How to involve citizens in the process of political reform

Posted by David Farrell (January 24, 2012)

In an interesting piece in today’s Irish Times (see here), Peadar Kirby and Mary P. Murphy make a persuasive case for involving ordinary citizens in the constitutional convention that the government is anticipated to establish in the very near future.

While they take issue with the approach proposed by We The Citizens (which some of us involved in this blog were also involved with), they share the same fundamental ambition of actively engaging with citizens in the process of political and constitutional reform that this government has promised (and hopefully will start delivering on soon).

Clearly there are different ways of doing this, and Kirby and Murphy’s approach does have its merits. But to follow their agenda means the adoption of a completely new constitution for a new Republic: Kirby and Murphy favour root and branch reform of our Constitution to produce a ‘Second Republic’.

However, personally I still hold to the view that a more realistic way of proceeding with the government’s promised constitutional convention would be to see it as operating in a number of parallel ‘strands’, with a citizens’ assembly (possibly more than one) as one ‘strand’ focusing on certain key questions. There are a number of advantages to this approach, principal among them being that it would enable certain reform measures to proceed apace without having to wait for debates (tortuous as these are likely to be) to conclude on full-scale constitutional reform.


58 thoughts on “How to involve citizens in the process of political reform

  1. There need to be events prominently advertised and held in large venues where people can come along to listen but also where people can make an input too such as after a big formal large scale meeting, people can sign up to areas of interest and proceed on that basis.

    It should also have space for the vision thing and not just technical discussions.

    It can’t be something that rolls out the same tired out elite patriarchal types like Brutal or Sutherland who then patronise people and tell then what they’ve decided we should do.

    If it’s to have any credibility then the establishment have to be the ones to listen and if they only go through the motions and are insincere it will quickly become apparent and the whole process will lose any credibility.

    Ireland is a very small country and it’s not asking too much that all those who want to make a contribution should be able to do do and especially those forced into exile by the corruption and cronyism that the current constitution allowed to flourish.

  2. Interesting piece by Kirby and Murphy. IMO a careful mix of ordinary citizen participation and expert involvement would be best. As just a member of the public with something of an interest in political science, it has struck me that designing a constitution is quite a tricky and subtle business. Only those with the widsom of Solomon should apply! 🙂 One wants the experts to be well-intentioned and above politics (no easy feat), resistant to external pressures. Have been rather interested in the Iceland experience of constitutional design. As pointed out in the article, some rather unique factors came into play there. There big public desire for constitutional change. The anger at the politicians ensured that the elected representatives on the constitutional council weren’t the usual likely party political suspects. They ended up with quite a diverse collection of 25 people elected (several academics too, not all political scientists either). The web interaction with members of the public was most interesting too (and in person also earlier in the process). Probably all resulting in a dynamic not easily replicated in more ordinary circumstances.

    And not sure I’d be in favour of drawing up a whole new constitution from scratch. The current one is not all bad. There’s the danger of the baby being thrown out with the bathwater. Even the draft Icelandic constitution is more a substantial rewriting than tearing up the old document completely. There are whole new sections and many old ones are rewritten. But a considerable amount of the current constitution still remains in the new draft. So mightn’t favour a total rewrite, but still do feel we need a redesign with similar breadth and scope to the Icelandic process. More living in hope than expectation though. Time will tell I guess.

    • @Finbar,

      I fear that Kirby and Murphy want to promote a ‘popular revolution’ to change the Constitution in a way that will enhance the power of the state to implement the nostrums of the ‘progressive-left’. Nobody should be left near the Constitution unless they publicly declare that will advance no changes to the Constution that would curtail the freedoms or rights of those with whom they vehemently disagree.

  3. Designing a constitution is simple: plagerize the Constitution of the United States, incorporating the 1st and 4th amendments. Leave it our current bunch of legislators in Leinster House and they will produce a clone of Bunreacht – just double the width!

    Anyway, that’s a complete distraction. Give us an unfettered Ombudsman – immune for any court and answerable to the Oireachteas in plenary session. Gives us an unfettered FoI. Both of these could be easily achieved. I’ll not hold my breath though.

    If you do, really, want an educated and engaged citizenry – start with the young, and keep up the teaching until they leave secondary. Continue the punishment with all third-level students; for at least six semesters. By the end of this they will either be so enraged that they will tear up the place, or else run out the door as fast as they can.

    Educate! Educate!! Educate!!!

  4. The “Yet the virtual silence on the idea in the intervening period sends signals that rewriting our Constitution is seen as being of little importance to government and opposition alike.”
    That seems to be the crux of the problem – is the Constitution Review Convention an excuse for postponing reform.
    President Higgin’s in his new book expresses his bemusement at those who see the main problem in Irish politics as being the electoral system. He rightly points to the asphyxiating paralysis in the system which results from the top members of the Cabinet holding almost dictatorial exclusive power in this country. Suitable for a country faced with the likelihood or world war in 1937 but not appropriate nowadays.
    That Cabinet tyranny makes me wonder will the Constitution Review Convention end up being another quango resulting in a glossy report but little else?
    I was disappointed to see the authors attack the voluntary citizens’ group Second Republic’s ideas when they criticize 2nd Republic’s idea for a political reform Assembly “Asking a citizens’ assembly made up of randomly chosen citizens to undertake a wider review of the Constitution raises grounds for concern.”
    I find the narrow view of what randomly selected citizen assemblies can do or should do puzzling “We the Citizens stated, citizens’ assemblies are most effective when tasked with single-issue projects such as electoral reform.”
    Does that mean that citizen assemblies should steer clear of other types of political reform?
    I thought 2nd Republic were a group for political reform alone and did not deal with family or religious constitutional matters.
    Surely the We the Citizens’ project has made a case for respecting the views of citizens’ groups?
    It should be remembered that the Constitution is only one aspect of the problem. A huge amount of reform of politics could be done through legislation.

  5. @Manus Magee,

    You quite rightly highlight this ‘Cabinet tyranny’ and this goes right to the heart of the matter. And it’s not even this tyranny per se, it’s also the influence on those in Cabinet of the special advisers and senior officials who are forced to respond in various ways to the pressures exerted behind the scenes by the narrow sectional economic interests. Until this ‘choke-point’ is tackled and resolved all the good-intentioned proposals for reform are merely wishful thinking.

  6. @ Paul Hunt
    The “choke-point” to reform is not only the tyranny of Cabinet but also to a parallel sense of helplessness among the citizenry which contibutes to the maintenance of the status quo. Contributors have been unfairly told off on this theoretical blog for calling for action.
    This was unfair and several clearthinking contributors disappeared. Good theory surely implies a desire to act on the theory.
    I would ask the question on their behalf again where is the pressure going to come from in order to start the reforms to politics and the political system so many people agree are needed?

    • @Manus Magee,

      It’s perhaps for others here, if they are so minded, to respond to the question you have posed, but I would like to address your observation on this “parallel sense of helplessness among the citizenry”. My sense is that this is both a learned and an enforced helplessness.

      Wrt the ‘learned’ aspect, as I’ve pointed out previously here, the system of governance via parliamentary democracy with a significant role for local governance, that was gifted to Ireland at the foundation of the state, was hundreds of years in the making on these islands – as it was in many of the other long-established European parliamentary democracies. And it was hundreds of years in the making because it took a long time for the basic idea of democracy to take root and for it to be expanded in application so as to overcome the strenuous opposition of native power elites to any attempt to subject them to effective democratic governance.

      And so, by the beginning of the last century, parliamentary democracy with universal suffrage was finally established on these islands. And its establishment, fortuitously in many respects, coincided with the final, successful push for Irish independence. During this final push, and in its aftermath, the composition of the native power elites changed dramatically. New groupings emerged to lead and drive this push and secured political and economic ascendancy in the aftermath; some groupings were able to shift political allegiances quite easily and advanced their relative positions; while some, too closely linked to the previous dispensation, lost out.

      Unfortunately, it appears that a majority of Irish people at the time were so grateful to those who had led the charge to (at least, partial) independence that they saw no need to subject these new or reconstituted elites to effective democratic governance. Instead citizens were convulsed by a conflict about the extent to which independence had been secured or should have been secured. And, as we are all well aware, it led to the formation of two political elites competing on this issue and which struggled to establish distinctive programmes of governance that would secure the necessary popular support to govern – while all the time the economic elites secured their position to insulate them from the impacts of changes in the governing factions.

      And the majority of citizens learned to accept this and to revel in their inalienable right to decide who governed at general elections – and to use every intervening opportunity at the polling booths to exercise some restraint on government. But they never seem to view the TDs they elected as having a duty to scrutinise or restrain government or to hold it to account as citizens in many other established democracies do.

      This ‘learned’ aspect has been reinforced by the ‘enforced’ aspect. Governments in parliamentary democracies everywhere have progressively, and often insidiously, increased their executive dominance over their parliaments. Over the last 20 years some kick-back against this has taken, and is taking, place in a number of the northern and central EU democracies. Parliaments are more and more asserting their primacy. But there is evidence whatsoever of this happening in Ireland – even though the current crisis was caused, to a great extent, by excessive executive dominance railroading totally wrong-headed policies through a supine parliament.

      And the overwhelming Dail majority enjoyed by the governing coalition in a time of economic crisis discourages any efforts at effective scrutiny of restraint of government – and it is highly likely that a majority of voters would not be impressed if government-side TDs were to attempt to do so as it would be exploited unmercifully by the opposition factions in their own narrow interests.

      There is never a good time for parliament to assert its primacy over government, but this is as good a time as any. Ireland may be suffering excessive bank crisis legacy costs, but it is sheltered to a considerable extent from external economic pressures by the official EU/IMF support. It is as good a time as any to reform democratic governance, but, first, people need to learn that they are not helpless, that they, and they alone, have the ultimate political authority and that they elect TDs not merely as constituency advocates or mini-ombudsperson, but to scrutinise, restrain and hold to account the government they elect.

  7. Manus,

    As one of the authors in the Irish Times article I don’t think it is fair to say we ‘attack’ or ‘criticise’ the voluntary citizens’ group Second Republic’s ideas or imply we dont respect the views of citizens groups. I thought we were respectfully engaging in debate.

    We do not dismiss the idea of Citizens Assemblies, rather noted they are most effective when tasked with single-issue projects. This means they would be effective in processing issues such as electoral reform but also many other types of political reform and many other issues of public interest. Our comment did question their suitability for an open agenda (the 2011 Programme for Government lists a number of items for the Constitutional Convention but also leaves the agenda open for any number of items which any process has to be able to manage). I think David’s proposal for a number of parallel ‘strands’ or processes operating to different time tables for reform is interesting.

    I agree with David that we share the same fundamental ambition of actively engaging with citizens in the process of political and constitutional reform that this government has promised. We may differ on our ambition for the scale of change but I don’t think what we advocate (local government reform, gender quotas, citizenship education particpation, equality) could be called a revolution. What we really want to stress is that some processes of constitutional change may have greater capacity to animate citizens. We need a process that offers opprtunity to examine values and challenge our political culture, a process that can enable a more active form of citizenship to shake off what Paul terms a ‘learned and enforced helplessness’.

  8. Mary,

    A military analogy might (or might not) be appropriate. The generals – some considerable distance from the front only have maps, charts and iffy, dated communications about what is happening.

    You ask the ‘Paddies’ in the trenches how to mount an assault. They will have tried many times, so they will know what will work, and more importantly, what will fail.


  9. I’m afraid that claiming to be ‘respectfully engaging in debate’ on constitutional issues is a tad disingenuous – if not downright misleading – while simultaneously pursuing a particular political agenda. Everyone has a perfect right to pursue a political agenda but this must be checked in at the door when considering constitutional issues. The Constitution is for everyone irrespective of any political allegiance or none. Indeed the test for those advancing reform of the Constitution is that they should ensure that those with whom they vehemently disagree on any number of issues will have the same rights and liberties as they wish to enjoy themselves.

    And the political agenda is not disguised. The South American examples chosen are all members of Hugo Chavez’s Bolivarian Alliance which adheres to a distinctive range of left-wing, state-centred, anti-US, anti-market economic and social policies. Nothing wrong with that once it can secure the freely given and informed consent of a majority of the people in these countries, but it is not the only political philosophy, not should it be assumed to superior to all others. The latter seems to be the case for the leaders of these countries and they are not very tender of the interests of those who dissent. In addition, defining rights and and claiming to be empowering people to be able to secure these rights reposes excessive power in the state as the granter and guarantor of these rights. In effect the state assumes all power and authority and then grants rights to citizens.

    This runs counter to the long-held and cherished principle in most of northern Europe that everything is permitted unless proscribed by laws democratically enacted. All people are free and must consent to have their freedoms curtailed by law or by government.

    But all this is largely irrelevant unless there is a desire to infiltrate the debate on Constitutional reform to empower the state to such an extent. I sincerely hope not, but we need to be on our guard.

    We have the full institutions of a parliamentary democracy; it’s just that they haven’t been used properly since the foundation of the state. All we need is a restoration of its principles and a modern version of their application – drawing on the experience of better-governed countries. The basic idea of parliamentary democracy is that people do not have to continuously involved in political matters or ‘animated’ by them. They delegate their authority and the responsibility to these with these matters to whose whom they elect. We only need to ‘animate’ people to the extent that they make sure that those they elect discharge their responsibilities – and much reform may be achiebed with amendment of the Constitution.

    We can then contemplate all sorts of wonderful and desirable additional Constitutional amendments.

  10. Apologies. The end of my last comment is typo and error-ridden. Trying to type in this darned box is a pain.

    “They delegate their authority and the responsibility to deal with these matters to those whom they elect. We only need to ‘animate’ people to the extent that they make sure that those they elect discharge their responsibilities – and much reform may be achieved without amendment of the Constitution.

    We can then contemplate all sorts of wonderful and desirable additional Constitutional amendments.

  11. @ Mary Murphy

    Regarding the article by Peadar Kirby and yourself I still think the following criticism directed at the voluntary citizens group Second Republic is unfounded; “Asking a citizens’ assembly made up of randomly chosen citizens to undertake a wider review of the Constitution raises grounds for concern.”
    You should get your facts straight. Their proposal is in fact for a political reform assembly which is much more usefully focussed than the ever broadening agenda of the Constitutional Review Convention. I am sure Second Republic are well able to clarify their position so I won’t elaborate.

    The article mentions Iceland where 30 elected people revised their entire constitution. There are counter-arguments against people being elected to draw up reform of the political system in particular. We could end up with a group of politicians drawing up reforms for the same system in which they all have such a stake.
    What is the problem with randomly chosen citizens in an assembly drawing up a wide range of political reform proposals?
    What exactly raises ground for concern?
    There is nothing to stop a political reform assembly dividing up into smaller assemblies to focus on different parts. David Farrel has suggested something similar albeit subsumed into a Constitutional Convention dominated by experts, interest groups and politcians
    “with a citizens’ assembly (possibly more than one) as one ‘strand’ focusing on certain key questions.”

    No one voluntary citizens group seems to have achieved the traction of active public support in sufficient numbers. My worry is that all these groups will fade away rather than coalescing into a popular front aimed at challenging the political status quo.
    This could end up leaving us in a vacuum which may encourage undemocratic tactics or even violence. Remember we still have three further years of cuts and austerity before we have actually seen the full damage of the financial crisis to this country. It is an unpredictable situation. We need as many citizens groups on board the democratic process as possible – the other alternative does not bear thinking about.

    • @Manus Magee,

      It will be interesting to see if either one or both of us will see a response to the questions you have raised and the observations I have made. I expect it is unlikely we will, since those on the left tend to scarper for cover when their real agenda is rumbled.

  12. Why has …”No one voluntary citizens group seem(ed) to have achieved the traction of active public support in sufficient numbers.”

    Good question.


  13. Might this be an answer: with sincere apologies to Isaiah Berlin: “Liberty”, (2008:186), for mangling his comment.

    It is not perhaps far-fetched to assume that the quietism of the contemporary Irish citizen is a response to the overarching control of our political elites, so that individual citizens are apt to be humiliated, or at any rate ignored or deliberately managed by those possessed of the instruments of economic, social and political coercion.

    This quote remind you of somewhere?

    “… … if those in government are subject to no control from their constituents, the very idea of liberty will be lost and the power of choosing representatives becomes nothing but a power, lodged in a few, to choose at certain periods a body of masters for themselves and for the rest of the community.”
    Petit: “Before Negative and Positive Liberty”, (1997:29).

    Then you have Enda wittering on in Davos. Cute political hoor or a country bumpkin? Cringing stuff. Bruton securely slamming door after comment has bolted. Noonan doing the “Soft-shoe shuffle in sh*t”. How bad does it have to get?

    • Several of the contributors above refer to the Second Republic proposal for a “Citizens Assembly for Political Reform” and the following clarifications may help the discussion.
      1. The membership of Second Republic is drawn from all viewpoints of the political spectrum. The proposal is not intended to promote any one political point of view, but rather to enable citizens to partake democratically in a process of renewal of our politics and systems of governance.
      2. It is envisaged that the various proposals for reform would be dealt with by sub-groups within the assembly, thereby enabling it to deal with a wide range of complex political reforms.
      3. It is recognised that much of the reform that needs to take place could be enacted by legislation, without the need for constitutional reform.
      4. The proposal deals exclusively with political reform, unlike the Governments proposed Constitutional Convention which includes
      other issues such as childrens rights and same-sex marriage.

      The full proposal document can be downloaded from

      • Brian,

        Given our efforts and experiences in 2nd Republic over the past year I can assure you that we are anything but “starry eyed” about our prospects for success. I would fully agree with you that #1 needs
        a major overhaul. Hopefully such an overhaul would be comprehensive enough to lead to a #2 that would be a lot more successfull than the current miserable failure that #1 has become !.


      • Fully agree with BW. We have all the necessary institutions of democratic governance; they just need to be made to work properly in the interests of the people. Telling people that the system need a major overhaul – and that it needs an additional institution to achieve this – is a huge insult to the vast majority of the Irish people. Since the foundation of the state they, and they alone, have decided by whom they are governed and the extent of governance. Where they have not been sufficiently engaged – and I suspect many realise this – is in how they are governed between general elections.

        Encouraging enough people to demand an improvement in the process of governance between general elections is the key challenge. Waffling on about ‘wethecitizens’ or a ‘2nd Republic’ is simply a distraction – and for most people I suspect an insulting distraction.

  14. Paul, I agree we have the required institutions for democratic governance, and I agree they need to to be made to work in the interests of the people. However this is unlikely to happen when the institutions are effectively in the complete control of the politicians.
    This is why 2nd Republic have called for citizen-led political reform via the mechanism of a Citizens Assembly.
    Given the current dire situation of our country, saying that the system has failed is only stating the blindingly obvious, and not intended to be insulting to anyone. Regarding the point about engaging citizens between elections … a Citizens Assembly would be an excellent vehicle for such engagement. As you rightly state this is the key challenge, and one which we are trying to address through our efforts in 2nd Republic.
    I can assure you that we are not engaged in “waffling” or “distractions” but rather trying to encourage debate by ordinary citizens in the area of political reform. Unfortunately many of the negative and pessimistic posts which appear regularly on this blog would appear to have the opposite intent.


    • Tom,

      “Unfortunately many of the negative and pessimistic posts which appear regularly on this blog would appear to have the opposite intent.”

      I can only speak for myself, though I’m sure some others against whom this charge might be levelled would agree, but this, most certainly, is not my intent.

      The challenge is to mobilise enough people to engage with their TDs – and to encourage their TDs to engage with them – to
      (1) concede that they (the voters) have treated, and continue to treat, their TDs as constituency advocates and mini-ombudspersons, but that much more is needed from them from now on;
      (2) accept that most TDs who are members of a party must remain loyal to their party-line (because party discipline is a necessary element of effective governance), but that they have a responsibility to scutinise government (even if it’s the one they elected), to restrain it when required to always hold it to account;
      (3) accept that they do not expect their TDs to be experts, but that they expect them to secure relevant expert advice (separate from that provided to or by government) to allow them them to make judgements in the public interest;
      (4) to accept that TDs will try to be all things to all people but to recognise that often trade-offs and compromises will be required between competing interests or one interest will have to be advanced to the detriment of another and that they expect TDs to force government to bring these policy decisions out in to the open from behind the closed doors so that they can make valid judgements;
      (5) to recognise that it is the duty of opposition TDs to oppose, but that they need more resources to hold government to account effectively and that government-supporting TDs should recognise that they can make common cause with opposition TDS to scrutinise government effectively without undermining loyalty to party or their duty to their constituents;
      (6) demand, in consjunction with their TDs, that the media cease exploiting any hint of a difference of opinion between members of the same party or government as evidence of a row, a split, a rift or a challenge to the authority of the party leadership. Personal ambitions will always clash, but on many occasions genuine policy disagreements arise and TDs should be free to elaborate these in the public domain. The media need to back off and foster genuine public debate that will lead to sound policy jusgements in the public interest.

      This is just an outline of the kind of dialogue I believe voters need to have with their TDs. TDs will do what people tell them because they want to be re-elected. People delegate their ultimate authority to them when they elect them; they are the people’s deputies. That is the nature of a parliamentary democracy. Most people don’t have the time or interest to do these things themselves and elect TDs to do the job for them – and to make some hard decisions they’d prefer not to. But the making of these decisions needs to be brought out in to the open. It’s the behind closed doors process that has gooten Ireland in to this mess.

      No intent to casue offence to those who are genuinely concerned and seeking to make progress by involving citizens directly, but, in my view this is the best way of making progress.

      • Paul, I am happy to say that I wholeheartedly agree with most of the points you make above, in particular your comment that the “closed door process” is a major factor in our current situation.
        It seems to me that political debate has reached the level of a verbal brawl, helped in no small measure by the media treating politics as a “blood sport”.
        On the point of people delegating responsibility to TDs, perhaps responsible citizens now need to be more active in scrutinising the performance of these TDs in the period between elections.
        As the phrase has it “the price of freedom is eternal vigilance”.
        At 2nd Republic we are currently grappling with the issue of how to motivate citizens to take an interest in these issues, and indeed to engage in the type of “dialogue” with their TDs that you propose. Any ideas or suggestions on how we could make progress in this area would be very welcome.


  15. @Paul,
    “Encouraging enough people to demand an improvement in the process of governance between general elections is the key challenge. Waffling on about ‘wethecitizens’ or a ’2nd Republic’ is simply a distraction – and for most people I suspect an insulting distraction.”
    The only reforms are needed during the four years and nine months between elections.
    Would this provide a need for some formal structure?
    What is insulting about wanting change? People elected President Higgins whose book is all about change.
    @ Tom
    Great to see people like 2nd Republic trying to make positive proposals along in the midst of gloom, doom and cynicism.
    How likely is it that the politicians will take on your idea of citizens taking over political reform? There is nothing in it for them. However the idea alone point the finger at the stagnant political establishment. Why has no one voluntary citizens group achieved the traction of active public support in sufficient numbers.

  16. “Why has no one voluntary citizens group achieved the traction of active public support in sufficient numbers?”

    I posted a plausible answer above. But here it is again.

    Might this be an answer? – with sincere apologies to Isaiah Berlin: “Liberty”, (2008:186), for mangling his comment.

    It is not perhaps far-fetched to assume that the quietism of the contemporary Irish citizen is a response to the overarching control of our political elites, so that individual citizens are apt to be humiliated, or at any rate ignored or deliberately managed by those possessed of the instruments of economic, social and political coercion.

    This quote remind you of somewhere?

    “… … if those in government are subject to no control from their constituents, the very idea of liberty will be lost and the power of choosing representatives becomes nothing but a power, lodged in a few, to choose at certain periods a body of masters for themselves and for the rest of the community.”
    Petit: “Before Negative and Positive Liberty”, (1997:29).

    Its not that Irish citizens are unwilling to ‘riot’, its just that the cause has to be related to some financial ‘right’ or ‘entitlement’ that is being infringed. Money talks! And my experience of political ‘focus’ groups is they are populated by persons with an immature, inadequate and unrealistic understanding of the problems they are attempting to address. As an electrician might say, “Your grounding strap is not connected to ground”. By all means pursue your ideas. Just try not to be dismayed by the outcome.

    Political changes will come, and I am quite concerned about the timing and nature. In the habit of such things, the trend is always toward more controllism. Just listen to the current ‘exhortations’ from the usual sources. Chicken Little come to mind? Our citizenry is, bye and large, poorly informed about political economy. And uneducated folk are just like leaves blowing hither and thither – believing everything they are told.

    Educate, then gather. Or gather to educate. Not exhort to action using an immature strategy.

    ” …gloom, doom and cynicism.” Or just straight, no frills reality commentary? How would folk react if I allowed that they were being, naive, silly, over exuberant, unrealistic, impractical, daft? Yeah, I thought so.


    • @Tom Weafer,

      Many thanks for continuing to engage. I regret that in the blogosphere it seems one has to be harsher and more provocative than one would like in order to prompt engagement on issues.

      I am pleased to hear that you and your colleagues are exploring ways to foster engagement and dialogue between citizens and TDs on what citizens should expect and demand from their TDs. This has to be the starting point because, if citizens look to using additional institutions – even temporary and secial purpose institutions such as a CA, TDs will feel threatened and will sense they are being by-passed. In addition, many citizens, quite understandably, will be uneasy about new institutions being pushed by ‘more active’ citizens whose objective is to change the ‘rules of the game’.

      I have no bright ideas on how this engagement might be successfully initiated, but I welcome your willingness to solicit ideas on this blog. It would be wonderful if TDs were approaching voters to secure their consent to empower and resource them (the TDs) to impose some effective restraint on government, but that’s unlikely to happen.

      I think we need to begin by looking at the incentives and constraints under which TDs operate. One starting point is to recognise that the prize of power is too great; there should be lesser prizes. As it is most TDs or aspiring TDs have only one career path to climb the greasy pole to a some position in government – and the vast majority will be disappointed either by being consigned to the government backbenches or to the opposition benches. Aspiring to be the chair or vice-chair of suitably empowered and resourced committees would provide an alternative career path. The prize of these posts is far too puny at the moment. And there are numerous changes to Oireachtas procedures that could be enacted without recourse to amendment of the Constitution and which would enhance the power, status and responsibilities of all TDs not on the government ‘payroll’.

      But TDs would have to recognise that these changes would be in their interests and in the interests of their constituents and that they would have to seek the consent of voters – mainly by engaging with them. And they would have to be convinced that the benefits for them and their voters are sufficient for them to brave the inevitable and potent, if not overly overt, opposition of government and party leaderships to any initiatives of this nature. A policy of ‘small steps’ might provide a means of encouraging the necessary dialogue.

      And, if the dialogue were to be initiated, it should be possible, at a fairly early stage to identify what progress might be made without recourse to Constitutional amendments and what issues might need these – and this would follow through automatically to the potential use of a CA to consider and frame these issues in a way for the people to decide.

      It is all, quite properly, but unfortunately, down to unmotivated, unincentivised and excessively disciplined TDs. But there is no reason why concerned and active citizens should not call on TDs to begin to engage in the necessary dialogue.

  17. @Tom
    This is not such a big step – engaging with politicians. There is nothing stopping any group asking to meet their public representatives and it would be a learning experience for both parties I’m sure. So far Second Republic have remained strangely silent on the details of how we are to reform the political system. Politicians would find that strange given the 30 pages of political reform promises in the Programme for Government.
    No harm for some groups to present the big picture and other groups to try for small openings but still where is the support on the ground?

    • @Manus Magee,

      I agree fully with the question/observation (?) you have addressed to me, but in your response to Tom Weafer I think you have put your finger on the cause of my unease about these citizen initiatives. There is an excessive focus on getting citizens involved directly without engaging directly with those to whom all citizens have delegated their ultimate authority between general elections.

      The simple message is: talk to the TDs. Tell them that they’re doing what people seem to want – they elect a government and then, for the duration of a Dail, continue to support or oppose it on the basis of that initial vote, they act as constituency advocates and mini-ombudspersons and they apply some very limited scrutiny to government-advanced legislation – but that, given what has happened in the last decade, quite a bit more is required from them from now on if they are to earn their oats. And so the dialogue starts.

      It’s perfectly understandable that a majority of people find it difficult to articulate what changes precisely they require – they are facing enough challenges in their daily lives, they have not had the opportunities to be trained or educated in these matters and they are prepared to, and are compelled to, delegate most of these responsibilities to the political classes, to political scientists, to the media, to commentators and opinion-formers and, to an extent, to other concerned citizens, but they know, deep down, that significant changes are required. The 30 pages of promises on political reform in the PfG (not to mind what was in all of the parties’ manifestos) to which you refer is convincing evidence that the political classes,
      in their usual half-arsed and self-serving way, are well aware of this deep-seated, but poorly articulated, demand for major changes in governance and public administration.

      But the politcial classes don’t want it to be articulated; they want to manage or exploit the process. And many people, quite understandably, fear that government may exploit the process to secure even more power or that self-appointed pressure groups, with their own agendas, might begin to drive the process.

      So it’s back to ordinary, but concerned and informed, citizens, declaring no interest in the pursuit of a specific political agenda, coming together collectively and seeking to engage with their TDs along the lines I outline above.

    • “There is nothing stopping any group asking to meet their public representatives and it would be a learning experience for both parties I’m sure.”


      Been there, done that. Might as well have been ‘goofing off’ on the West Pier of Dun Laoghaire harbour. They ‘hear’ what they want to hear – “and disregard the rest”.

      You’re correct about the learning experience bit. Bad and enlightening in equal measure. I have formed the opinion that its only The Flash and Bang Icelandic Symphony that will get those critters’ attention. That, and a few bad Red Cs.

  18. It’s not been a ‘eureka’ moment, and I know it’s something that I and many others have been saying here and elsewhere for a long time, but it’s finally hit me hard that Ireland has ceased to have an effective functioning parliamentary democracy for a long time – if even ever since indpendence.

    The first thing that prompted this was in the context of the non-banking structural reforms set out in the EU/IMF MoU. Although cobbled together in haste and under duress, these were intended to counter-act the economic growth sapping impact of the necessary fiscal adjustment.

    NESC has just issued a report on Economic Recovery and Employment:

    This report – almost 120 pages long – purportedly focuses on ‘economic recovery’, but yet fails to address these structural reforms in any meaningful way.

    It is just one more damning piece of evidence that parliamentary democracy has long since ceased to function in this country. If a statutorily established forum, comprised of senior representatives of the key competing and conflicting economic interests in the country engaging with senior representatives of the government-machine and competent and knowledgeable academics, cannot bring itself to address these issues in a comprehensive and effective manner then the public policy space has been totally foreclosed to the advantage of government (and the special interests able to influence it behind the scenes) and to the detriment of the public interest.

    And, yes, these reports are laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas, but what is the point when there is absolutely nothing of substance in them for the people’s elected representatives to consider?

    How long does Government – and the many who are complicit – think they will be able to sustain this optical illusion?

    But, perhaps, the most damning evidence is this latest clamour for a referendum on the ‘fiscal compact’. I suspect politicians and policy-makers in the other EU member-states using parliamentary democracy effectively must be asking the Irish Government: “Do you not have a parliament? It seems you have to consult your voters everytime some issue arises here.”

    The problem is not that citizens are not participating directly and sufficiently frequently in the political decision-making process; it’s that the emasculation of parliament requires them to get involved directly and more often than is sensible. And because they are required to get involved in this way and for this reason – which they deliberately or unwittingly have created – it appears they want to be involved directly more and more.

    Any attempt to highlight the fact that empowering and resourcing the Oireachtas would be a better way of making most public policy decisions is howled down as an attempt to curtail their ‘democratic rights’.

    And even in the case of the normal political process – when there is no question of a referendum being required – government attempts to deal directly with the people using its spin-machine and totally bypasses the Oireachtas.

    It really is a bit despair-inducing. How does one persuade a majority of voters to try something of which they have no direct knowledge or experience when they seem to quite like what they’ve got – even if they know, deep down, that it hasn’t worked and doesn’t really work in their interests?

  19. @Brian
    So there’s no point in talking to Politicians. Point understood and your bitter experience noted.

    That still doesn’t answer the question set at the beginning of this blog.

    How do we involve citizens in the process of political reform?

    • @Manus,

      And so we seem to have come full circle. My only suggestion is that we need a very simple collective public effort that tries to pull in the interested political scientists, the media commentators and opinion formers (who have frequently demanded political reform) and all other interested citizens – with all declaring no interest in a specific political or economic agenda – to adress a simple statement to all citizens.

      And it might be along the following lines:

      “Ireland has a long-established, stable democratic system of governance of which all irish people are entitled to be proud. It has a proper and fully respected division of powers between government and the judiciary, but the underlying system of parliamentary democracy has never functioned well – and it has functioned less well over time. Governments, over time, have become more powerful and there has been a huge increase in the apparatus of government. And, correspondingly, over time the ability of the Oireachtas to scrutinise government, to restrain government and to hold it to account has diminished. And this has contributed enormously to the extent and seriousness of the problems Ireland is confronting. The extent to which public policy is decided behind closed doors, subject to the influence of who what special interests, presented as a fait accompli in draft legislation, spun furiously and whipped through the Oireachtas was, and remains, a hindrance to good governance in the public interest. Open, transparent, adversarial disputation of public policy proposals based on facts, evidence and analysis is the most effective means of ensuring good governance in the public interest.

      Nevertheless, your TDs work very hard. Once they elect a government they have a duty to support it – and those in opposition have a duty to oppose it. Party discipline is a necessary element of effective governance, but unquestioning loyalty is not in the public interest. Your TDs also work very hard – and probably much harder than members of parliament in many other countries – representing, advancing and protecting the interests of their constituencies and your interests, individually or collectively. But this frequently distracts them from performing their primary function. This is to exercise the ultimate power, which all of you, collectively, possess and which you have delegated to them, to ensure that the legislation they enact and that the implementation of the policies and the executive actions enabled by this legislation are genuinely in the public interest.

      We are calling and we urge you to call on all Members of the Oireachtas, but, in particular, on all TDs, to secure the necessary powers and resources and to establish the procedures that would allow them to scrutinise government (and all of its agencies) effectively, to exercise proper, but not excessive, restraint over government and to hold it properly to account. The current powers, resources and procedures of the Oireachtas are entirely inadequate. They need to be strengthened; and they have to be strengthened, because this strengthening is vitally necessary to secure a timely and effective recovery from the current crisis. This path will be long and hard, but without this strengthening, it will be even longer and harder.”

      Thoughts, anyone?

  20. Manus,

    Thanks for the comment. The trite, and most unsatisfactory reply to the question would be, “With the greatest difficulty!”

    Start with the young. They are very curious and very receptive to a simple, truthful tale. Seriously!

    Start with our pre- and actual teens. Get them when their testosterone and oestrogen levels are starting to climb. Have to be v-careful about your tale. Must be 101% accurate!

    Parents of above tend to be a tad conservative (Ireland has only orphan socialists). So, some caution is advised. Message has to be about their money. See below.

    Start with undergrads – but you have to be real careful here. Many have very black-white, military-grade concrete versions of reality*.

    Start with the Joe Duffy brigade – the ones with the 10 sec attention spans. Can you get a truthful, hard-hitting tale into 8 seconds? Mention ‘money’, aka: Taxes: use tems like; ‘stolen’, ‘mugged’, and most imp. keep referring to our politicians as drug addicts – addicted to spending other folk’s money. Keep the message simple; money!, money!, money!. That gets folk’s attention. Of course, when they realise that what you are REALLY getting at is their entitlments – you better have a secure exit point secured!

    The ones to ‘forget’ about. Postgrads (mostly); part of the ‘club’. Political scientists (mostly); owners of the club. Politicians (not all); addicts have no interest whatsoever in rehab. The Chattering Class; too busy talking, have severe hearing deficits and utterly incomprehensible belief systems. Drivetime, Morning Ireland, are Chattering Class vehicles. VB might heed, but few heed VB! Letters to eds. (cf: Chattering Class vehicles). Pol corrs (with some honorable exceptions); are very mindful where their paycheques come from. Irish middle-class and upwards in general; would endure significant losses if we had a gov that was truely accountable to parliament. Folk are very, very loss averse; assimilate gains immediately, and forget about them faster.

    As the man said; “If you do not want a rotten apple, pick one from the tree, not out of the barrell”. Very sound advice. Enrol a real good PR Guy (or Gal).

    So, “Now you know how its made!”. Apologies for the cheerful, bright, encouraging message. 😉


    * Undergrads can be very tik (sic). UCDSU upholds a examination marking system [Negative Marking] that has been shown to be both invalid and inequitable, and refuses to change its stance. What can one say?

  21. @Paul
    Your idea of a campaigning umbrella group of various commentators and organisations is concrete and positive. Such groups and commentators need to sit down and come up with a common platform of basic policies. Perhaps to start with 2nd Republic’s simple kickstart the reform process approach ( and not spending 20 years arguing about which actual reforms) might be the way to go. No mean feat.
    Your analysis gives no hope for the democratic process and infers the conclusion that only civil unrest will bring change. That point was made in the more recent blog on Article 27 on this site.

    I remain somewhat hopeful that enough people will eventually see there is nothing to be gained by passive acceptance of the status quo.

    • @Manus,

      There’s really no need for a platform of basic policies. All we need to is switch the policy design, scruntiny, amendment and decision-making process from the current approach of making the decision behind closed doors and then searching for the evidence to justify it – the policy-based evidence approach – to and evidence based policy approach.

      Let all proposed policies go though this mincer in an open transparent manner with robust adversarial disputation based on facts, evidence and analysis – and there is a sporting chance that those that survive will be in the public interest.

      Those that get rammed through the Oireachtas using the current approach almost inevitably are not

    • Manus, Thanks for comment. Civil unrest – as in mass protest with pots, pans and wooden spoons is the only thing that will attract enough attention. Unfortunately, the substantive issue, radical political restructuring will be side-lined by some more salient matters – like Big Phil’s tanks. Folks are a tad attached to their status-quo. Like limpets on a rock. Need a good jemmy.

    • Manus, In the 2nd Republic proposal “A Citizens Assembly on Political Reform” we have listed the possible areas for reform as follows;
      a. a review and revision of the Constitution to effect political reform (including reform of the electoral
      b. the operation of the Oireachtas:
      i. the President,
      ii. the Seanad,
      iii. Dáil Éireann, including Dáil committees,
      iv. the legislative process;
      c. ethics and accountability in politics;
      d. local government;
      e. transparency and freedom of information;
      f. the civil service;
      g. public bodies, including the judiciary;
      h. other matters for political reform or projects for practical collaboration that emerge during the
      Assembly process.
      I agree that this is a very wide agenda, and the reform process would require a mix of constitutional change and legislation. This is why we propose that the Citizens Assembly would deal with these areas in sub-groups. Within 2nd Republic we are attempting to put together the “umbrella group” you suggest, and we are not working to any particular political agenda. Our sole focus is on reform of the political system itself. At present our greatest challenge is to engage a substantial body of citizens in this process.
      Paul, Your suggestion for a “very simple collective public effort that tries to pull in the interested political scientists, the media commentators and opinion formers” is one that I can wholeheartedly support. Again within 2nd Republic we have been actively trying to do this, with the response from all of the above being generally disappointing. On the other hand where we have managed to engage directly with politicians we have found a genuine level of interest in our proposals, and (ironically) a widely expressed level of frustration with the current system !.
      I am not sure exactly how it is possible to break the current logjam, however it may be that when the inherent contradictions in the current “troika” of policies – no tax increases, no Social Wefare cuts, no changes the to Croke Park agreement – become apparent that this may prove to be a tipping point.


      • @Tom Weafer,

        I have no wish to be appear dismissive of the huge efforts you and your colleagues are putting in to this. It just strikes me that the agenda is far too broad – and, perhaps, a tad too ‘revolutionary’. Irish people don’t seem to ‘do revolution’. They appear broadly happy with the democratic institutions they have. I just sense they wouldn’t like it if everything were thrown up in to the air. That’s why I keep banging on about restoring the principles of parliamentary democracy and adapting them for this age. If this key and essential bedrock were restored it would anchor the process to consider all sorts of reforms – and I expect most people would feel more comfortable and reassured and be prepared to contemplate further reforms. .

        And I wouldn’t be too reliant on externally induced ‘tipping points’. The demand for reform will have to be driven by the people irrespective of economic factors.

  22. @Paul
    Of course “switching the design, scrutiny, amendment and decision making process” sounds logical and simple but who is going to drag FG/Labour away from current crisis management to take on the job of changing the way we do things in a way which has never been done before?
    Basic policies coud mean avery simple list areas for reform.There is a need for some fundamental changes which have been teased out on this and other sites such as ideintifying a new role for backbenchers, cross-party inititiatives, reducing Cabinet’s overpowering control of everything etc.
    This will all require leigislation and constitutional changes.
    Who is going to buck the trend of footdragging on political reform by politicians? IMOP pressure needs to come from an umbrella group – reaching deep in to Irish Society at local level and applying pressure form outside on all politicians to do something about reforming the political system.

    • @Manus,

      You’ll find no disagreement here – expect perhaps to point out that the ‘crisis management’ is largely a fictional conceit (since Ireland is in a programme of official support that is sheltering it from the pressures to which those who are not in such a programme are exposed) to justify their resistance to any sort of meaningful political reform. You’ll hear the usual guff that consideration of political refrom is a luxury when the future of the country is at stake and “Ní hé lá na gaoithe lá na scolb”. And the irony is that any ‘crisis management’ is needed to manage the head-to-heads between ministers and various interest groups. And this ‘managing’ is required because there is no functioning parliament to mediate between the people and government and to adjudicate on these special interests.

      And it doesn’t really involve “changing the way we do things in a way which has never been done before”. It’s about a restoration of the principles of parliamentary democracy that were gifted to this state at its foundation and adapting them to this age.

      But you’re right. We need a lead from the academics, high profile commentators and opinion-formers – but with a clear declaration that they are not pursuing any specific political agenda. That would rule out quite a few of them.

      And this is not intended to be seen as patronising ordinary concerned citizens. It’s just that most simply do not have the time, not have had the opportunity, to inform themselves about the various issues and aspects. But they know something is wrong and it needs to changed. And I have no doubt that, given some information and guidance, they would be very fast learners.

      Irish people seem to be quite conservative and have no interest in revolutionary change. It took them two years to endorse the broad objectives of the 1916 Rising. They cautiously, and subsequently, endorsed the TK Whitaker-inspired shift in economic policy in the late ’50s. Deciding, in 1972, to join the EEC was a pretty logical follow through – and voting split along party lines. We should probably ignore the GUBU decade from 1977. Voters everywhere at some time have fallen for the snake-oil salesmen offering a free lunch. But to do it twice in just over 20 years suggests that there is a fundamental problem. And I suspect most people realise this, but, perhaps, find it difficult to articulate.

      And that is probably as good a starting point as any. Why were Irish people encouraged to fall for the snake-oil twice in a little over 20 years?

  23. @Tom
    Your political reform shopping list seems to cover everything!
    I notice the judiciary. That would need a Citizens’ Assembly all of its own. ( muzzling of civic-minded judges by the State, wierd re-interpretations of the Constitution by ex cathedra Supreme Court wizards, politically appointed judges etc.)
    I note you have attempted to form alliances with other groups and failed. That does not bode well for any concerted national action on forcing politicians to implement political reform. Unfortunately the dissatisfied and the thinking classes have a great abiltiy to drive wedges.

    Snake oil, pane et ludi etc will always be with us. Those commentators who can tell extremely poisonous snake oil or lousy bread need to raise the emergency siren the next time the vote-buying carnival hits town. The intellectual watchdogs were a bit timid the last time FF fecked the family silver.

    A lead by academics, commentators and opinion formers is not enough.
    Democracy Now was a project initiated by commentators and opinion formers – this example makes me dubious about national luminaries on their own being enough.
    A grassroots movement The Political Reform League(probably a coalition of existing grpoups) with carefully chosen luminaries as spokespeople is needed to give the luminaries’ words added power. However a charismatic leader able to unite the different strands of dissent seems to be in absence as yet.

    • @Manus,

      My response at 12:56pm to Tom Weafer (above) may also be relevant here. I would suggest Tom and his colleagues are too ambitious in the range of institutions and processes that need to be addressed. I sense that most people are broadly happy with the institutions in place and this broad listing may be too ambitious and suggests that the Government and the Oireachtas are not doing anything – which of course raises hackles and resistance.

      The diversity of opinion and dissent reflects the fact that huge numbers of opinions and ideas are being advanced to solve specific problems, but there is no forum to test them or winnow out the chaff. To avoid getting bogged down in all of this my suggested focus is on the best means of defining, assembling the evidence and crafting solutions to problems that will secure democratic legitimacy. So that’s why i keep banging on about restoring the principle of parliamentary democracy and reforming the powers, resources and procedures of the Dail.

      Keep the focus on the means to find, agree and implement solutions to the multiple problems and challenges. Parliamentary democracy has proven time and gain that it is the best available means of achieving this. The insitutions exist, but the process has hardly ever beeen applied effectively in Ireland. It is time to try it properly.

  24. @Paul
    Focussing on solutions to problems is all very well but so many academics, politicians and citizens who come face to face with the results of our political system on a daily basis indicate that reforms are needed.
    I believe people would support a clear campaign for prioritised strategic reforms of our dysfunctional system. Who and how that campaign is to be organisd is another question.
    That sums up my comments on the original question posed on this blog.

    How exactly is the process to be applied effectively if no reforms take place?

  25. @Manus,

    Of course reforms are require, but my argument is to keep the focus on a limited number of key reforms that may be used to leverage others – whose benefits will be understood once some initial reforms are implemented. You’ve mentioned some key ones yourself – “a new role for backbenchers, cross-party initiatives, reducing Cabinet’s overpowering control of everything etc.”

    My sense is that many people are put off when they’re told that every aspect of the current institutions and procedures of democratic governance needs to be reviewed and reformed. All countries should keep these processes under continuous review, but Ireland needs some basic reforms in the procedures of parliamentary democracy.

    A step by step approach always building on the people’s consent is required. But that needs some very specific first steps. And my focus in on the Dail and its relationship with Government.

  26. @Paul
    I have listed a three key reforms but would have to think hard before adding to that list. I agree that trying to fix everything all at once is a bit offputting.
    What specific additional reforms would be a prerequiste for parliamentary democracy to proceed in a manner more beneficial to the common good in this jurisdiciton?

    • @Manus,

      I know I’ve being banging on about this for ages, but I have no specific training or competence in this area – just an instinctive grasp of the first principles of parliamentary democracy and a conviction that they need to be restored and adapted for these times.

      I’m calling out to others here who have spent far more time on this and whose knowledge and competence is far superior to mine.

      All offers welcome, but I believe the focus should be on restoring and enhancing the process of parliamentary democracy. Getting this right will make it far easier to tackle the whole range of issues that invariably arises in a measured and effective manner – and in a manner that secure genuine democratic legitimacy.

      • Paul, like yourself I am not an expert in the workings of the Oireachtas. However here are some suggestions to consider;
        The power balance between the Executive and the Dail needs to be re-aligned. All legislation should go through a reformed and strenghtened committee system. The whip system should be reformed to allow free voting by all TDs at committee stages. This would mean that each piece of legislation would have to “earn” it’s majority vote to be passed. Those TDs willing to engage seriously at
        committee level would then have an opportunity to effectively shape legislation.
        The relationship between Ministers and senior civil servants also needs to be redefined. At present the Carltona doctrine means the Minister is responsible for all decisions, however the Minister always claims to be acting on “best advice” from the civil servants. This means in effect that nobody is responsible to the Dail for any decisions !. The Ministers and Secretaries Act should be overhauled to make both the civil servants and the Ministers directly responsible to the Dail.
        Finally FOI needs to be rolled back to the 1997 Act at a minimum, and preferably there should be a new Act which would introduce a Swedish-style model where full disclosure is the default position. This would remove a great deal of secrecy which currently hampers full accountability.
        As far as I am aware none of the above reforms would require referendums to be put into effect.


  27. @Tom,

    Thank you. I was holding back partly due to my lack of detailed knowledge, but also to allow people like Donal O’Brolchain and Finbar Lehane (and any others) -who have been expounding much more knowledgeably and for far longer on these matters – to say their piece. But I think you have set out some key requirements. And, so far as i am aware, I believe, as you seem to, that these changes would not require constitutional amendments.

  28. @Paul
    Not an expert either, just a interested amateur. But Dáil reform is definitely a subject that interests me. Fully intend to do a longer post with some miscellaneous thoughts/biases/ideas on this that have occured to me so far, but things a little hectic here on this end. I’ll get around to it eventually! 🙂 Tom makes some interesting points above. FoI is important too. Its relationship to cabinet confidentiality is probably an important question also (not something I’ve really had time to research or think about though). Same with the relationship between the civil service and government.

    • Thanks, Finbar. All grist welcome at this mill – irrespective of when it’s delivered.

      I think Tom and I are in the same boat in that we’re looking for changes in Oireachtas standing orders and procedures, etc., that would be useful in terms of scrutiny, restraint and accountability of government, but that wouldn’t require constitutional amendments.

      It’s not the kind of stuff that will get people’s pulses racing, but, given that the entire population seems to have become expert and fluent on all sorts of economic and financial arcana, we might be able to slip a bit of this in to the mix. Getting a few simple changes that, ideally, would involve a bit of low level conflict between the Dail and the Government (with the Government twisting arms behind the scenes because it wouldn’t have the guts to mount a full frontal assault) could begin to break the logjam.

  29. @Tom
    We are all experts and living witnesses now on the results of a dysfunctional political system! You choices of non-constitutional reforms seem to be central to our problems.
    The cabinet on its own is the government – to reduce cabinet tyranny a change in the Constitution is needed.
    Enda Kenny was gungho on this on Tuessay in the Dail when Gerry Adams dared to question whether the Constitutional Review Convention’s recommendations would be put to the people.
    All recommendations will be “deliberated” on by Cabinet ergo Convention is another quango delivering another report to be duly ignored. Of course Taoiseach is only following the Constitution!

    Here are modest reform proposals from former politicians.

    Which of these reforms would help to prevent another crisis like the present?

  30. A number of related themes keep cropping up in relation to Dáil reform: giving power back to the Dáil, increasing separation between government and legislature, the role of a TD (legislative, national v local).

    On giving power back to the Dáil, the first question to ask is who currently doesn’t have much power or only a limited role in the Dáil. The answer is, in different ways, backbench TDs and the opposition. Different kinds of strategies are needed for these two groups.

    IMO a proper and comprehensive reform of the Dáil needs constitutional change. However, empowering backbench TDs is an area of reform where a change in standing orders and legislation could probably achieve a lot, so I’ll start there.

    Parliamentary secret ballots are the friend of the backbencher. An obvious and straightforward reform approach, as I’ve argued here before, would be to adapt the types of reforms advocated by Tony Wright and the UK Reform of the House of Commons Select Committee, see . These reforms were made in response to the expenses scandal. The UK system isn’t perfect but it is also true that they don’t tend to waste a good crisis. This report proposed that the House of Commons speaker be elected by secret ballot. It also argued that committee chairs and composition of committees be determined by secret ballot. These particular reforms have already taken place and been implemented. For the committee chair elections, the parties first came together and divided up the chairs amongst themselves (this was done reasonably proportionately). So if a particular chair is allocated to Labour, then in stage two of the process, backbench Labour MPs can nominate each other for election to that committee chair. A secret ballot then takes place. The entire commons, though, gets to vote. I guess the idea is that, even if a chair has been allocated to a government party, a more independent minded government backbencher is more likely to garner votes from opposition MPs and hence win.

    Committee composition is also determined by secret ballot within party groups, with the process being supervised by one of the deputy speakers to ensure the rules are applied correctly and fairly. So if Labour is proportionately allocated X seats in a committee, a secret ballot amongst the Labour backbenchers will determine who gets these X seats.

    Another major strand of the Tony Wright report was the idea that parliament itself would have much greater control over House business. The mechanisms proposed to achieve this were the creation of two new committees: the Backbench Business Committee and the House Business Committee.

    Private members have traditionally been relatively well catered for in the Commons. When parliament is sitting, approximately one day a week is allocated to backbench business (mostly in the main chamber but sometimes in Westminster Hall). There’s a long history of sucessful private members bills, about 1000 successful such bills over the past century, with several possible routes to getting such a bill passed. The ballot is probably the route with greatest chance of success. Each parliamentary term 20 MPs are selected at random from these who put their names forward. These get allocated extra debating time, with the first seven getting at least a day’s worth. Those towards the top of the list can find themselves being petitioned by other MPs who have good ideas for private member’s bills. An MP near the top of the list with a good relatively uncontroversial proposal would have a fair chance of seeing a bill become law. In our own Oireachtas there is almost zero tradition of private members’ bills (with one or two rare exceptions). Though I was interested to see a recent comment by Joanna Tuffy defending the extra Friday sitting once a month which at least does give some time for private members bills. And there seems to be random allocation of time to backbenchers. A small step in the right direction perhaps (though it’s really scheduled at an unpopular time).

    The Backbench Business committee is a recent addition. This was created in 2010. Its members are backbenchers elected by secret PR-STV ballot, with one or two extra stipulations. They oversee and manage backbench business.

    The current UK coalition government has promised to create the more general House Business Committee in this parliamentary term. This will consist of representatives of the main Commons groups: the elected members of the Backbench Business Committee, plus front bench members from government and opposition parties, and chaired by one of the deputy speakers specifically elected for this purpose. It’s proposed that the scheduling of House Business will be controlled by this committee, with backbencher representatives having a significant input.

    The final strand in the Tony Wright report (and the least interesting in my view) is the idea of allowing ordinary citizens to petition parliament. IMO this is a pale shadow of a proper citizens’ initiative mechanism. And something along these lines is talked about in our own government’s programme for government. I suppose, though, a public petition on Europe did cause ructions and rebellion in the Commons late last year.

    Similar measures in the Dáil could give backbenchers a greater role, particularly if the role of committees in the legislative process is strengthened. However, it does strike me that such backbencher empowerment could be quite a fragile thing. It depends on a general desire for this in the Dáil and good faith from party leaderships. If party leaders decide to clamp down and backbenchers meekly go along with this, then ways can be found to circumvent almost any type of rule. Just because there’s a secret ballot doesn’t mean the result is necessarily reflective of backbencher wishes.

    For example, there’s nothing stopping the Ceann Comhairle being elected by a secret ballot (the constitution specifies an election but says nothing about the manner of the election). Ideally several candidates would be proposed by backbenchers and various parts of the house, there would be a hustings and each candidate would make their case, and there would be a free and competitive secret ballot. But if there is no goodwill then this election might degenerate to nothing more than the government parties proposing a single candidate, the opposition parties nominating one or two more, a secret ballot being held, and the single government candidate winning.

    Others have proposed that committees themselves should elect their own chair. That mechanism strikes me as being particularly easy to compromise. That system is followed in Canada, if I recall correctly, and a rigid whip system is applied. Anyway, even if a secret ballot was used in this case, really how anonymous can one be in secret ballot of 11 or 15 in a committee? The Commons system would probably better resist party pressure. Though that could be manipulated too, and we might get just one candidate party candidate for a chair automatically elected unopposed.

    In the Irish case, I’d favour secret PR-STV committee elections (following our long PR-STV tradition). For chairs, a reasonable method might be to group reasonably similar committees together in groups of five or six. There would then be a single election for all chairs and vice-chairs (and perhaps subcommittee chairs) available for this group. TDs could simply nominate themselves for the election. PR-STV can then produce a ranking of all TDs taking part from first to last. A simple PR-STV variant would do this nicely (no quotas or surplus transfers are involved, one eliminates the last TD and redistributes his votes to the remaining candidates, then eliminates the next worst remaining and so on, keeping going until all but one candidate remains, the order of elimination then gives the reverse ordering). The highest ranked TD gets his choice of job, then second gets second choice and so on. If a committee chair later gets promoted to cabinet then one can simply look further down the list to find a replacement. I’d also favour a simple PR-STV election over all backbenchers to fill remaining ordinary committee seats.

    This system would be quite resistant to party pressure. Say there are 10 chair and vice-chair positions going in an election. There could easily be 20 or 30 candidates running in the election. With so many running it’s far easier for a backbench TD to put his head above the parapet and nominate himself to run. And at least there has to be a meaningful election.

    Some of the above measures would increase backbencher involvement. They would depend on a genuine and widespread desire in the Dáil to see things change (otherwise they may degenerate into lip-service). The fact that such measures were brought in at all in the UK must signify that this desire was there to some degree.

    These are not the only measures that would strengthen the hand of backbenchers. A soft measure would be to relax the whip system, not have a three-line whip for everything. That simply depends on an initial and then continuing general Dáil willingness for this to happen.

    Others have argued for a constitutional prohibition of the whip. There are good reasons for the existence of the whip (increasing chances of re-election being the primary one). It’s essentially an informal system (though codified to some degree by giving a person an explicit parliamentary job as the whip). A constitutional prohibition, if there was no willingness, would probably work as well as the attempt to ban team orders in formula one a few years back! 🙂

    But one could weaken the whip system, as I’ve argued before, by weakening the suite of carrots and sticks, inducements and punishments, that leaderships use to impose party discipline. Whether that would be a good thing, and if so the degree to which that should be done, is quite a complex question.

    Party discipline is certainly far laxer in a presidential system like in the US. In the US system the best and worst seem to be magnified, representatives are freer agents, able to exert greater accountability, but there’s perhaps more nakedly grubby deal-making and pork. I suppose the fusion of powers parliamentary system is more of a compromise, more of a team sport really, the extremes (both good and bad) being blunted and a more boring middle is the result. Accountability suffers though with government TDs rowing in behind the team. One would have to wonder is Ireland getting the worst of both worlds, with accountability blunted and us still getting localism in spadefuls. I think there’s a reasonable argument that a greater separation of powers between government and legislature here would be no bad thing.

    One approach, if working within a single chamber, might be to weaken the incentive structure that underlies the whip system: things like patronage, parliamentary jobs, pay and expenses, party candidate selection, party/electoral financing, pork, and Dáil dissolution.

    Some of the more interesting strategies for curbing these levers of persuasion would involve constitutional change, but some don’t, e.g. bringing in a formal and reformed system for public appointments, where state board and quango positions can no longer be doled out to TDs’ relatives in behind-closed-door deals. Have posted on this general topic before several times, so, to avoid boring people, I’ll just link to a previous post:

    Think I’ve written enough for now. Giving more formal power to the opposition is another topic I’ve been interested in lately. The use of supermajorities and giving positive rights to qualified minorities would be the main tools for tempering simple majority rule. See my post for some ideas along these lines. These tools are probably a lot less fragile than the use of secret ballots to empower backbenchers. It’s probably opposition party groupings that would use these mechanisms.

    Perhaps standing orders or legislation could be stretched in this direction. For example, the Norwegian Committee on Scrutiny and Constitutional Affairs (a bit like our PAC and new petitions committee roled into one) gives minority rights to a third of its members, e.g. they can initiate an investigation.

    But robust mechanisms of this type would require constitutional change. However, there are a number of upcoming flashpoints where such change could be argued for.

    I suspect there will be a future re-run of the Oireachtas inquiries referendum, with hopefully a better wording in terms of rights protection. That’d be an excellent time to argue for minority inquiry rights as exists in the German constitution, where a quarter of MPs can initiate an inquiry and have their rights protected in the conduct of the inquiry, call witnesses, and have their dissenting findings recorded in the final report if they not in agreement with the government (see article 44 of ).

    Seanad abolition is another opportunity. It’s one thing to tear down an existing structure. What checks and balances are to be put in place? A good time to ask questions about Dáil reform. I’m also interested if article 27 of the constitution will be left in place. If 1/3 of TDs can petition the president to put a bill of grave national importance to a referendum (no longer encumbered by a Seanad with an almost automatic government majority) then a useful power will be given to opposition TDs, a power that might have been significant the time of NAMA and the bank guarantee.

    I’d also be in favour of giving a qualified Dáil minority (2/5) powers to delay non-money bills (rather like currently exists in the Danish constitution or existed in the original Free State constitution).

    The idea would be that a non-money bill couldn’t be signed by the president for a given number of days after final passage. 2/5 of TDs could send a petition to the president within that period. This would automatically apply a suspensive veto to the bill for a given period (perhaps a year). Only a majority of 3/5 or more in the intervening period would allow it to become law. Otherwise, after the suspension period was up, a simple government majority would pass the bill (this gives the government the option to simply leave it lapse).

    The very nature of standing orders/parliamentary procedures is also an interesting question. We’ve a system where the government can chop or change procedures at a whim with a simple majority. There’s something to be said for the Swedish setup where standing orders (the Riksdag Act) have a status intermediate between their constitution and ordinary legislation. A 3/4 majority is required to alter parliamentary procedures, which provides good minority protection. The government can also use the same procedure as is used for constitutional change (two identical votes separated by a minimum time period and a general election, with the opposition (a third of MPs) furthermore able to trigger a referendum on the change at the same time as the general election). Not surprisingly, the speaker of the Riksdag (elected by secret ballot) is a very prestigious and powerful position. When rules are difficult to change the referee of those rules becomes a far more important role. And as parliaments go, the Riksdag seems to be one of most effective and best run examples. There’s definitely something to the Swedish approach to parliamentary procedure. In the Dáil standing orders probably have a lower status than even ordinary legislation. The Ceann Comhairle enforces the rules of procedure. But when the rules themselves can be altered at a whim it undermines the entire role to an extent.

    Another important question is whether we should allow (or perhaps require) some ministers from outside the Oireachtas entirely. Having this as an option would probably be pointless. There’s already the provision to have up to two ministers from the Seanad who can be Taoiseach’s nominees. Sean Moylan and Jim Dooge are the two solitary examples. Think this would only work if there was a minimum requirement. This might not be the panacea it’s sometimes made out to be (it’s likely party officials could be appointed). But could increase the ministerial talent pool. Special mechanisms of accountability would be needed for such ministers. Perhaps a majority in a separate Dáil secret ballot would be needed to confirm the appointment. And perhaps individual votes of no confidence in such ministers should be possible, which would not bring down the entire cabinet if successful. This would also tend to increase executive legislature separation.

    Many European countries require that TDs give up their seat/vote if they become a minister. Usually a designated alternative would take over their seat. I’m not so sure if this idea and our electoral system would make for a comfortable marriage, especially given some of its dynastic tendencies. It’s probably workable in a list system. But can’t imagine a minister would be too comfortable if his local rival was keeping his seat warm for him! 🙂 More likely it would be his son or daughter or a close associate.

    Localism is yet another important topic. But think I’ve written enough already. Finally, want to link to an interesting article. One of the founders of this blog, Eoin O’Malley, wrote this article last year (see ), which touches on some more issues related to Dáil reform. He also outlines a rather nice scheme concerning FoI and cabinet confidentiality, where a commission made up of “the President, the Speakers of both Houses, the head of the civil service and the party leaders, could make a decision as to whether a piece of information should be exempted.”

    • @Finbar,

      Many, many thanks for this. It is a near perfect exposition of a policy of ‘small steps’, none of them in any way revolutionary and all of them incremental, but which cumulatively over time would alter the balance of power between parliament and the executive in the general public interest. You also mention some other areas, e.g., FoI, where those with knowledge and competence, such as Eoin O’Malley of this parish, have made valuable contributions. And you mention localism in passing. This is another area where some ‘gradualism’ is required to re-balance central and local powers in favour of the latter.

      And we can only hope that the people’s rejection of the ‘Abbeylara’ amendment will be re-visited in a more positiove and constructive fashion to genuinely empower and resource Oireachtas Cttees.

      But the focus has to be on these small steps. Make a change or a number of small changes, say in standing orders to give the Oireachtas some more say in determining the business of the Houses or the election of Cttee chairs or curtailing a little the powers of the whips, see how they work, tweak them a little if required, move on a little, make another change, see how it works. A long drawn out process, yes, but gradualism and allowing time for the beneficial impacts of the changes to be appreciated will build the momentum for more of the same gradual reform.

      For 65 years the executive has accreted more and more power continuously and insidiously as the role of the state and its apparatus has expanded – and all at the expense of the Oireachtas and locally elected governance. This won’t, or can’t, be rolled back overnight. The ‘reforms’ the Government proposes, and the tentative steps it has made, have little subtstance, are designed to cause the least dicomfort to government and are intended to project an optical illusion of comprehensive political reform.

      The problem is that, for most people, all of this is as dry as dust. It doesn’t charge the blood. But these are the vital, though under-appreciated, processes that ultimately determine the well-being of society and the performance of the economy. And it is serious and cumulative failing in these processes that are the principal reasons that Ireland in this mess.

      Getting people to join up the dots is the challenge.

      • @Paul,
        “The problem is that, for most people, all of this is as dry as dust.”
        This is the real heart of the problem. How to engage the ordinary citizens in this subject in a way that enables people “to join up the dots”.
        At this point it seems like a very daunting task.

      • @Paul
        Just exploring different options. It’s fun to come up with a Premiership fantasy team of 11 players! Same with trying to construct the perfect political system. It’s still a useful exercise I think. But if one is manager of Scunthorpe one just has to make the best of what one’s got! 🙂 Not sure a unicameral parliament would be my ideal, but it’s interesting to see what can be done with this type of setup. And it seems for political systems there’s usually more than one means of achieving similar ends. And we certainly are living in “interesting times” as the Chinese proverb (curse?) puts it. It’s not entirely inconceivable that we might get a chance to wipe the constitutional slate clean (like in Iceland) over the next few years. Something of a political vacuum may develop. Slow gradualism is more likely though given our past history. The next few years will, I feel, represent a once in a generation opportunity for reform. It’s probably best to have a whole spectrum of solutions at hand (different answers ranging from the most incremental to the most radical) to match whatever situation arises. Aim high but be pragmatic too I guess.

        Ran out of steam before I got to localism in the above post, was just too nice a day to be tapping on a keyboard! 🙂 Localism is a tricky topic. Joanna Tuffy has ably defended the local aspect of a TD’s role here previously, the close connection between TDs and the voters. And one really has to expect a representative will do their best to argue for a larger slice of the pie for their constituency. Though if that’s the only thing TDs did then there’s a problem. Meant to also link at the end of the post above to the Peter Mair’s talk at the last MacGill Summer School, a recording of which was up on the Donegal County Council website until recently. Unfortunately, when I went to check it was no longer there. That covered a lot of territory concerning Dáil reform and coined the term “amoral localism” (the counterpart of “amoral familism” to be found in places like Italy).

        Pork is one of the primary routes for the enforcement of party discipline. A lot of that seems to mysteriously find its way into ministerial constituencies. Another argument for some non-Oireachtas ministers (IMO preferably with a “decontamination period” to reinforce this separation, of say five years, so that such a minister couldn’t become a TD for that time period, or couldn’t previously have been a TD for that previous number of years). Constituency work does appear to play a very prominent role in the life of a TD in this country, though that no doubt holds in a lot of places (I do remember that TDs with other party members as TDs in the same constituency did do a lot more of it).

        PR-STV is quite elegant. De Valera was a bit of a mathematician and I’m sure that was one of the reasons it appealed to him. But I can’t help but feel PR-STV is tied up somehow with the whole localism question. It has cons as well as pros. Overall I’m quite neutral on it. It’s probably oversold as an electoral system. It’s friendly to independents. But as it’s currently configured it doesn’t leave much room for new parties (there’s certainly more room that the UK FPTF but not all that much more). Bigger constituencies would solve that (we could go back to the old 7 or 9 seaters). That’s not in the interests of the bigger parties though so that’s unlikely to happen. There’s also a certain attraction in non-geographical (or at least less local) variants of PR-STV (which would be particularly suitable for the Seanad if it actually survives and is reformed). The electoral system not a straightforward topic though.

        One reasonable counter to localism would be to reform local government, give it stronger tax raising powers, greater constitutional protections (local government is little more than a relatively recent afterthought in our current constitution). Make it actually meaningful so that TDs don’t have to step in to play this role. Perhaps specific categories of tax could be reserved in the constitution for local government (like Germany) or a redistribution mechanism set up to redistribute a portion of revenue from richer to poorer local areas, but which minimizes central government interference (Germany also manages something like this, albeit with quite an intricate mechanism). Set a minimum level of service local government has to provide but also allow higher taxes if a local authority wants to provide more. I admire some of the federal setups like Germany and Switzerland, but that’s perhaps overkill in a small country like Ireland, which has little history of local government or distinct geographic regions with different languages or historical basis. Maybe a half-way house between what we currently have and full blown federalism might be best.

        Sometimes, though, I wonder if veering in the very opposite direction might not also work. The idea then is to explicitly merge the role of local councillor and TD. This is the strategy of giving up on local government (or accepting reality depending on one’s view). This approach would abolish local representatives entirely, but to compensate would greatly increase Dáil size (perhaps to 300). This strategy just accepts that a major role of TDs is to act as local councillor/ombudsman. Perhaps county managers could be answerable instead to a Dáil committee made up of all TDs in a particular local area.The upside of this approach is that the constituency workload of TDs is approximately halved. Malta has a similar electoral system to our own (5 seat PR-STV), but the level of constituency work seems to be far lower than our own. But that’s not surprising given that a Maltese TD represents approximately a quarter of constituents that an Irish TD does. This strategy is heading in this direction reducing people represented by about a half. Another upside is a much greater Dáil talent pool (particularly essential if we continue to insist that all ministers must come from the Dáil). I realize this approach is very contrarian. There’s probably zero chance the Irish public would ever vote for this. But I’ll put it out there anyway! 🙂 But given that increasing Dáil size probably hasn’t a hope in hell of happening, then I guess I’d have to go with the strengthening local government option.

  31. @Tom,

    Your response reminds me of Sam Beckett’s answer to a question asking what ‘Waiting for Godot’ was about: “Don’t despair, one of the thieves was saved; don’t presume, one of the thieves was damned.” So, don’t offer too much; you’ll disappoint. Don’t offer too little; you’ll fail to engage.

    Please keep up the good work. But I remain convinced the focus has to be on TDs. We need to get, at least, some of them to talk openly about their incentives, desires and constraints as public representartives exercising the delegated utlimate authority of the people between general elections. They do really have the power and I suspect many are frustrated by their inability to exercise it effectively in the public interest. Perhaps our hosts here might be able to encourage to blog here totally anonymously. They all live in fear that raising a head above the parapet will result in it being lopped off. But I know in my heart that the vast majority want to be more effective than they are. They really need a forum to express this without exposing themselves personally.


    You make me feel like a school master setting homework 🙂

    That is not my intention, but you have added greatly to the range and variety of options that should be considered. Our hosts are probably busy on the ‘day job’ and I know that many of these options have been thrashed out here from time to time, but I think there is a need to bring a lot of these ideas and options together and, crucially, to begin to identify a sequencing of implementation of various compatible options – or a variety of sequences depending on positions on the spectrum ranging from the gradual to the radical/revolutionary.

    And this isn’t ‘homework’ for you 🙂

    But I think it would be a valuable and useful exercise. If only to provide a template (or set of templates) against which what the Government is self-servingly proposing/half-heartedly doing may be assessed.

  32. @Paul
    In fairness, little prompting was needed 🙂 Wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t feel it was worth doing! Did think it could be a useful exercise to draw together the various angles (those I could think of anyway, throwing everything but the kitchen sink at it! 🙂 ) on Dáil reform. Almost all have already been thrashed out here by various people in one form or another anyway. Can be good to summarize things at times though (even if for nothing more than clarifying things in one’s own mind).

    • Thanks, Finbar. Although I may be the only person immediately expressing gratitude, I am sure that there are many who are equally grateful.

      I know we have this ReformScorecard exercise to monitor what the Government and various parties are advancing, but, for me, it spreads the net far too widely across the entire gamut of politcial reform options. If every criterion were fully satisfied we would have ‘political heaven on earth’ – and I think we all realise that this isn’t achievable (and might not even be desirable). There are also subtle conflicts between the conception and implementation of various options that might not be readily apparent – and there are always the unintended (and often detrimental) consequences that spring from the very best of intentions.

      That’s why I have this (some will say ‘obsessive’) focus on reform (indeed, in principle, restoration) of the powers, resources and procedures of the Oireachtas. This is the crucible in whch all other reform options would be developed, tested and refined.

      So, if you’re game I think the effort would be much appreciated. However, despite what might be assembled, I’m still scratching my head about the best way of engaging TDs. Nothing will happen until they see some benefit or advantage in coming on board.

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