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.