not keeping up with your credit union payments or paying your TV licence than large scale corporate embezzlement.

      I also see very little transparency and accountability in public life. If a public official is not up to the job there are almost inevitably no consequences (maybe even a fat golden handshake). The Scandinavian countries are in the main well regulated and governed. I rather like the Swedish setup where there is a powerful and independent parliamentary ombudsman with strong powers to oversee the running of the state, with the power even to act as a special prosecutor against public officials who have failed in their jobs. A rarely used power, more often a warning or admonition is issued, but this power is always there in the background as a threat to give this body real teeth. An excellent example of one arm of the state acting as a properly functioning check/balance on another part. And as Donal O’Brolchain has argued elsewhere on this site, the transparency resulting from Swedish Freedom of Information protections are another powerful check on government power.

      So I’ll concede that some aspects of our institutions might well be functioning satisfactorily, but at this stage I feel every aspect of how this state is run should be up for very close examination.

      • @Finbar,

        Thank you for your considered response. I reckon I’ll probably annoy you a little by expressing agreement with most of the points you make. It’s just that my focus is on the Dail where the ultimate authority of the people is exercised via delegation to TDs. Reform the procedures here in relation to the formulation, scrutiny and implementation of policy and to the actual making of laws and major changes may be effected to address the problems you raise. I have previously likened the Dail and its Cttees to the jury in a court. A jury requires no specialist expertise; its members simply need to have the wit to make a decision on the basis of evidence presented for and against. That is all we need from our elected representatives.

      • @Paul

        No, am not annoyed! 🙂 Am glad we’re in agreement about some of the problems. The recent economic crisis should surely have made these pretty obvious to most people. I guess we differ on the scale of the alterations needed to the system.

        Fine Gael’s reform proposals would be proposing fairly modest changes. But to give a certain amount of credit to FG, they do at least have some fairly concrete policies and have already put in some groundwork. Enda Kenny’s aim to reduce TD numbers by 20 does indicate he’s at least prepared to expend some political capital in this area. I doubt his backbenchers would be all too happy with this idea. It does show a certain amount of resolve (even if I feel it is misplaced in this case).

        There are some useful ideas in the “New Republic” policy document: strengthening of FoI legislation back to roughly 1997 levels (even if a strong constitutional underpinning would be much preferable), a constitutional basis for the ombudsman, whistleblower legislation, some revamping of Dáil procedures, and a strengthening of the committee system, plus giving committees a limited ability to vet public appointments. All baby steps in my eyes, but at least in the right direction. But the ultimate effectiveness of even these small steps will depend on the actual final details.

        Strengthening of the committee system is potentially their strongest proposal IMO. Personally don’t think that in itself will be enough to check an overly strong executive, but it could help to some degree. The UK have a strong committee system. It’s the very least one could expect in a state without strong separation of powers. But the details are crucial. It’s essential that committee chairs and vice chairs be chosen by secret ballot (and not be the gift of whips or party leaders), the actual composition of these committees be chosen by backbenchers themselves. No mention of this anywhere in the FG committee proposals. And committees must be properly resourced with researchers and other staff (with funding not subject to the whims of a minister of finance). Otherwise even giving them constitutional status or overturning Abbeylara may not make much difference.

    • Interesting piece but the conclusion that the Canadian Progressive Conservatives are now back in government means Fianna Fáil can take some hope is misleading.

      The Progressive Conservatives were out of office from 1993 to 2006 and in 1993 went from 256 seats to 2 seats and gained 20 seats in 1997 and fell to 12 in 2000 (the minimum required to remain an official party in the Canadian parliament).

      In 2003 the Progressive Conservatives merged with the Canadian Alliance who had 66 seats to its 12 and they became the Conservative Party of Canada and it is that party which is now back in government.

      To put that into context for Ireland and Fianna Fáil, it would be like Fianna Fáil coming back in 2011 with about 10 seats and the likes of Sinn Fein and other left wing parties going through various unions so that by the election in 2018, there would be a Fianna Fáil party with about 15 seats, but a united Sinn Fein+ party of about 40 seats and then after the 2018 election, Fianna Fáil and Sinn Fein unite into one party, with a completely new name emrging but more importantly it would be Sinn Fein who would be taking over Fianna Fáil.

      So, leaving aside how mind boggling it would be that Sinn Fein (Although I doubt the Canadian Alliance had the same issue of murderers, kneecappers, the disappeared and being funded by the proceeds of bank robbery, prostitution, protection rackets or drugs like IRA/SF) would take over Fianna Fáil, which historically probably makes some twisted logic, the fact that FF would have been out of office for three full terms by itself, would mean there would be no one who was in FF in 2010, and had experience of government, still in the new party.

      Also, the sort of person attracted to the new FF, without the power of patronage, would be totally different to the sort of person who it attracts now.

      Whatever about the achivements of a Fine Gael/Labour government after two or three terms, there is no way on earth that if FF survived that time it would be the same FF we know now or would have the same people involved in it.

      So Michael’s point that even if FF lose as big as the Progressive Conservatives, they can take hope that the PC’s did in time return to government, is not the full story, as the PC party is gone and its members are the junior part of the new Conservative Party, which is dominated by former Reform Party members.

      I think it is impossible for a current member of FF to comprehend the scale of reform it and they would need to undergo in order to attone for its past and as long as it refuses to face up to its past, the harder it is for it to move on. If a new leader emerges from the younger ranks, who never held office, she or he cannot say they are a break with the past and ‘it was nothing to do with me governor’ cannot do so credibly as by their silence and support for the party they were condoning the low standards of others.

      And if the new leader is genuine about a line in the sand and a new FF attitude to ethics and honesty, then they have to explain what it is they are drawing a line in the sand about and that means admitting what went on under FF governments and FF doesn’t do admitting wrong.

      Also, how can FF credibly have a candidate for the Presidency next year as anyone they pick will be tainted by the past.

      Finally, those who think FF will bounce back like Fine Gael did are completely off their heads because FG were not in government and have no responsibility for the IMF, NAMA etc so it was far easier to punish FG for being so full and pointless, and then feel guilty that the punishment went so far, as it will be to feel bad about kicking the likes of FF, the only government in our histroy who had to actually call in the IMF – for all the whinging about GUBU or the 80s, those governments never got so bad that the IMF had to take over.

  5. A List System Would Protect Guilty Ministers
    The disastrous performance of governments over the last decade has given rise to considerable public discussion on electoral reform. Many commentators favour the introduction of a national or regional list system to elect a significant proportion of Dail deputies. Garret Fitzgerald argues in Irish Times,Dec4:” the Dáil would benefit from having some TDs who would not be prisoners of local interests, but who could speak and act in the general national interest. Finally, and in national terms most important of all, the additional-member system would enable political parties to improve the quality of their Dáil representation by placing people with valuable expertise high on their supplementary lists.”
    I believe that such a proposal would further damage our democracy. What are the assumptions behind such a proposal? It is assumed that undue attention to local matters and local constituents is a major factor in the failure of our political system. It is also assumed that “competent people” freed from local duties and accountability would be more likely to act in the national interest. Lurking behind the assumption is the incorrect view that the current crisis was caused by overspending on public services. The facts are that the proportion of GDP spent on public services in Ireland is low by west European standards. What is in fact low is the tax take which places a light burden on the rich and subsidises the investments of the rich with huge tax breaks in accordance with the precepts of neo-liberal economics.
    This, together with trusting to competition and consequent failure to regulate the banks, caused the current crisis. In a word greed was deified. The main beneficiaries of FF/PD rule were the very rich who have very few votes.
    The board of Directors of the Central Bank in the period 2003-2007 (which included a business and a trade union representative) were highly competent people with no local “parish pump” duties. Yet they failed miserably by allowing Irish Banks to borrow an additional 50% of GDP abroad in that period. Were the ministers who should have appropriately directed the Central Bank so overburdened with “parish pump” duties that they missed what was happening? In fact ministers have well staffed personal offices to deal with such matters as well as many local activists. They were in a position to concentrate on national affairs. Were these ministers incompetent? There is no reason to believe that the current cabinet is less competent than its predecessors. The fact that they led the country to destruction is not principally due to incompetence. Ministers had a civil service, the Economic and Social Research Institute and financial consultants reports available to them. Were the esteemed researchers of the ESRI so overburdened with constituency work that their warnings of danger were mild, muted, and full of caveats? I think not. Are they incompetent? Many professors and business PhDs staff the Institute. Would it have helped if many of them were in the Dail and in the cabinet via a list system? I think not. There is no reason to believe as Garret Fitzgerald argues that via a list system” the Dáil would benefit from having some TDs who would not be prisoners of local interests, but who could speak and act in the general national interest.” Many who were not prisoners of local interests acted in a more irresponsible way than those who were!
    For a real explanation I believe we should return to the wise old saying : “Money is the root of all evil”. In a society where there is a vast disparity of wealth, it is inevitable that the majority of leading people (not just politicians) in society will be seduced into supporting the interests of the wealthy or at best remaining silent about the sins of the rich. It was ever thus. Leading people including journalists, professors, economic experts etc, tend to be sucked in to a cosy consensus of the rich in this form of society. “Dig-outs” by wealthy individuals or by banks and businesses may or may not be a factor in this. Absorption into the life-style of the rich and the adulation of their “betters” is sufficient for some. As they say in Tipperary: “With some people, a little goes a long way”. Great credit is due to academics such as Morgan Kelly and Tom O’Connor who stood out against the consensus (Long live tenure in our universities!)
    Because the disparity of wealth is greater in Ireland than in most European Countries, the blandishments of the rich are more effective. When this tendency intersected with the flaws in the EU and in the Euro zone the outcome was disastrous. It is no accident that the main crisis flash-points are Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain-the less developed countries. Cheap money was available in the Eurozone. The rich of the less developed countries grabbed it, drove up asset values and enriched themselves. The Irish rich and their political allies acted with outrageous excess.
    Short of fundamental social change to extirpate income disparity, there are some changes that could be introduced as a counterweight to the blandishments of the rich. A list system would worsen the situation by protecting ministers from the anger of the people. No matter what safeguards are put in place, it is inevitable that senior ministers would head the list and unless there was a complete voting collapse, the majority of the cabinet would be re-elected while the backbenchers suffered the consequences of bad government. Under the present system several ministers will rightly lose their seats or will be driven into retirement before the election.
    Banning political donations and state funding of election candidates would help but only slightly. The reduction of the Dail term to three years would help greatly. The current government would have already been removed under such a system before they signed up to the disastrous EU/IMF deal. A means should be devised, a popular initiative, under which citizens through an official petition could call a general election. A situation in which a government with 13% support can conclude a deal which could impoverish generations is intolerable.
    Finally there is a reform which is justified in its own right, though it is unlikely to protect us from bad governments. Currently Dail deputies are paid basic salary from the date they register until the Dail is dissolved even if they never attend. Recent changes affect expenses only. Dail deputies should have the same attendance regime as their civil service pay analogue in order to be paid salary. They should be required to register a vote, if only an abstention, on all stages of legislation. Pairing should only be allowed with the permission of the Ceann Comhairle in accordance with reasonable attendance criteria. This would end deprioritisation of the legislative function whether due to constituency pressures or the lure of the lecture circuit for former Taoisigh. Unfortunately, It is not surprising that politicians and former politicians never raise the matter of compulsory attendance of the Dail as a protection against undue competition at local level between deputies of the same party.
    Never waste a good crisis! This is believed to be the motivation of the ruling elite in cutting the minimum wage. The dilution of popular democracy by the proposal of a list system of election could have the same motivation.

  6. The only reform thats needed in gov. is total transparency. when people can see exactly whats being said, by whom, whats being spent, where and how much, all documented forms of income elected officials have, charges brought for undocumented income, media writing in plain english, acedemia talking to people as people not as other acedemics.(see above)(yes, I read it). while there does exist a starbucks set talking off shore accounts and vacations in the alps, most citizens are plain, ordinary, hard working honest folk, who want a straight answer to a straight question. Irish people are the employers of the Irish gov. and deserve the respect of same. Spend money in our name, show us where it went and to whom, make deals in our name, let us see the deal. Get rid of freedom of info act(exept where security is concerned) and shine a light all gov. dealings. then you’ll get your citizen involvement.

  7. What we need, need not be “New Politics”, but a new attitude by politicians to Politics. Surely the old brigade have learned by past mistakes & courage is needed to change & ditch the “cute whore” attitude. If the old will not change,how long before a new generation of Politicians with the morals of the bulk of the electorate come to the fore ?. Too long!. Time we have not got & our young educated people will not stand & watch as fools dig deeper to hide the truth. We can only live in hope of an new era where morality & not legality will come to the fore & justice & law will have the same meaning.

  8. ‘Irish Politics, a profound disconnect ?’

    I reckon we are as close as it is possible to voter-alienation.
    Thus a political vacuum. I do not hear anything about real
    reform from the opposition parties and imo the Greens are
    sullied by association with engrained and habitual corruption.

    In fact the bar is so low now that Irish politics feels both useless
    and degraded imo. Maybe Irish political parties should recognise
    that there should be something to pass on to the next generation
    and the Dáil is not a hobbyist corner for games-playing and

    (just a thought about political failure)

    Afterall, we may be living longer but some parties seem to think that
    this provides them with an excuse to ossify the whole system in
    order to provide what appears to be a lovely warm nest for their
    own personal use- the lack of reference to the voter, beyond
    seeking a ‘mandate’ appears to be part and parcel of that disdain
    and/or contempt for us , the people who are politicians allegedly

  9. It may have been mentioned elsewhere but what would happen if term limitation existed for TDs and Senators? Say a gap of five years after ten years in the Oireachtas (i.e. not just switching from Dáil to Seanad). A significant percentage of TDs would know they were not getting re-elected and might act in the interests of the country. Or is the fear of not being re-elected all that keeps them from misbehaving?

    • I agree with you about term limits. It would certainly have the effects you mentioned. the only way that can be changed is from within. I did’nt come on here to push any agenda, but I am running in next election as ind. for w/meath longford. have to at least try change from within.

  10. John flynn
    Yes, new politics, but dont expect a new attitude to gov. from “the old brigade”. All they have learned is how to do it better next time. we need new T.D’s with good advisors to spread the evidence (like a court mentioned above) and make dicisions based on the best advice available (jury, mentioned above). mix this with transparency, so the people know exactly whats going on (except where secrecy is vital) and we will have government of the people, for the people, by the people. all the hi falooting debating in the world does’nt mean a thing without the PEOPLE. electorate involvement can only be achieved by involving the electorate, who are apethetic, tired and beaten, by politicains, media, and acedemia, ranting on for hours while saying nothing. give us the truth and the facts, and we, the electorate are perfectly capable of making a good, informed dicision.

    • David.
      Agree very much with your sentiments, but it is a mighty jump from where we are now, & how long will it take to get that far. If we cannot get a huge change immediately how long will a gradual shift take to show results, & we how long can the country afford to wait,I,for one don’t honestly know.

  11. Are we to just take FG’s word on it that they will push through reform after elected? Shouldn’t we be able to base our vote on an assessment of what FG has done in opposition on the issues it does have control over.

    For example, not one single elected FG rep, be they TD, Sen, MEP or Cllr publishes receipts for their expenses to prove they have been incurred, this is important as when you check the expenses published on the Oireachtas website, it is amazing how many TDs from different parties and different parts of the country claim to have incurred the exact same expenses. Nor do FG reps provide information on who owns the local offices they rent – I would assume where possible the TD uses taxpayer money claimed via expenses to pay the mortgage on a building they bought to then rent to themselves, which means the taxpapyer is paying for that capital asset as well as the Dublin house on top of the salary and pension.

    Yet although FG has full control over this information ofr itself, it has done nothing, not one single thing, to make this information transparent – the only reason being its reps are guilty of lining their pockets as those in other parties.

    Page 28 of its New Politics policy states it will ‘publish annual audited accounts for the Fine Gael party on the Web from 2010’ – well tomorrow is the last day of 2010 and where are the accounts?

    Then there are the actual policies themselves, most of them are far too vague.

    The scale of the failure of Irish governance, regardless of whether FG was in power or not, is so complete that FG and L are as liable, albeit for different reasons, as are FF/G. FF/G are liable for actively causing the failure, while FG and L are liable for failing to make a strong enough case to the public to vote for FG and L.

    Yet the New Politics document doesn’t, in my opinion, go remotely far enough in its aims.

    There is not a single mention of reforming the salaries and benefits, including retrospectively of the establishment.

    It doesn’t committ to funding BA/MA/PhDs to encourage long term civil/public service careers and to equip the civil/public sector to be able to provide the quality services people deserve and to not farm every single issue out to a committee/quango or some firm owned by a friend of the minister – departments should have the expertise in house to be able to assess complex issues and provide the arguments for and against and to justify whatever decision is made.

    Nor do I see that every vacancy on any board or quango etc is to be published so anyone can apply. Instead it just says on p22 that such appointments will be vetted by a Dáil committee.

    No mention of the whipping system in the Dáil, nowhere near far enough with the FOI – we should be copying the Swedish FOI almost word for word and banning the use of post it notes – there is nothing that should be noted by a civil/public servant that needs to be kept secret.

    Nor does it mention the actual file provided for an Oireachtas question should also be provided.

    It’s clear a lot of work went into the policy paper and it’s a lot more than any other party has provided but are we not right to demand a far higher standard from political parties given the scale of their failure? On that basis I don’t think FG has come anywhere close to providing the scale of reforming detail that is required and that is because FG has the same mindset as the rest of the establishment, I would contend those who sit around the table and keep their head down while others are wrecking the place are as guilty. Those who sat at Haughey/Ahern and Cowen cabinets but said nothing are as guilty as those who were gutting the governance framework.

    Mary Harney and John Gormley, with their parties have done as much damage to Irish politics as Haughey/Ahern and Cowen and their cronies have.

    FG also doesn’t do much to spell out a ‘vision’ – no goals to be met on day one, week one, month one, year one, term one. If Kenny is to live up to the expectation then he needs to start doing politics differently and playing his part is re-educating the Irish public that they too have a responsible to change their own attitude.

  12. again….. total government financial transparency would solve sooooo many of the problems that everybody is talking about. We need people who, if elected, will sign a contract with the irish people, setting out, in plain english, what they will do, or work to do, while in gov. I have done this and posted on facebook page “dave d’arcy for dail eirean”. I challenge all candidates to do the same. I am just a regular guy whose sick and tired of same old crap and am trying to do something for change. Would appreciate any and all support.

  13. Engaging citizens is indeed vital. Yet at the moment we don’t even allow Irish citizens to vote, unless they happen to be in Ireland on the day the election is called and able to turn up in person at the relevant polling station. Until we allow and sincerely encourage all citizens to vote, we will continue to be mere residents, taxpayers, consumers, bystanders… Clean up the electoral register, provide postal voting, voting by procuration, voting in Irish embassies, votes for citizens abroad, Sunday voting, etc. etc. Any other efforts at engagement will ring hollow until we have that.

    • I’m sorry. I don’t buy this stuff about engaging citizens. People fought and died to secure the right to a secret ballot. People are perfectly free to choose not to cast a ballot – or to spoil their ballot. But if they fail to cast a ballot because they just couldn’t be bothered or because they couldn’t organise their oh so busy lives to include a trip to the polling station, then they should have no complaint about the nature of governance their fellow (voting) citizens select.

      • Who fought and died for a secret ballot? I thought people fought and died for independence.

        I did not suggest compulsory voting, just some simple measures that are in place in most modern democracies that would help level the playing field slightly so that all Irish citizens have a more or less equal opportunity to spoil their ballot or stay at home. At the moment that is not the case.

      • I don’t think this discussion is about the people who could care less, or don’t bother voting. I think it’s about the 50,000 who got off thier asses and marched through the streets for something, anything, to be done by thier gov. engaging these people could only have a positive effect on the country. The internet is the perfect tool to bring the views of ordinary people to the fore, Instead of Galway tent politics as usual. Just because the tent is gone does’nt mean back room politicking has stopped. anyway, Paul, you’re here so that says something about citizen engagement.

  14. This forum provides an excellent opportunity for citizen engagement – and, again, many thanks to the founders, but the next government won’t be elected here. All we can hope is that something will be added that might inform some voters to make better choices when they cast their ballots.

  15. Well, I’m outta here. Ya’ll talk a great game but really have nooo clue how to fix anything. You talk about engaging voters but not one of you have engaged with me and I am the average voter. Am i too stupid or too smart for you to engage with, i fear you think the former. I am from Coolock, left school at 16, emigrated at 22, returned at 40, been self employed for 25 years and lost business due to reccession, how does that fit with your average citizen demographic? While you talk of second republics, Fabianism, political reform, Canadien progressive party,and politicians prepared to make sacrafices, Rome burns.
    engaging the citizens takes more than talking heads. I will probably get destroyed but I’m running for election with unemployment allowance as my only income. If you want to actually do something more than talk, support me and I gaurantee I will work for all reforms I feel need to be done for good of country

    • continued from above,
      If not me, then go out and campaign for someone who you think will make the kind of changes that need to be made. Someone who will seek advice from both sides of an arguement and make an informed decision to benifit Ireland first, constituancy second. All reforms will come eventually but the first thing we need to do is get rid of our hierarchial system that we have today. Nepotism has sunk this country thats why I call for a clean sweep of all career (changed from professional) politicians out. The Dempsey and Ahern dynasties was a good start, but we need more. The Lenihan/o’rourke and Healy Rea(ff) dynasties would also be a step in the right direction. ttyl.

      • Apologies for any of the sh1te I’ve spouted here! 🙂 You are a better man than me for actually *doing* something. There’s no way I could face going forward for an election I’ll admit. Have helped with some campaigning (knocking on doors, handing out leaflets etc.) for a friend (running as an independent) in the past. Tough going. He got pretty much wiped out. But hopefully independents may do better this time. Anyway fair dues to you for trying. May or may not be of interest, but there were some people trying to get an independent candidates’ grouping off the ground (see “Independents Movement of Ireland (IMI)” at

      • Apologies for any hifalutin’ sh1te I’ve spouted here 🙂 You’re a better man than me for actually *doing* something. There’s no way I could face going forward for an election I’ll admit. Have helped with some campaigning (knocking on doors, handing out leaflets etc.) for a friend (running as an independent) in the past. Tough going. He got pretty much wiped out (couple of hundred votes). But hopefully independents may do better this time. Anyway fair dues to you for trying. There are very few enough people prepared to go forward for election (and I’m not one of them). And something that may or may not be of interest, but there were some people trying to get an independent candidates’ grouping off the ground (see “Independents Movement of Ireland (IMI)” at

    • Did’nt you read anything I said? Country before constituancy, Get rid of the Healy Rea’s and Lowery’s who hold Ireland to ransom to line thier own pockets. We dont need any more ring roads, airports, or casino’s. We’ve made a good start ending nepotism, voting for someone cause grand dad fought in 1916. Well my grand dad fought 1915 at Suvla Bay because he believed in lying bullshit career politicians. Don’t you understand that there are still people out there who actually want to do whats right for the country and be politicains at the same time, but it cant be done under the party system as they are all constrained by the “whip” e.g. George Lee. I would much rather be a defeated independant than a minister in a party. Then, when I complain and someone says “what are you going to do about it” I can say that at least I tried. So, no barrels here my friend, no barrels.
      Print this out and keep it, and if elected I pledge that I will try my damndest to achieve all that i have written in these pages and then more, if i dont, call me out. Look on the bright side, if i’m elected, one less person on the dole.

  16. Thank you finbar for your for your encouragement and the web site, i’m willing to try anything if the country needs a “party” to vote for, but only a party that allows me to keep all my indepedance.

  17. I am unable to access the Lecture of David Farrell to the Trinity Political Science students. Could you post it please David?

    What problem are we trying to remedy?
    All agree that the political system has failed.
    But what caused it to fail?
    I believe I have demolished any suggestion that it was principally due to local clientelism in my earlier comment
    If there is to be any agreed remedy there has to be some consensus on a diagnosis.
    I believe that failure was due to overwhelming influence on politicians, senior civil servants, members of board of Central Bank, ESRI top tier, National Economic and Social Council members etc by WEALTHY PEOPLE acting in their own selfish interest.
    Does anybody agree or disagree with this?
    I am glad that Michael Marsh(TCD) agrees that a list system would not solve the problem.
    To get some structure into this discussion,can we concentrate on what the cause of the political failure was before we attempt to propose a solution?

    • Sorry Paddy, but have you been living under a rock. Nepotism, cronyism, cute hurism, old boyism, jobs for the boysism, ass kissing, all contributed to our demise. A perfect storm that was inevitable. We need to legislate transparency in all financial dealings in Gov. (except the obvious) from td’s allowances to bids on roads. find out exactly why a 7k distance is covered by a 13k road? Who owned all the land, how much each acre cost etc etc. An informed electorate is the bane of politicains (paraphrase) someone very smart said that(lol)

  18. I have now found the paper delivered by David Farrell to the Magill summer School
    “The essence of it is in a single paragraph:
    What we need is a better understanding of the nature of the problem as one that is demand-led rather than supply-led. If we want to reduce the constituency
    supply provided by our Dáil deputies then we need to address the demands made on
    them by us – the citizens. There are a number of shortcomings in our political and
    institutional structures that cause us to demand such high degrees of constituency
    service of our politicians – two in particular that should be singled out (Gallagher and
    Komito 2010). First, there are problems in the public service-citizen interface that is particularly acute in the health and welfare areas. It is no wonder, therefore, why so many of us call on our TDs to help sort out problems, bottlenecks, snags in the system
    – snags that really shouldn’t have to arise. This is compounded by the second problem, which is the weakness of local government in Ireland. One of the curiosities
    of Irish politics is that we have at one and the same time one of the most decentralized
    (constituency-based) political systems in the world and also one of the most
    centralized (weak and under-resourced local government) – to paraphrase: the worst
    of both worlds. As rational actors Irish citizens have no choice but to knock on the doors of the TDs to sort out their problems. The proposal therefore is that we address seriously the shortcomings in our
    public services and the weakness of our local government. Steps along this road would do much more than electoral reform to fix the more unsavoury aspects of Irish politics.”
    Essentially David is saying that local authority services and general public services should be improved so that constituents would not feel the need to approach their Dail Deputy to solve individual difficulties
    These services should, indeed, be improved and should be made more helpful to the general public. But the suggestion that this would create a situation where the current catastrophy would not have happened lacks credibility.
    would the effect of this be that more professional people would enter politics? Would this necessarily improve matters?
    Michael McDowell is an eminent senior counsel. Yet he wanted an even more neo-liberal approach than Bertie Ahern! Mary Harney is a grduate and an extremely able woman. But her neo-liberal policies (extreme free-market capitalism) like those of Dessie O Malley (solicitor) were disastrous for Ireland. Brian Cowen is a solicitior and a skillful politician. Charlie Mccreevy is a professional accountant. Brian Lenihan has a very strong academic background (Cantab) yet he made the entire country responsible for private financial mistakes in the general bank guarantee!
    The NESC did not blow the whistle though ESRI, IBEC and ICTU were represented on it!
    There is no reality to the current discussion.
    I find the approach of Healy-Rae and Lowry offensive. But to suggest that local clientelism is the main problem is to cover up for the entire Irish establishment.
    What was the cause of the failure of the political system ? Until there is some consensus on this there can be no rational discussion of a solution.

  19. @Paddy
    The paper you quote from was simply addressing the question of whether changing our electoral system would fix things. Like most other political scientists I argue that a new electoral system in and of itself would fix nothing. *If* the view is that reducing localism in Irish politics would help, then all I was trying to say in my Macgill paper (see the MacGill tab on this website) is that rather than dumping STV we’d be far better off improving local government and the connection between public service and citizens (i.e. fixing demand rather than supply). But not for a moment would I suggest that THIS is the solution that those of us calling for political reform seek. Nor am I so arrogant to suggest that I know what that answer is. The point that I and my colleagues have been stressing is that the solution is to be found from a process of engagement and deliberation involving the citizens.

  20. My question was: can we agree on the cause of the problem? The entire Irish establishment failed including politicians and,yes,academic economists with the exception of Morgan Kelly and Tom O’Connor. It is a huge development in Irish History.
    Surely political science departments at third level can reasonably be expected to help in diagnosing the cause of the problem. One of the duties of the academic is to be a public intellectual advising the population on matters relevant to his/her specialism.
    Is it possible to focus the discussion on the diagnosis, before we consider the remedy?

    • It’s not just the establishment – the calibre of politicians reflects the people who vote for them in the first place and we’ll see, if there are candidates who refuse to be a TD messenger boy, how they get on with the electorate.

      There is no sector of Irish society who is blame free for this mess.

  21. Reply to desmond Fitzgerald
    Ministers, politcians, academic economists, ESRI professors, Department of Finance Officials, IBEC Leaders, Trade union leaders, Central bank governors are all paid to conduct affairs at national level.Every organ of the establishment was assuring the ordinary citizen that the banks were sound and well capitalised. Newspapers, radio and television played a powerful role in this respect. It is profoundly undemocratic to place equal blame on the general citizenry for the national catastrophy that has been created.
    So it is the fault of the people that they elected the wrong politicians? At the last general election the Labour Party proposed a tax cut without any compensating revenue gathering measure. the Fine Gael policy was,if anything, more extremely free market than that of Fianna Fail. No mainstream party questioned the fundamental policy of the outgoing government. Nobody proposed to adequately tax the assets or incomes of the rich to replace revenue from transactional taxes on property. The citizenry had no choice.
    The vast majority of irish people have no responsibility for the catastrophy. Spreading the blame to the victims is the oldest right wing ruse in politics.

    • “The vast majority of irish people have no responsibility for the catastrophy.” What? Did none of them vote for the policies that the government pursued? Paddy, you stood in the last election and you were opposed to social partnership because you wanted all public servants to be paid even more than they were, but what were your revenue generating proposals then? I don’t hold that everyone is equally responsible but the numbers with entirely clean hands is much smaller than you make it out to be.

      You want a cause of the problem, money was spent and lent that didn’t exist to bid up the price of things that were not worth their price tags by just about everyone in the country who was buying anything by choice.

      You’ve been running about the last few months spamming 3rd level researchers (without offering them the ability to unsubscribe from your newsletter nor telling anyone how you came into possession of those internal 3rd level mailing lists, something the Data commissioner would be interested in hearing about I’m sure) telling them that you’re going to be their champion when the truth is this merely another round in the proxy fight of a trade union leadership membership measuring exercise that the TUI, the ASTI and the INTO engage in during each election cycle.

    • Let’s be honest here, the reason so many officials of the state were put into the positions they hold/held was because of the calibre of people elected by the people to act on their behalf in their first place.

      If we elected honest people to government, they would act honestly, are we really supposed to believe the cronyism of Anglo etc would have happened if FG and L were in power – argue all you want about their policies but don’t try tell me we’d be in this mess now if they had been in government.

      The rot that lead to where we are now, goes right the way back to the sort of people in the 1960s who thought CJH and his type were a breath of fresh air.

      When CJH was buying his first mansion with only a TDs income, my parents were buying a large family home and received a letter from the Revenue asking them to prove how they could afford it as it didn’t telly with my father’s income – this in the age before computers. So they had to provide copies of wills and probate to prove they could afford it due to an inheritance. Yet CJH wasn’t required to do the same because the Revenue felt it wasn’t ‘approriate’ well maybe if the official who took that gutless decision, had been more honest and exposed CJH, we’d have been saved a lot of pain.

      But then again, Lynch lacked the integrity and ethics of permanently remove CJH or to end the TACA fundraising process or to expose the issues around the Arms Trail – it took Cosgrave to do that.

      The mess we are in now didn’t happen overnight or even over one term of government, any more than a house falls down overnight from dry rot – it takes time but someone is responsible for not maintaining the house in the first place. It’s no different with politics or life in general.

      Also, with regard to the promises made by FG and L at the last election, they made those based on data provided to them by the Dept of Finance which they took in good faith. I don’t suppose it ever crossed their mind the scale of incompetence within the Dept would be as it is.

      But, even if they had been given the right info and had made a truthful and honest manifesto do you think any of the Irish people would have supported them? No, these being the same people who flocked to CJH even knowing he was a crook and who still flocked to Ahern even though they knew of his backhanders.

      The majority of Irish people have no interest in sharing the pain or facing up to their role in creating this mess, just like they pretend it was nothing to do with them that so many children and women were abused by the Church; the Irish people want someone else to pay more tax or to have to lose some of their wealth but not them.

      The scale of denial among the Irish public is breathtaking but sort of understanding. Decades of brainwashing won’t change easily. It’s not just Ireland of course, you look at former Communist countries and how easily the old elite who caused so much pain in those countries was allowed to morph into the new elite and never be held to account – as it suited everyone to pretend they were the innocents who never benefited from the system and holding them to account might reveal that in fact more people were involved in perpetuating the system, they claimed to be against, that was understood.

      So by all means hold the officials to account and change the system but don’t pretend the people who elected the people who put the officials in place are innocent.

      FF/G/PD and Indp have all played a role in allowed this mess develop and get even worse, while Fine Gael/L and SF are to blame for failing to put their case strongly enough to the public.

  22. Reply to Desmond Fitzgerald. You say
    “If we elected honest people to government, they would act honestly, are we really supposed to believe the cronyism of Anglo etc would have happened if FG and L were in power – argue all you want about their policies but don’t try tell me we’d be in this mess now if they had been in government.”
    With respect Desmond this is a mere assertion which is not backed by any evidence. Indeed your confidence in FG/Lab is not shared by the majority of the population. The unpublished data in the most recent IPSOS/MRBI Poll gives a snapshot of the public view.
    Vincent Browne (Irish times Dec 22) says
    “What I thought was the most revealing disclosure of the survey – a facet which got little attention even in this newspaper – was that 59 per cent of those polled said that if Fine Gael and Labour had been in office for the last six months our economic situation would not be better than it is, but about the same – a further 9 per cent said it would be worse. And even more revealing, 50 per cent of those who said they were going to vote Fine Gael and 68 per cent who said they were going to vote Labour thought the situation would be no better or worse were either of those two in office.”
    The public know very well that the entire Irish Establishment was carried away with quick self-enrichment and adopted the self-justifying ideology of neo-liberalism. To put it more colloquially: ” the whole world knows that the banks, finance houses and legal profession are rotten with Fine Gaelers”, as they say in Tipperary.
    I have no intention of replying to the low level abuse and argumenta ad hominem coming from Daniel Sullivan. I have too much respect for this website and this important discussion.

    • Paddy, you were commenting in respect of the policy platforms of FG and Labour at the last election. ” At the last general election the Labour Party proposed a tax cut without any compensating revenue gathering measure. the Fine Gael policy was,if anything, more extremely free market than that of Fianna Fail.” I fail to see how referring to your own platform in respect of that election is either “low level abuse and argumenta ad hominem” though I recognise the little dig by the of use of Latin to remind the person from one of the ‘new’ universities that we should really know our place and not speak when our betters are talking.

      If you’re going to be a critic of the last election, which you were contest in then your own platform is open for discussion.

      As for the last paragraph, do you deny that you’ve been sending 3rd level researchers unsolicited material with no option for them to unsubscribe?

  23. Desmond FitzGerald writes :

    “But then again, Lynch lacked the integrity and ethics of permanently remove CJH or to end the TACA fundraising process or to expose the issues around the Arms Trail – it took Cosgrave to do that.”

    Let us look at some little gems :

    The Arms Trial :

    Mr Haughey and his co-accused, the Kellys and Albert Lukyx were acquitted by a jury. A subsequent investigation by Michael Heney, broadcast on RTE, which included interviews with surviving jurors, proved – beyond reasonable doubt – that the accused people were acting legally, under government instructions.

    Anyone who saw the recent documentary “Voices From the Grave” could reasonably conclude that an armed defence of innocent nationalist civilians attacked by British State Forces was an appropriate Dublin government response.

    Mr Liam Cosgrave had a different opinion. He went to Taoiseach Jack Lynch with British Government supplied information about the gun-running.

    In government, he turned a blind eye to the the real perpretators of the Dublin-Monaghan bombings – leading to the deaths of 33 civilians. When the dogs in the street knew Loyalist paramilitaries were responsible – probably aided by British State Forces – the Fine Gael leader made a state broadcast attacking what organisation – yes, you guessed it, the IRA!

    Mr Cosgrave topped this performance by, for example, voting against his own government’s very limited attempt to legalise contraceptives, and staunchly defended Patrick “Thundering Disgrace” Donegan after a drunken rant directed at President Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh at an army parade. By 1977 most people were repelled by this government and handed it a humiliating defeat.

    Any lessons here for the present?

    Look no further than Enda Kenny’s resolute refusal to legislate on abortion, some 18 years after the Supreme Court X Case Judgement, or the recent damning European Court of human Rights Judgment.

    Enda can again draw inspiration from Liam’s government, which refused to implement an equal pay directive originating from the European Union.

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