post by David Farrell (July 11, 2011)
It’s a pity that the media gave scant if any coverage to an important speech by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform at a Labour party meeting on July 2. The full text of Brendan Howlin’s speech is here.
In his speech, the Minister reaffirms the government’s commitments to a series of referendums to coincide with the date of the presidential election, and also to establishing a Constitutional Convention to consider the following issues:
- Review of our Dáil Electoral System
- Reducing the Presidential term to 5 years
- Provision for same sex marriage
- Amending the clause on women in the home and encourage greater participation of women in public life
- Removing blasphemy from the Constitution
- Possible reduction of the voting age
We remain in the dark as to how this Constitutional Convention will be constituted. All the Minister would say is that “Currently, the two parties in Government are discussing the modus operandai of the convention and will publish proposals”. This has been left deliberately vague. In its manifesto, Labour had said that it would comprise one-third politicians, one-third legal experts and one-third citizens, whereas Fine Gael’s preference was for a citizens’ assembly (i.e. with 100% of its members being ordinary citizens) focused specifically on the question of the electoral system. It will be interesting to see which way the government jumps. Perhaps there is a middle way that combines both approaches?
6 thoughts on “According to Minister Howlin political reform is still high on the agenda”
Jane Suitor has already linked to this speech. I’m not sure how ‘important’ it is. It is probably important only in so far as it reveals the paucity of the political reform ambition of this government. But that is not surprising since pressure for genuine reform will have to come from elsewhere.
The issues that this Constitutional Convention – how ever it will be formed – vary in importance, but are entirely peripheral to the reforms so badly required to ensure restraint on and scrutiny of givernance and the holding of governance to account – and this includes governance in the broadest sense whree it is exercised by the overwhelming and overmighty government machine.
Still, I suppose, it will keep the pol sci heads occupied (I expect Chick Feeney’s money has been used up) and the government can carry on its merry way unmolested.
I would’nt rush to believe that FG will countenance same sex marriage. Based on the way their councillors in Galway City Council voted not to entertain David Norris in his attempt to gain a nomination for the Park race?
I think the fact that Brendan Howlin is the minister in charge is significant. He has senior ministerial experience in a previous administration and has spent alot of years in opposition. With the number of unpalatable decisions this government is going to have to make he may see this as his window of opportunity. He also has not been afraid to challenge the state when he felt it was necessary. I am hopeful that he can deliver some of the much needed reforms. The reinstatement of the freedom of information provisions and a greater level of transparency would go along way to raising confidence in public administration.
I hear what you’re saying and wish I could have your optimism and confidence. Although this blog is titled ‘political reform’ the real underlying demand is for ‘governance reform’ – and that is something any government – or government minister – is pathologically incapable of delivering.
It took England – and subsequently Britain – more than 800 years from the Magna Carta to establish a comprehensive system of parliamentary democracy with universal suffrage, government of and accountable to parliament and a largely independent judiciary enforcing the system of common law – with varying degrees of government accountability to the rule of law.
Ireland had the good fortune – yes, the good fortune – to be able to adopt this system almost intact at the inception of the state and to paint it green. But it did so with limited understanding of the struggles that had taken place over the previous 800 years in England to establish this system. And, indeed, its adoption was characterised by a greater degree of executive dominance that would have been tolerated at that time in Britain. This executive dominance was extended by the 1937 Constitution.
Since then, in most parliamentary democracies – but particularly in Britain and Ireland – in the context of an ever-increasing role of the state in economy and society, executive dominance has increased and the machinery of government via regulatory bodies and a plethora of agencies has expanded.
Governments have surreptitiously and assiduously accreted powers to leave them resembling the absolute sovereigns that parliaments historically struggled to restrain. Over the last few years the parliament in Britain has begun to kick back against this excessive executive dominance – and parliaments in other EU member-states have been kicking back for much longer. But in Ireland there is no history, memory, culture or tradition of members of parliament kicking back against overmighty government.
TDs have never done it – apart from the odd maverick who rapidly became the butt of jokes, they don’t know how to do it, they don’t know why they should do it, their constituents do not require them to do it – in fact, the tradition of clientelism requires them to suck up to those who exercise power – and the party and governance system of patronage and discipline gives them every incentive not to.
Yes, we got our freedom from Britain, but we never learned something that is even more valuable – the ability to govern ourselves successfully.
As Paulo Freire would say the enemy of democracy is fatalism. I find him an inspiration given the massive inequalities and problems that exitsted in Brazil. Sure life isn’t perfect but if you lose hope then you really are lost.
I haven’t lost hope – It’s just that it has been tempered by the bitter taste of the aftermath of too many false dawns and by the eventual recognition that, for many politcians, the acquisition, exercise and retention of power, raw power, is the ultimate goal irrespective of any consideration of the national or public interest.
And I don’t have to look to Brazil to have my heart lifted – though the flawed, but great-hearted, Lula probably did more than Friere ever said for the poor and disadvantaged (and I hope Ms. Rousseff will continue the good work). I can look much nearer to home and to a model of democratic governance that we have aped – to the UK House of Commons which rose as one against an overmighty media baron – and bent this government to its will (and shamed previous successive goernments for their cowardice and complicity). In one fell swoop, MPs brushed aside the deliberations of government-established agencies that facilitated the coarsening and intimidation of the process of democratic governance by an external commercial power.
And while some of the motives and incentives may be base (the Guardian newspaper can beat its chest as a defender of liberal, democratic values as it defeats an awesome commercial competitor and MPs can extract revenge for the intimidation they have suffered – though it was always in their power, collectively, to resist), the result is pure and magnificent.
The UK government will strive energetically to make sure the waters will close quickly over this hunbling it has received at the hands of Parliament and to ensure that Parliament will not get a taste for bending government to its will, but, after more than half a century of ‘elective dictatorship’, Parliament has tasted blood and government may find it will not be as easy to suppress as it was previously. A predominantly English Parliament – indeed any parliament – exercising the powers that the citizens have delegated to it is a magnificent sight. It may be too much to expect that MPs will push on from this signal victory to bring overmighty governments (and the commercial forces that have suborned) them to heel, but UK governments, from now on, will tread more carefully.
Oh that the Dail could rise as one and purge the cosy cartels, the cabals of collusion and the soft corruption that have brought this country to its knees and continue to oppress the vast majority of citizens. But now I have gone from hope into a dream that will not and cannot become reality on this benighted island.