Want reform? Then make it happen!

By Matt Wall, May 3rd, 2011.

In the recent election campaign, political reform finally entered the agenda of mainstream Irish politics. Given the awful political and economic mess in which the country currently finds itself, this is not surprising. However, political promises during an election campaign are not always a reliable guide as to the actions that will be taken in office. In fact, anyone who read the previous program for government in 2007 might feel that they’ve heard similar promises before. The FF/Green/PD 2007 program for government contained promises to improve local government, to foster civic participation, and to pursue electoral and political funding reform via the establishment of an electoral commission. Needless to say, these words turned out to be utterly empty in terms of practical consequences.

The latest program for government contains a lengthy section on political reform – altogether it takes up 13 pages of that 64 page document. If you want to be statistical about it, you might say that reform is just over 20% of the new government’s agenda and mandate. To date, however, the new government has dedicated far, far less than 20% of its consideration and personnel to the issue of political reform. After all the campaign talk from both parties of streamlined Oireacthas procedures, slimmed down and strengthened committee systems, Citizen Assemblies and constitutional conventions; nobody seems to be identifiably in charge of actually implementing political reform in the FG-Lab government . There’s an old rule in institutional design: when everyone’s responsible, no one is responsible, leading to deadlock and stasis in decision-making. Sadly, that rule looks set to apply to the government’s implementation of the political reform agenda.

The problem we face now is that reform doesn’t always happen when parties write about it in their manifestos, nor when coalitions agree to it in their program for government. Reform takes ongoing political commitment, and the allocation of substantial attention and resources to the reform process. The reform process itself requires careful planning – for a constitutional reform to be legitimate there is a higher threshold of public acceptability required than for normal laws and administrative decisions. The issues involved in constitutional reform are complex, and the sad debacle of the United Kingdom’s campaign on adopting AV (discussed by Prof. David Farrell, here) illustrates the perils of presenting the public with false alternatives that have been pre-negotiated by partisan political elites.

Many people, including the editors of this site, have called for the establishment of an Irish Constitutional Citizen Assembly to address the issue of political reform in a truly democratic way. I acknowledge that doing this properly represents a huge challenge, but feel that there are certain reforms that many could potentially agree on as improvements to the status quo. Fundamentally, we have to believe that our fellow citizens are capable of making decisions when it comes to politics, even when we don’t agree with every decision made. However, and this point is absolutely crucial, political reform has to be demanded by the Irish electorate if it is to happen. Canvassers have to hear questions about political reform on the doorsteps before political parties will take it seriously.

As long as the people calling for reforms are isolated voices, without any organizational or political unity, it’s a pretty safe bet that they will go unheeded. Those interested in achieving political reform therefore have to get involved and exert some influence on their fellow citizens and on their government. The good news is that you don’t have to do this on your own. Several groups aimed at encouraging public participation in Irish political reform have recently emerged.

The ‘We the Citizens’ movement is one such group (and one in which several of this site’s editors are actively involved). It has organized a series of ‘Citizens’ Events’ around the country in May and June (see: http://www.wethecitizens.ie/for details) which will be open discussions of reform proposals. Other similar groups with can be found at the following web addresses: http://www.2nd-republic.ie/site/, election2011.ie, irelandicelandproject.com, http://www.republic2011.com , resetireland.com, telluswhy.ie, upstart.ie, and wikipol.ie. They all have slightly different approaches but share a common desire to see Irish citizens empowered to reform their own political system. Having talked to the members of several of these groups, I am convinced that they are united by a desire to make Ireland a better place for all of us to live in and to make our political system a source of pride, rather than one of shame.

If you want to be a part of Irish political reform there are many groups that you can choose to join and events that you can participate in. I live in the Netherlands, for instance, but I’ll be flying home in June to participate in the ‘We the Citizens’ Tallaght event, and will be meeting to chat with members of several of these groups. So, if you’re living in Ireland, there’s no excuse not to get involved! If you’re living outside of Ireland, the internet is opening up novel ways of participating – the ballotbox.ie project is a brilliantly executed example of this, and I have found that most of the members of the groups listed above are open to email and Skype exchanges.

Also, many of them are trying hard to make the experience friendly and engaging: one inspiring initiative is the 2nd Republic’s network of ‘Constitution book clubs’. These are small groups whose members can come together in a relaxed enviroment to understand and talk about parts of the constitution, and to consider changes that might be made. These groups are open to newcomers, and try to provide a sense of empowerment and understanding of the issues, rather than the confusion and impotence that seems to characterise the way so many citizens feel about politics in Ireland.

We often think of citizenship as more a matter of rights than of responsibilities. However, a citizen, in order to be worthy of that title, is sometimes obliged to participate in the political life of their state. And a democracy, in order to be so-called, must facilitate citizen involvement in setting the rules of the political game. This year, across the Arab world, citizens have demonstrated incredible courage in asserting their political freedoms. In Ireland, thankfully, participation in politics only requires will and initiative. I would therefore urge all of the readers of this site to play their part either by contributing to the work of existing citizen empowerment movements or by founding their own groups. Click the links to the groups in this post and get in touch with them – it’s literally that easy, so just do it!

P.S., any other organizations or groups not mentioned above – feel free to make yourselves known in the comments section of this post, and I’ll update to include your web details.

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62 thoughts on “Want reform? Then make it happen!

  1. only of 1 those got €630,000 chuck of funding, its seems it will be most active due to that factor rather then spontaneous citizen participation as matt wall suggest, kinda doubting their acting as citizens but as “pre-negotiated by partisan political elite”

    • The organisers of we the citizens are explicitly non-partisan, Steve. They aren’t running for election – that’s a major difference. Also, how would you suggest running an organisation without any funding?

      • Alice, thanks. Twitter is clalrey one of the spaces where citizens are debating the issues thrown-up it isn’t the only one, and as you say, it is referenced to much in the media and political coverage (and references this back again in worrying circularity). I agree with you though that it doesn’t cut it and our leaders need to listen to much more outside their bubble, and find ways to bring voices into the debate in a way that will properly involve us in the decisions that are taken.

  2. saw NI candidate comment that nobody brought up the AV referendum to him during their election canvass, one presumes he brought it up then? (probably not).

    don’t blame the pawns

  3. Matt, very thoughtful post. There is a huge danger that the political reform will slide off the agenda due to indifference and it’s important to build momentum.

    I think the “We the Citizens” initiative is probably the strongest of the citizen engagement projects not only because of its funding, but also by virtue of the fact that it’s not rooted in any pre-existing interest group or indeed political party. This is essential for any citizen engagement project, given that for any proposals to have real legitimacy, it has to come from an organisation that explicitly says it has no ulterior motive. I think that is definitely one major advantage of the overseeing panel of academics, as well as the fact that it can draw on international expertise of those that have been involved with similar projects in other countries.

    It’s a hugely exciting project, and I really think people should seriously consider making the effort to sign up to one of the regional meetings.

    • Thanks Sein, as you know, I’m a very thoughtful man 🙂

      I think all of the groups have something to recommend them – if you’re coming to the ECPR in Iceland it might be cool to see if we can talk to some of the people on the Ireland Iceland project while we’re there?

  4. I hope to be proved wrong but thus far “wethecitizens” has come accross as a very elite grouping that has been very hesitant in responding to questions, queries and doubts from weordinarycitizens.

    • But have you got in touch with them, or signed up for one of the events? I found them nice to deal with, and the sign up for events is straightforward.

      • MAtt,
        The closest event to me is 5o miles away. I already commute a round trip of 90 miles a day as it is.
        On the social media with which I interact there has been no engagement with the people who have posed questions.
        Wethecitizens appear to be pretty much teh same people as the reformcard people who efefctively endorsed the political reform programme of one political party during the recent gerneal elction.

    • @Vincent

      Im not sure if I missed some of your questions but I hope I am not part of a ‘very elite grouping’ reluctant to answer questions. Is there something specific you were referring to?

  5. @Vincent Byrne,

    I would be inclined to go along with your comments and observations. (Though to be fair these probably shouldn’t be aimed at Matt. Although he is on the editorial board here, he, AFAIK, is the only member of this board not on the ‘wethecitizens’s Academic Advisory Board.) The exchanges following Eoin O’Malley’s post announcing the launch raised a number of ‘questions, queries, doubts’, but there was no response from the principals here.

    I suspect like others I was deterred from posing questions directly on the ‘wethecitizens’ sites (as Matt suggests) because I see it as a slick PR op that has all the skills at its command to bat aside any queries that might disturb the happy-smiley image being conveyed.

    However, to his credit, David Farrell has engaged, how ever belatedly, on the previous thread, but I’m sure many ‘queries, questions, doubts’ remain.

    I just happen to think that this exercise, how ever well intended, is naive in the extreme. Denonstrating the capability of a CA to deal effectively with consitutional and democratic institutional and procedural matters is all well and good, but expecting government to adopt it and take it on board is for the birds. The government will either kill this initiative with kindness or batter it using its full range of tools from the soft to the heavy. I would expect something along the lines: ‘the Government welcomes this initiative and commends the wonderful efforts of all participating and supporting it. The Government, in principle, is committed to expanding citizen engagement to the greatest extent possible. It looks forward to the findings that will be generated and will take due account of these in its subsequent deliberations.’

    Kindly, humbly and politely asking those who exercise almost absolute executive dominance in these areas to allow procedures decided by citizens that would curtail their exercise of this power, privilge and patronage is a fantasy exercise.

    • @Paul it seems to me from your contributions on this site that you share with many of us a feeling that there are serious flaws in our political system which the Irish citizenry needs to address. These groups are trying to find a practical way to do that.

      The only way that’s realistic, in my view, is to inform and mobilise a large portion of the Irish electorate around the issue of political reform.

      For me, what’s far more depressing and worrying than the capacity of governing groups to stifle reform is the apathy and sense of impotence of Irish citizens when it comes to reform. That’s why I’m behind any and all initiatives that help citizens feel empowered politically and to take some responsibility for the state of politics in their own country.

      Finally, on engaging. Maybe it’s time for all of us to start thinking about engagement as a collaborative process, rather than as an antagonistic one. So, rather than picking flaws in each other’s work, we should constructively suggest ways to improve, and volunteer to help each other out to realise those improvements. Nobody is perfect, and nobody has all of the answers, but constructive criticism and collaboration can improve any project.

      PS You’re right to note that I’m not involved in the organisation of the We the Citizens group, as I currently live outside of Ireland, but I must confess here that I subscibe to its goals of improving citizen political awareness and participation.

      • @Matthew,

        I’m very grateful to both you and David for taking the time to engage on these matters. I think I may have addressed some of your points in my last response to David.

        In any event, and for what it’s worth, my suggestion, that might add some value to this exercise, is to formally invite all TDs and Senators to an assembly of their own held in parallel to the proposed CA. It would address the same issues as the CA and be conducted in the same manner with the same procedure and information/advisory materials. There could then be a plenary session of the citizens selected and the legislators to review and discuss their respective deliberations and conclusions.

        This would be an excellent test of the legislators’ willingness to engage as it is they, ultimately, who will decide the process and extent of any reform measures.

        I would be surprised if this venture didn’t have the resources to provide the necessary resources and facilities.

        For what it’s worth…

  6. @Vincent @Paul

    Sorry if the approach being adopted by We the Citizens doesn’t meet with your approval. All I can say is that we are trying to promote a citizen-oriented approach. As you suggest, we may get it wrong. We’ll just have to see how things unfold.

    By all means feel free to accuse us of being elitist, or brush us as naive. You have every right to express your views, just as I have every right to disagree with them. Just like you, I am a citizen looking for a better Ireland. This is my way of trying to do something about; as it is of the other colleagues working on this initiative.

    If you are able to turn up to one of our events, or if some other occasion arises to meet in the flesh, I’d be happy to debate the pros and cons with you.

  7. @Vincent I’m sorry there isn’t an event closer to where you live, but i still think it would be worth going to for someone who obviously has as much interest in the topic as you do. As I said, I’ve found the people involved in We the Citizens and other similar groups like Second Republic, Ireland-Iceland, and RE:Public to be really nice and welcoming.

    I’m sorry that you didn’t like the reformcard.com project, the idea was to make a site where we could show the voters exactly what was on offer in terms of reform from each of the parties. We gave our professional opinion on the reforms accross 25 dimensions, which involved a lot of coding work on our parts. We all worked for free on that project, which meant (for me at least) spending several evenings after work at home going through and annotating party policy documents released during the campaign.

    Our collective judgement on each of the 25 dimensions was reflected in the average score given to each party on each dimension. As much as possible, we tried to be rigorous and fair in that process – though there is always scope for disagreements in political matters. I totally respect your right to disagree with our approach, but I’d emphasize that our goal throughout was to inform Irish voters of the parties’ reform platforms so that they could take these into account when voting, if they wished to.

  8. @David,

    Please don’t take this personally. In the overall scheme of things my personal approval or disapproval doesn’t matter an iota. Robust, adversarial disputation is one of the key features that has advanced western-originated science, law, political governance, economics and culture in the last few centuries to its position of global dominance. Though it still retains its force in many areas and disciplines, to their betterment and advancement, its use in the arena of democratic governance in many developed democracies has diminished to become a stylised, set-piece parody of what it should be – and was orginally designed and intended to be.

    This, I believe, is what we should seek to restore or, in Ireland’s case, establish as we are also hindered by the failure of competing blocs to emerge defined by differing views on where the boundaries of the state should be drawn. To paraphrase Churchill, it is the best of systems and the worst of systems. In Ireland, probably more than in many other developed economies, the only judgements that are accepted are a court judgement (to which no leave of appeal is allowed) and the result of a general (or local/EU/Seanad) election. The exercise of excessive executive dominance permits the almost indefinite suspension of disbelief in almost every other area. The exercise of power, privilge, patronage and the influence of vested interests takes place with minimal transparency and scrutiny. Consultation proccesses are conducted with the participation of ‘stakeholders’ or ‘partners’, informed by the inputs of paid, tame consultants, to establish a ‘consensus’ without any adversarial contest of the evidence on which these processes and their outcomes are based. Anyone who seeks to contest the evidence (or to highlight its absence or inadequacy) is either ignored, pilloried or has his/her professional integrity traduced.

    But we shouldn’t be entering into adversarial disputation about how these issues should be addressed. We should be keeping our powder dry for the struggle with the forces of inertia and reaction. My problem with this initiative is that it is seeking to use a version of this ‘consensual’ approach employed by those who exercise power, privilege, partronage and influence in the hope that it will, by force of reason and the commitment of (probably) a minority of citizens, persuade the forces of inertia and reaction to acknowledge the error of their ways and reform.

    I would like to believe this were possible, but I just can’t see it happening. This will require struggle – a struggle between citizens determined to ensure the power they delegate is exercised transparently in their interests and those who currently enjoy power, patronage, privilege and influence. And yes, it would be wonderful if this could be achieved by calm, polite and reasoned exchanges, but power, raw, brute political power, is at stake; and curtailing the exercise of this power – particularly when it is and has been exercised so flagrantly – is a daunting challenge.

    Perhaps it’s time to get real.

  9. @Paul – sounds like a great idea to me. I think that we have to respect the legitimcay of our TDs, given that our elections are held to high standards in terms of freedom and fairness.

    We would have to get some of them, at least, on board to propose such an idea in the Dáil. Do you think that there are many TDs in the current Dáil who would be interested in this sort of process?

    • @Matthew,

      I’m pleased you see some value in my suggestion. I’m not sure why this would have to be proposed in the Dail. This is purely a demonstration exercise. Nothing that will emerge is binding in any respect. The whole exercise presumably would be held under ‘Chatham House’ rules. Even if any legislators who decided to participate were to express a preference on a particular issue they would not be prevented from changing their minds at a later date when actual decisions were being made.

      I agree about the legitimacy of TDs – it is their failure to exercise this legitimacy effectively on behalf of citizens that principally annoys me, but participating in an exercise of this nature, which is purely demonstrational, informational and educational, would in no way diminish their status or position. And they would have an opportunity to meet and engage with citizens who are interested in, and informed about, political reform in a structured forum.

      There was a major slaughtering of dinosaurs (in addition to those who crawled off before the cull) on 25 Feb. I would be surprised if a large number of the new entrants (and some of the older lags) wouldn’t be interested in participating. But I expect, for the major factions, it would have to cleared with the front benches and the whips. And the Ceann Comhairle would have to assured that an alternative Dail wasn’t being convened.

      I think this should be given serious consideration by the ‘wethecitizens’ organisers.

      • Just a couple of further thoughts…

        The Government would be likely to oppose TD/Senator participation – and possibly the leaderships of other factions. The backroom boys and girls in all the factions (‘the brains of the factions’) will oppose it vociferously. With all the effort they put it to getting the ‘party-line’ into the heads of TDs they can’t allow them out to have their heads turned by academics and informed citizens. And the upper levels of the civil service will be sniffy. It depends on how forcefully they might communicate their unease to ministers – and, given the huge majority FG & Lab have, the pool of possible TDs/Senators could shrink rapidly.

        However, shaming TDs/Senators into participating is probably the best tactic.

        And obviously every effort should be made to ensure the media don’t infiltrate the processings. They’ll have to be happy with press briefings.

  10. @Paul You may be right that it’s time to get real. But for the moment we have funding to implement a deliberation process in which the voices and ideas of citizens are listened to and that is what we are getting on with
    Your idea of the involvement of TDs and Senators is an interesting one and we can discuss it. What we are interested in doing is showing that the citizens have a voice and one that can be listened to. Im not sure that this is a consensual approach as you suggest, Citizens will be free to disagree among themselves and indeed the issues under consideration will have strenuous arguments from both sides. If this works it should act as a powerful demonstration of the benefits of citizen involvement and will thus we hope make it more likely that a process of this kind can be adopted by the political parties in future and thus a citizen assembly or forum can be part and parcel of future political reform.
    I see that @Steve says that the outcome will be pre-negotiated by partisan political elite. Im not sure where this comes from we may well be naive as Paul suggests but we are not as Sein has pointed out rooted in any pre-existing interest group or indeed political party. Thus the items for discussion never mind the results are in no way decided upon as yet.

    • @Jane,

      Many thanks for taking the time to engage and explain. I realise I may have come across as excessively harsh and dismissive. For that I apologise. I don’t have status or ‘standing’; I’m simply one among millions armed with just a voice and a keyboard. I’ve been arguing these issues with various individuals and groups for more than 30 years and I’m rapidly getting to the point of ‘If not now, when?’.

      I’m not at all dismissive of what you, your colleagues and associates are trying to achieve. But I think I can pinpoint the source of my unease and pessimism in one of your sentences:
      “If this works it should act as a powerful demonstration of the benefits of citizen involvement and will thus we hope make it more likely that a process of this kind can be adopted by the political parties in future and thus a citizen assembly or forum can be part and parcel of future political reform.”

      It’s the word ‘hope’ that causes my heart to sink. All this effort and resource expended, all this enthusiasm aroused and hopes raised and all predicated on the ‘hope’ that the forces of inertia and reaction will be persuaded. I know I can be quite caustic about the behaviour of TDs, but, knowing many of them over the years, I am convinced that all of them do not wish to behave as they do. They simply know no other way and find difficulty conceiving of any other course. Once they enter the Dail – and subject to the vagaries of the electorate – the narrow bounds of their career trajectories are set. Apart from the independents, those for whom there is no prospect of ministerial office must settle for hope of the baubles of chairs (or deputy-chairs) of committees or the benefits attendant upon longevity in the Dail, but all must follow the ‘party-line’ come hell or high water. This makes it far too easy for those who exercise almost untramelled power – ministers, their special advisers, senior officials and the vested interests who whisper in all these ears. And the opposition factions are obliged to maintain a similar power structure, in readiness, how ever long drawn-out, to assume the position. Those who exercise power have absolutely no interest in or incentive to engage in reform. Those who have achieved this fortunate position of power, privilege, patronage and influence quite like the way the game is played. These are the forces of reaction. But the enforced subservience of the majority of TDs make them the forces of inertia.

      It would be an enormous public service, via this CA to conjure up a different world for the majority of TDs – the backbench TDs of all factions and none – and to give them an opportunity to contemplate it, away from their leaderships, whips and the backroom boys’n’girls, via engagement with informed citizens and framed in an impartial and objective manner by academic experts.

      I have my own ideas about what this world might look like, but these are not relevant at this point. What is relevant, as I’ve pointed out previously, is that citizens can engage with individual TDs, those who wish to pursue political refrom can engage with groups of interested citizens, but there is no mechanism for groups of interested citizens and those with ideas, capability and expertise in framing the process of reform can engage with a group of TDs on matters separate from their party affiliations or position in the Dail.

      It would be a major advance if this initiative could be modified/structured to facilitate this. And it would add enormous substance to the ‘hope’ that is being expressed.

  11. Interesting – probably the best approach would be to see if some of the TDs would be interested in running with this idea initially. The independents, smaller parties, and maybe younger members of the government parties might be up for it.

    Once there were at least some voices among the TDs calling for this type of innovation and willing to participate, there would be pressure on the others to join in.

  12. “Perhaps it’s time to get real.”

    Last time citizens ‘got real’ was in Reykjavik. Pots and pans and flares. That’s how citizens (in a non-violent state) get reforms. Anything else is – well, interesting, but futile. Familiar with “A Book of Five Rings” – Musashi?

    BpW

    • Non-violent protest is certainly a legitimate part of any citizen campaign. Frankly, I have a lot of admiration for the way that Iceland has dealt with their banking crisis, and wish that Irish citizens had shown that sort of civic awareness during the crisis.

      However, street protests, while dramatic, are not often the best ways to seek progress. We have to be able to sit down and talk with each other, finding points of consensus and working on points where we disagree. If we can’t agree, then we have to take a vote. None of this can happen if citizen participation is limited to street demonstrations.

      • Thanks Matt. I am supposing that you have a ‘rational model’ somewhere, and that this should do the trick. Trouble is politicians become highly irrational if you attempt to engage them in anything that has any odour of (cannot mention the word!) – “lets do this another way”. Its a genetic condition. They win, we citizens lose, and the country is worse off!

        Put in brutal terms, they will have to voluntarilly give up some power. And these critters are the most loss averse folk you are ever likely to encounter (‘cept Bull McCabe types).

        They do have weak spots. Find these and expolit. Then you have high probability of some change. The citizens cannot afford to start a change process and luck out.

        I would push for a new, radical FOI Act, and Constitutional protection for Ombudsman. Any politician opposing these measures could be branded a Luddite. It just might succeed.

        BpW

  13. Having had another look at the official site of the wethecitizens organisation I think that It might be of interest if the following were made available:

    1. The details of any submission made to Atlantic Philantropies for funding.

    2. The basis on which that funding was granted and any conditions attached.

    3. A statement as to the significance (if any) of a number of people on the Executive Board, including the Executive Director, who have held roles in the past of advocacy for EU treaties.

    4. A commitment to publish full accounts.

  14. @Vincent Byrne,

    You raise some valid points. Numerous media reports at the time suggested that the then government crushed Atlantic Philanthropies’ last foray into the public sphere in Ireland, the Commission for Public Inquiry – which, reportedly, was going to be funded to the tune of €4 million.

    My sense is that this whole exercise will simply fizzle out. The Government (and those around it exercising power and influence) will simply treat this as just another non-aligned ginger group (regardless of the calibre or status of the leading lights) which will snap, crackle and then pop into nothingness – unless it looks like making a serious effort to challenge those in the locus of power. Then the gloves will come off and all the issues you raise – and more – will suddenly become matters of intense public interest.

    But I don’t think those involved have either the desire or the guts to push things that far – and they probably realise they are vulnerable to project-killing attacks on a number of fronts.

  15. I expect this ‘wethecitizens’ exercise will carry on in its own merry way. One virtue, perhaps, is that the issues that will be considered by the ‘150’ at the proposed demonstration CA have not be pre-ordained – though it is likely they will be few, given the limited time available.

    This view, in today’s IT, from the inside of the DoF might provide some grist for the mill:
    http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/opinion/2011/0506/1224296265727.html

    The sub’editor’s titling is misleading. This op-ed piece provides considerable insight in to the role and culture of the DoF relative to government during the bubble period. The author contends that the rot began in the mid to late 1990s. I would contend that it began in 1977 when a totally inappropiate economic programme was pursued.

    The author highlights the previous role of the DoF proetecting the public from venal politicians and how this role changed. There is much noise now about a fiscal council – and, indeed, this is part of the conditionality of the EU/IMF support, but no government will allow such a body to have the necessary independence (and there is no corresponding check on all other areas of public policy formulation).

    Surely it’s time for Oireachtas Cttees to have the resources and powers to have permanent staff of the calibre of the author of this op-ed piece and to be able to commission necessary research and analysis to scrutinise government porposals and to hold it to account.

    The lack of this capability is the single most important deficiency in democratic governance in the current era (not only in Ireland, but thoughout the EU and in the EU itself).

    Let’s see if it will surface in the ‘wethecitizens’ deliberations.

  16. @ Vincent

    “reformcard people who efefctively endorsed the political reform programme of one political party during the recent gerneal elction”

    Reformcard circulated a clear and transparent scoring system to political parties prior to the publication of party manifestos, and the scoring was conducted in a transparent fashion on this basis.

    As it transpired each of the big five parties actually scored highest in one of the five priority areas for reform. So, for example, Sinn Fein scored higher than any other part in its proposals for electoral reform, the greens in local government.

    FG scored better overall. Their proposals were well thought through and more consistently strong across the five areas. There are significant weaknesses also in their reform proposals and not all proposals made it to the PfG. Reformcard attempted to highlight these shortcomings.

  17. I also agree that there was no inherent bias in ‘reformcard’ methodology. FG scored well because of the number, range and internal coherence of its proposals. But we all know – or, at least, should know – that the number of proposals that might even get close to being considered for implementation bears an inverse relationship to the number and range of proposals included in an election manifesto. We can see the shrinkage already via the filtering process required to produce the PfG. The lure of the long grass – and the demands of the nation-saving work being pursued – will shrink the number even more. And any that might curtail or restrain the exercise of executive dominance by government will hit the refuse bin at the speed of light.

  18. Meanwhile the silence in relation to my post above is …well , interesting!

    Its so so easy to demand that everyone else be transparent, open and accountable!

    • Ah now, Vincent. You’re being a tad impetuous 🙂

      Following the post here on 12 April notifying the launch of ‘wethecitizens’ it wasn’t until 3/4 May that we had the opportunity for some engagement with the principals here – some of whom double as academic advisers on this exercise. Everyone has his/her day job and saving the nation is time-consuming work. You’ll probably have to be patient.

    • @vincent we are all very busy at the moment but we are open and transparent. The original idea as was pointed out at the launch came from the 4 academics and none of us are or ever have been involved with the Forum for Europe or any other European interest group, I find the focus on this slightly puzzling

      • Jane,

        Why would you find it puzzling?
        In terms of democracy and citizen participation the EU, it’s institutions and policymaking process is the elephant in the room.

        A supposedly bottom up citizens organisation that employs and is comprised at executive level by pro EU lobbyists makes me deeply suspicious and cynical.

      • @Vincent It is of course your prerogative to be suspicious and cynical. But as far as I am concerned this initiative has nothing to with the EU either way it is about domestic political reform which we have always been open about.

  19. I see wearecitizens, reformcard, and politicalreform, as rock the boat, but not too much! dampening efforts, I was more interested in reformcard as a source of information, maybe info is more concrete and a bit slightest less susceptible to influence, or there might be something left after its fizzled out, which is why i think such monies would be better spent staffing that or other open gov data efforts. I think any org with too much money and influence won’t succeed there’s a big stretch between ~e0 and e630,000, its a contrivance of bottom up reform. The post was written by someone on a blog who’s associated with the people involved in wearecitizens, to be told if you want reform, make it happen, then suggesting wearecitizens as an example without mentioning its e630,00 which came out of thin air, seems a little condescending, look these guys can organise all these meetings and media why can’t you huh, just lazy? how much citizen engagement does that buy you these days with lots of people involved in struggling to sell the previous bit of national reform the lisbon treaty. They’re not just ordinary citizens they shouldn’t pretend to be.

    you post is titled Want reform? Then make it happen!
    I ask you how would you suggest doing so without e630,000?

    • @steve white,

      I think I see where you’re coming from and I’m sadly, and reluctantly, coming to a similar conclusion. This is all providing a wonderful bit of diversion for a collection of polsci dons, ‘luvvies’, and some of the already well-connected and inflential in selected NGOs and civil society and is funded by a philanthropic body with an interest in things Irish (whose previous foray in to this territory didn’t end very happily).

    • @steve personally I would love to see some serious open government reforms here. However, it is not even really on the agenda, no party really went with it in their manifestos, many people simply think that reforming FoI is the way ahead when it is a solution from the last century. A serious open government lobby would be a great thing imho.
      However, this is not why wethecitizen was set up. It is about bottom up reform. If open government data comes out as an issue with salience for the people it could be part of the assembly but we will have to wait and see.

  20. I very much agree with the OP. The sudden nature of the recent general election maybe came too soon for many of these new political reform groupings to not have had greater impact in the GE. But, as Morgan Kelly’s very scary article just this weekend brought home again to me, this economic crisis isn’t going away anytime soon. I genuinely hope this government will tackle the deep failures in governance and political structures that have helped get us into this economic crisis. Their proposals so far seem, at least to me, quite shallow and tokenistic. If that continues to be the case, then the political reform agenda is going to remain very topical and in the public eye up until the next election.

    I think we’ve all had something of an education in economics in the past 3 or 4 years. Panel show after panel show on the TV and radio. Numerous documentary series. Hard to escape it. Quite relentless really! Never thought I’d know so much about obscure financial topics like ECB collateral rules or bond coupons! 🙂 And I think this kind of knowledge has filtered out amongst the whole population, journalists and politicians included. Perhaps we might now be in a better position if some of our politicians had known more about such topics before the crisis originally struck. Would even have to wonder about the level of financial knowledge some of our ministers even had back then.

    I think the same also holds for political reform. It’s crucial that the basic level of knowledge on this topic is raised throughout the whole population. Otherwise politicians may get away with populist and tokenistic gestures. I really have to commend some of the owners/contributers to this board who have been very visible on TV panel shows and writing articles in the newspapers. Political reform is probably a somewhat less sexy a topic than economics; the size of one’s pay packet, job security, and the level of tax one pays are immediately relevant and concrete. Political reform is a bit more abstract. Nevertheless the current economic crisis is a glaring and unavoidable example of just how badly our institutions have failed. The media has been saturated with economics and celebrity economists for the past 3-4 years. May take a similar time period to get the political reform message out there. And will be several referenda as focal points for such debate. All these political reform groups can be a vital part of this. And if the politicians don’t deliver then some of these groups may eventually have to enter the political arena themselves. But agree with the OP that it’s really important for people to get involved in at least one of these groups.

    And to say some positive things about “We The Citizens”. 630k was a very generous donation from Chuck Feeney who I’ve a lot of regard for. Our education system (amongst other sectors) has greatly benefited from his generosity. Thought it was a great pity a couple of years back when the “Centre for Public Inquiry” was seemingly crushed by our own establishment. The US can manage to make room for such investigative journalism outfits (e.g. the similarly named Centre for Public Integrity http://www.iwatchnews.org/ ). Seemingly not Ireland though. Probably would have asked too many awkward questions (when we most needed precisely such questions to be asked).

    I think “We The Citizens” can be an excellent means to engage with the public and raise awareness of political reform. 630k is a generous donation but one can’t expect miracles either. It’s still only a drop in the ocean. I’m sure the government’s proposed constitutional convention will cost many multiples of this (with perhaps up to 60 people sitting for up to a year, all having to be compensated for their time, and wages paid for other staff and experts). And to be cynical probably with quite a narrow and restrictive terms of reference ( with maybe government party affiliated experts and lawyers sitting on it). But as regards the “We The Citizens” exercise I think it’s really the best that could be done given the funding.

    Have expressed some reservations previously here about the “We The Citizens” board. But have no problems at all with the academic panel (Jane Suiter, Elaine Byrne, Eoin O’Malley, David Farrell). In fact IMO they are the people who *should* be on it. And the make-up of the international advisory looks impressive.

    As others have argued already, our politicians may very well be keen to ignore this initiative, particularly if any radical or uncomfortable suggestions come out of it. But I think anything that contributes to the general level of debate and knowledge on political reform in this country can only be positive. I really can’t see how such an initiative can harm the cause of political reform. And a good healthy turnout at these events may help convince politicians that this is a topic that’s genuinely important to the general public.

    • Interesting thoughts, Finbar. As you say, there is a need for a broad increase in public awareness of the topic of political reform generally, as well as giving people a deeper understanding of the tradeoffs involved in picking a set of political institutions.

      I think that what most people want is to see Irish people taking a lead in the process of considering and selecting specific reforms, and I’d see We the Citizens and the other groups as trying to realise this goal, or at least move closer to it.

  21. There’s really no point getting het up about this initiative. It’s all a bit of diversion for the principals involved and is likely to prove totally ephemeral. My concern is principally for the ordinary citizens who’ll get suckered into participating with some expectation that it might actually achieve something.

    The ironic and brutal reality is that reform of democratic governance is not something of pressing concern for the foreseaable future. Colm McCarthy, in today’s Sindo, sums up the challenges:
    http://www.independent.ie/opinion/analysis/suggestions-from-lobby-groups-on-resolving-jobs-crisis-are-just-waffle-2640716.html
    “There is only one credible job-creation strategy and it has just three components. Fix the deficit, fix the banks and fix the cost base. All else is waffle, special pleading or, in the case of the triumvirate, both at once.”

    For the foreseeable future ireland will be reliant on the support of the EU and IMF – and subject to the terms and conditions attendant upon a continuation, a modification or extension of this support. In relation to the deficit, the banks and the cost base of the economy, the EU/IMF are dictating what must be done. Any posturing by government to convey the impression that it retains any sovereignty in these areas is just that – posturing. The EU and IMF are prepared to condone a certain amount of this for the optics.

    What is doubly ironic is that, rather than reforming democratic governance to impose restraint on government to prevent it creating the mess that its predecessors did, it probably makes sense to have strong government capable of implementing the dictates of the external official lenders. The provision of effective governance in the public interest is being, and will be, directed by the EU and IMF.

    It will be a long time, if ever, before an Irish government will be left free to exercise any unfettered sovereignty. Ireland has lost its sovereignty and its good international reputation. It will take a very long time to restore these. And it will probably be a much longer time before any Irish government will seek to repeat the stupidity of the governments from 1997 to 2011.

    And it may be that Irish voters, similar to their British counterparts, are pefectly happy, once they have indirectly elected one, to allow a government to run its course safe in the assurance that there will be by-elections and local elections to allow them to express their opinion during its term and that they will be able to kick it out when it runs its course if they so wish. They may not have any interest in expending the time and effort to scrutinise continuously what it is doing – or to ensure that the Dail is holding it to account. And for the foreseaable future, the EU and the IMF will do this for them.

  22. @jane Suiter.

    Given the all pervasive presence of the EU in policy and legislation that impacts upon the Irish citizen at the most local level it appears to me to be farsical that it be excluded form a process designed to bring policy and decision making closer to the citizen.
    This is being neither pro or anti EU, simply pointing out the impact of those institutions furthest from the citizen in geographical, political and democratic terms.

  23. Wow, thanks to all of the contributors for some fascinating comments. I find some of the more negative comments rather puzzling and defeatist, I must say. It’s a bit much to dismiss people’s ideas and initiatives when they are at least trying to do something concrete about citizen engagement in Ireland. I don’t think anybody is saying that bottom up political reform will solve any of Ireland’s short term economic problems. We have somehow managed to turn bank debt into public debt and to build an unsustainable and inefficient government spending regime. These actions have consequences which will probably be unpleasant in the years to come. But, at least, let’s take this opportunity to improve our politics in ireland. The feeling of ‘if not now, when?’ should motivate people to act, to take part, as is their right and obligation as citizens.

  24. @Editors,

    Thank for your response. Your puzzlement at some of the comments probably sums it all up. Ireland, as a small open economy exposed more than most to the vagaries of internal trade and financial flows – and which should have had governance in place to manage and protect itself from these risks – has demonstrated convincingly to the whole world that it lost the ability to govern itself in the key economic, fiscal, monetary and financial areas (with widespread, and now slowly being revealed, dysfunction in all other policy areas). Its hard-won international reputation has been shredded, sovereignty in most key areas has been lost and, for the foreseeable future, it will be governed as a protectorate of the EU and the IMF.

    The public response seems to comprise a febrile mix of denial of the extent – and implications – of this loss of sovereignty, anger at the external parties providing support and governance and a sullen resignation in the face of this brutal reality. Some of the anger is merely displacement activity to avoid tackling structural refroms that have long been required. But some of the anger may be justified as the EU and IMF are compromised in their ability to bring the forces of financial capitalism – that caused the crisis – under effective political governance and regulatory oversight. These forces exercise enormous economic and political power and politicians, policy-makers and regulators must tread carefully as they seek to shackle the beast.

    And, for reasons of political preservation, the EU has constructed a fire-break between the smaller peripherals (Ireland, Greece and Portugal) and the broader core. It is brutal and tragic that Ireland is on the wrong side of this fire-break.

    It will be a long hard road to convince the international community that we can be allowed to govern ourselves again. And even harder to restore our international reputation.

    It makes sense to seek to reform and restore the institutions and procedures of good governance, but I’m not sure that the initiative of a perceived elite – however well connected in the broader piblic sphere but disconnected from the locus of power – and funded by an external source is the most effective approach.

    There is a requirement for collective action by citizens engaging with their elected representatives, but the prospects of this emerging are remote. First, it appears that most citizens are content to limit their participation to casting their ballots. They have no past experience or see no need to encourage them to go beyond that. Secondly, There is a strong possibility that people will find the governance by the external parties – the EU and the IMF – to be more effective and more in the public and national interest than the governance produced locally.

    Adversarial collextive action and struggle is required to reduce the concentration of political power and to impose restraint on the exercise of this power. On the basis that doing something is better than doing nothing this initiative is probably harmless, but it is too close to the mindset that caused this problem to generate any solution.

  25. Just to illustrate the case I am making (and to close my engagement on this ‘wethecitizens’ initiative) this is a link to an op-ed piece by Timo Soini, leader of the True Finns party:
    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703864204576310851503980120.html

    In some respects it may be naive, but it addresses the immediate and pressing concerns of citizens throughout the EU (and, in particular, in Ireland), it tackles key issues of national and EU governance and it is striking a chord with many voters throughout the EU. It is much more likely to have a far more beneficial and effecctive impact on democratic institutional and procedural reform than this powder-puff CA demonstration initiative.

  26. @Vincent, Paul&Steve contrary to Vincent’s characterisation of the discussion, I have published all submitted comments on this post, no matter how contrarian, as a scan of the above discussion will reveal. I have no desire to stifle anybody’s point of view on this or any other forum. Furthermore, I’m happy to have people criticise the stances and ideas developed in these pages.

    That said, I reserve my right to disagree with and criticise comments submitted.

    I am dismayed by the tendency towards pessimism and dismissive negativity that I’ve picked up on in some of the comments.

    For me, it’s totally unfair to dismiss a new initiative before it has even held its first event!

    There’s an element of standing on the sidelines and carping to several of the comments that I find difficult to accept. There’s also a rather nasty and dismissive undertone to several comments – which seems rather mean spirited to my mind.

    It’s hard to know what people want from these sorts of movements, but you have to accept that no group will be able to totally cater for your specific needs and opinions.

    The likelihood is that no single group will end up being responsible for serious political reform being undertaken in Ireland, but, collectively such groups can make a difference. It’s up to the Irish people to get involved, in the end, and I think that people from all of the groups mentioned in the post are to be commended for volunteering their time to providing a forum for citizens to become politically active.

    • @ MAtthew
      “I am dismayed by the tendency towards pessimism and dismissive negativity that I’ve picked up on in some of the comments.
      For me, it’s totally unfair to dismiss a new initiative before it has even held its first event!
      There’s an element of standing on the sidelines and carping to several of the comments that I find difficult to accept. There’s also a rather nasty and dismissive undertone to several comments – which seems rather mean spirited to my mind. ”

      I am assume that some of this is directed at me. Please be assured that far from carping from the sidelines I have a long history of democratic action. At the age of twenty I was a local public represenatative, placing myself in front of the electorate, unlike most of the people on this site and those involved with ‘wethecitizens’. Nine years later I stood down from two local authorities completetly frustrated with the undemocratic and dysfunctional caricature that local government is in this country. I subsequently served on the ill fated Devolution Commission-an attempt to devolve real poweres to local authorities.
      In the meantime I have achieved a degree and masters in Public Management with a concentration on institutional reform and public policymaking in my Masters dissertation.
      I am passionate about democracy and strive to find solutions within the difficult constraints of my job.

      My crticisms/questions in relation to the form,structure and substance of ‘wethecitizens’ have remained unanswered to be relaced with this ‘ I am soo disapointed with your negativity’ drivel.

      • I didn’t mean to presume to speak about how much you have or haven’t been politically engaged. It sounds like you really have a lot to say about Irish political reform (and, indeed, institutional design and political reform generally).

        For instance, I think that your description of the EU as the ‘elephant in the room’ in the politics of Ireland (and, indeed, of many EU member states) is pretty accurate. The role of the EU, and the impact of economic globalisation on society more generally, are starting to be ackowledged as emerging dimensions of policy competitions in many EU party systems.

        I think that my colleagues in the We the Citizens group and the other volunteers I’ve been talking to from a number of small, practically-oriented, citizen empowerment groups just want to create a space where people can share these sorts of social and political opinions with each other. Hopefully this sharing of knowledge and opinion will make everybody involved better informed, more aware of the issues involved, and more politically empowered to influence the issues that they care about.

        I found your comments overly negative because it seemed to me you were more interested in attacking this initiative than in actually finding out where it might lead. I used the ‘sidelines’ metaphor because you didn’t propose any concrete alternative of your own in the discussion. Did you look at any of the other groups I linked to in the article? As I say, they all have different appraoches to engaging the public about political reform, so it’s not a case of anyone saying that the We the Citizens idea is the only game in town. What we the citizens do have that the others do not is access to international expertise, some organisational resources, and a conrete set of scheduled events (I think the first one is on in Kilkenny this evening). That’s why i drew particular attention to We the Citizens in my post.

        But the constitution book club idea developed by Second Republic is a good example of what you can do with far fewer resources and small groups of interested people.

        All I’m saying is why not join in with some of these initiatives?

  27. @Matthew,

    Don’t be dismayed. I hope you get to go to some of the evnets. It should be great craic. They’ve, apparently, lined up some good entertainment. And you’ll know when some serious political reform is afoot. The government and all those who exercise power and influence will be fighting it tooth and nail.

    • @Paul, thanks, I’ve booked a week of holidays in June to come home for a couple of events (and to see friends and family, of course) so I’m really looking forward to that.

      It remains to be seen how the government and agencies of governance in Irish politics will respond to calls for reform, so far, they’ve been able to avoid dealing with it by keeping it firmly off the agenda. The truth is that we cannot say for sure what would happen if political reform were to become a central part of our national politics.

      I’m not saying that any of these groups can promise success. I just believe that you have to work to achieve what you believe in politics and in life, and that these groups are looking for something that I believe in profoundly: citizen-led political reform in Ireland. That’s why I’m taking part, and that’s why I would ask others to get involved.

      • @Matthew,

        Thank you. I hope you enjoy it and hope it has some impact. It just strikes me as ploughing a very narrow furrow that is leading away from the field of play. So I’m off to investigate the potential to generate some robust, adversarial collective action by citizens. And I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to engage on these matters with all here. Slán.

  28. @Vincent – I thought this lecture by Peter Mair may be of interest to you, and the other readers/posters, especially the closing comments on the importance of EU institutional reform.

    http://bit.ly/mhQEYK

    • Thanks for that. Very interesting indeed. Am a fan of his work on political parties. Would love to see further work/discussion on his proposition to move it up a level.

      • Yeah – it pulls together a lot of strands, I think. Only problem with proposed solution is near-impossibility of agreeing and passing major reforms to EU institutions. The Constitutional Treaty project was a total disaster, capped off with Ireland’s double referendum on Lisbon. I think most people can agree that the EU needs reforms and greater democratisation – however the question of what specific reforms, and how to get the public involved, remain unanswered. Would it be too much to suggest that an EU Citizen Assembly might have a role to play?

  29. @MAtthew

    “Would it be too much to suggest that an EU Citizen Assembly might have a role to play?”.

    Now that could be fun!

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