Confessions of a demoralised political scientist

I just finished reading an article in today’s IT on the constitutional convention. In the article, Dr. Conor O’Mahony  claims that the government’s plans on the constitutional convention will be little more than a ‘charade’, indeed, Dr. O’Mahony goes on to describe the planned convention as a ‘joke’. I have to agree with most of Dr. O’Mahony’s assertions, it is no coincidence that they overlap considerably with my own assessment of the government’s plans – I think that the shortcomings of these proposals would be clear to anyone who cared to read them.

In a time when many are calling for radical democratisation of our political system (with new communication technologies holding previously undreamed of possibilities for collective decision making), our government seems intent on limiting the constitutional convention to a discussion of topics that are mostly anodyne or irrelevant. There is no evidence of any kind of overarching theme or logic to the agenda – it seems to be a pick and mix of the least harmful political reform proposals put forward by the governing parties during the election campaign. Labour’s rowback on their promises to rewrite the entire constitution is particularly egregious.

Personally, I have to say that I find the proposals rather demoralising, speaking as someone who sees genuine potential in the Citizen Assembly model as a means of originating proposals for political reform. Worst of all is the fact that the government can simply shelve any proposals that they do not approve of. As Dr. O’Mahony reminds us, this is exactly what happened to the CRG report in the mid 90s. Well, to the extent that the Convention is a ‘joke’, I’m afraid that the joke will be on us.

UPDATED: Here is a link to the motion on the CC introduced by the government and the dail debate around that motion:

59 thoughts on “Confessions of a demoralised political scientist

  1. Matt,
    I hope and trust that your disappointment (very, very…!) does not lead you to give up your work on political and institutional reform in this Republic
    I ask you to continue to use your managerial imagination to research, consider, discuss, develop, propose and help implement means for what you term “radical democratisation of our political system”

    As you have worked with the Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution, you have far more experience and insight than most, into the cast of mind of the only people (TDs) who can propose and adopt the type of legislation (ultimately, that is what it comes to) to implement the political and institutional reform that we need.

    As one of those of us who seeks to rebuild our Republic, let me just ask you to bear in mind that, our 1937 Constitution is explicit on the source of power in this state
    “Article 6
    1. All powers of government, legislative, executive and judicial, derive, under God, from the people, whose right it is to designate the rulers of the State and, in final appeal, to decide all questions of national policy, according to the requirements of the common good.”

    Personally, I think this is an excellent starting for the work we need to do.

    The late John Kelly (UCD Law School Professor, FG TD, Attorney General, Minister) his finger on the “do-minimum” approach of the incumbent, powers-that-be when he pointed out (in 1986)that

    “The proudly national and innovative spirit seems to have left all parties entirely. The freedom to let us do things for ourselves in our own way, has been used in recent decades to copy, timidly and belatedly, British patterns in nearly everything…Ireland’s political and official rulers have largely behaved like a crew of maintenance engineers, just keeping a lot of old British structures and plant ticking over… The challenge is to evolve structures -within
    which the people can be drawn to individual and community responsibility for their own development.”

    The current government has shown no inclination whatsoever to carry out simple reforms that they promised in the Programme for Government eg. repeal the 2003 Freedom of Information Act–-one-quick-change-would-help-fight-them

    On this basis alone, I agree that the proposed Convention on the Constitution has all the makings of a WOMBAT – a waste of money, brains and time.

    • Thanks Donal, (Matt here – logged in as ‘Editors’) I definitely will keep inputting in whatever way I can – the ‘maintenance engineers’ metaphor is an apt one, I think. The field is pretty replete with metaphors, David Farrell talks about ‘jangling the keys’ and Kristof Jacobs about keeping reforms on the outer layers of the institutional ‘onion’. All of it amounts to the same institutional conservatism – even in the face of recent epic failures of governance (managing to cede sovereignty in peacetime is pretty lame) and the corruption scandals revealed by Tribunals.

      • Great that you are continuing. Just because we become disillusioned, does not mean that we have to abandon our ideals.
        In fact, losing one’s illusions is usually a pre-condition for attaining those ideals or at least, continuing the struggle to do so.

  2. @Matthew,

    Nil desperandum. I have a comment awaiting moderation on the post prior to the previous one in which I link to Conor O’Mahony’s op-ed.

    Governments and the entire apparatus of governance will continuosuly project optical illusions, attempt to suspend disbelief indefinitely and charge ahead on a particular course, how ever wrong-headed it might be, until reality comes crashing in in the form of “Events, dear boy. Events”.

    It is impossible to predict when such an event might occur or what form it might take. It is often the case that it may be something that, while of great concern to a few people, it assumes an importance out of all proportion to its context. The best recent example I can think of is in the UK with the massive public revulsion at the hacking by ‘journalists’ of the mobile phone of a school-girl who hade been abducted, raped and murdered. Despite all the investigations that were being conducted, this signalled the start of the crumbling of the Murdoch empire in the UK – and what remains being subjected to proper democratic accounability.

    All it needs is for the good sense and decency – and the attendant revulsion – of a majority of citizens to be aroused about some matter or other.

    Don’t worry. It’ll happen in Ireland. I don’t know when or how, but it will happen. There’s very little any of us can individually. I’ve spotted one or two possible car crashes that may happen, but We’ll just have to wait.

    • I thought we already had our car crash – but nearly four years of can kicking has left things in a dreadful state of suspended animation. As you say, there’s very little any individual can do about it…

      • @Matthew,

        Yes, we has a car crash, but Official Ireland (government, the entire aparatues of governance and all those professionally engaged with it), similar to its counterparts in all other advanced economies, has an enormous capacity to apply damage-limitation and to make incremental changes that won’t upset the applecart unduly. Very rapidly the problems of inadequate bank supervision and financial regulation and of poor fiscal policy judgements were confined to very limited institutional and personnel inadequacies. A new Central Bank Governor and a new financial regulator were appointed pretty rapidly; the splitting of Finance into Finance and Public Expenditure has permitted personnel and organisational changes there; and the people passed a severe judgement on the governing politicians last Feb. Every sinew is being strained to sustain the fiction that there is no question of similar deficiencies in any other parts of the vast and expansive government machine.

        Nothing could be further from the truth. And that’s why more car crashs are inevitable, because it will not be possible to sustain this fiction – or to embellish it as the Government is determined to do – indefinitely.

        Yes, individually, there is little that can be done. But an individual taking a stand could trigger some effective collective action. For example, as I’ve indicated, if the citizens randomly selected for this Constitutional Convention charade were to decide collectively that they had no wish to paraticipate, or if those academics who might be invited to participate in this ‘expert advisory group’ were to decide that they too had no wish to participate in this charade, then the Government might be forced to think again.

        A government with a secure majority and, in the Irish context, exercising such excessive executive dominance has little fear of the votersrllry inept and tin-eared to provoke signifciant popular revolt. What it does fear is public ridicule and embarrassment – and being forced to perform a U-turn. Governments in other jurisdictions, subject to more effective public and parliamentary restraint, execute such U-turns routinely.

        The determination of irish governments to avoid U-turns – or even modest changes in course – and to ignore reasoned and well-evidenced critiques at all costs make car crashs inevitable.

        Unfortunately we will need quite a few more in a variety of sectors before this smug, complacent and arrogant government will get the message.

  3. Yippee! I’ve just discovered how to get out of the moderation queue. Simply link to the comment in another thread.

  4. Apologies. Iin the first sentence of the 3rd par above after “voters” the words “: it would need to be particularly..” just disappeared.

  5. As I’ve mentioned previously the only way the Government might be persuaded to think agin about this Constitutional Convention charade is for the citizens randomly selected to decide not to participate or for the academics invited to form this ‘expert advisory group’ to refuse to participate or, ideally, both. But the Government and the media will conspire to give the selected citizens their 15 minutes in the public sun and they’ll succumb. And the academics will be falling over each other to participate – and to justify their participation.

    But the problem is much deeper on two levels. For example this latest splurge of spin from the Government, ‘Our Sustainable Future’ sets the overarching narrative for public policy and regulation in the infrastructure and utility sectors. However, the ‘liberalised model’ for the infrastructure and utility sectors, pioneered in the UK and applied throughout the EU to varying extents, comprised of an incoherent mix of private sector participation, competition and privatisation, is failing. The UK is abandoning key elements, but the sticking plasters being applied to cover the gaps are making a bad situation worse. Citizens are being hosed as consumers and will now be hosed as taxpayers. In continental Europe there is some recognition that the model needs reform. But there is no understanding of this whatsoever in Ireland. Indeed the Government is determined to expand and extend the application of this failed model.

    This document deserves to be torn to shred, but those with knowledge and competence in the economic policy, regulatory or governance sphere are, to varying extents, captured, constrained, conflicted or compromised.

    On another level, most economists fail to acknowledge the extent to which their discipline has been progressively subverted by the Neo-cons over the last 30 years. They eschew proper analysis of power and institutions and the narrow canon of neoclassical economics is unable to bear the burden being imposed on it. And the political scientist (sic!) sit in their own silo and make no effort to fill the gap.

    It’s little surprise we’re in this mess. But something will give eventually. One just has to wait.

  6. Colm McCarthy is in fine form in the Sindo:
    on the failure to properly investigate the combined banking, property and fiscal blow-out. Since these are matters of institutional governance and democratic accountability, it is very telling that it is an economist, and not a political scientist, who continues to bang the drum in this area. For me it is incontrovertible evidence of the extent to which our ‘public intellectuals’ are captured, constrained, compromised or conflicted. The excessive centralisation of power means that anyone offering a substantive critique of the sins of commission or omission of governing politicians, policy-makers or regulators runs the risk of being marginalised and ostracised. Colm appears to be the exception that proves the rule.

    My only issue with Colm, is that rather than focusing on empowering the Oireachtas to look backwards at the fiscal/property/banking fiasco, there should be an equivalent focus on empowering it to look forward at existing and proposed policy and regulation so as to minimise the incidence and severity of the inevitable policy and regulatory imbecility. There is also the issue of establishing new investigative powers and then applying them retrospectively. Those being investigated in this manner might legitimately claim that their behaviour would have been different if they knew at the time they would be subject to such accountability – and that they should be judged only in the context of the ‘custom and practice’ of regulation and governance at the time.

    Official Ireland has been very successful in confining any possibility of policy and regulatory failures to these very specific sectors. But the policy and regulatory failures were endemic – and continue to be endemic – across all sectors. But it is obviously far too frightening to examine these continuing failures.

    In essence though, Colm is lamenting the absence of the separation and the decentralisation of power that characterises the US. Since the foundation of the state Irish people have not been exposed in any meaningful way to even limited separation and decentralisation of power. What they have been exposed to is increasing, excessive and expansive (in terms of functions and quangos) centralistion of political, policy-making and regulatory power. And most have become quite adept at dealing with this – mainly by using their TDs as their brokers engaging on their behalf with this expansive apparatus of governance.

    But who among our ‘public intellectuals’ – with the necessary knowledge, competence and ‘public standing’ – will make the case publicly – and make the case persistently – that there is a better way? The ‘trahison des clercs’ is complete.

    • @Paul
      “In essence though, Colm is lamenting the absence of the separation and the decentralisation of power that characterises the US. Since the foundation of the state Irish people have not been exposed in any meaningful way to even limited separation and decentralisation of power.”

      Would you care to comment on how your regular call for the strengthening of the existing parliamentary system fits with your summary of Colm McCarthy’s argument?

      Not that I assume that you have changed your own position on the fusion of parliament and government. But I am curious if events are nudging you to reconsider.

      As you know, I have long argued for a separation of powers between the Dáil (representative assembly, legislature) from the Rialtas (executive, Government)

      • @Donal,

        My focus has always been on restorative and incremental measures. Ireland has all the trappings of a representative parliamentary democracy at the national level and of decentralised governance at the local level, but absolutely none of the substance. It is not the fault of voters; they have been presented with nothing else. And they have generally proved to be adept at using every opportunity to vote that they get to exert some restraint on an overmighty and arrogant government and to use their TDs to advance or protect their interests either individually or collectively (particularly when they share specific economic interests with others).

        The fault, in the first instance lies with TDs. But they have demonstrated, beyond any reasonable doubt, that they are incapable, on their own, of redeeming themselves and restoring effective representative parliamentary governance and decentralised local governance. It then falls to our ‘public intellectuals’ – those paid from the public purse who have the relevant knowledge, competence and ‘public standing’ – to educate, inform and enlighten voters about the institutions and procedures of governance they deserve and require and about the extent to which the current arrangements fall seriously short – and to do this consistently, relentlessly and repetitively until a sufficient number of voters begin to demand better governance from their TDs.

        TDs aren’t stupid. They are adept at sniffing the political wind and if it changes in a way that might put their future careers at risk they will adapt accordingly.

        There is little or nothing that we, as individuals, can do. And, while some of our ‘public intellectuals’ do sterling scholarly work in this area, there is little effort made to ensure it resonates beyond the hallowed halls of academia. To a considerable extent most have been captured, constrained, conflicted or comprised within or by the government aparatus. And whatever ‘free resource’ is available tends to be deployed on ‘vanity projects’.

        This, for me, is the ‘trahison des clercs’. At a time when the country is experiencing a profound economic and financial crisis which was caused primarily by fundamental failures in the system of governance – and when any effective or sustainable recovery relies on the restoration of proper representative governance – I simply cannot see how they can justify their behaviour.

        And finally, on your query re separation of powers, if some effective representative governance were restored I could see the possibility of the Oireachtas seats of ministers, once appointed, being taken by alternates. This might be an initial incremental step towards a more formal separation.

        But a suggestion of this nature by me is totally futile if our public intellectuals fail to discharge the public repsonsibilities of the roles for which they’re well paid and have the knowledge and competence to hold.

  7. Doesn’t McCarthy miss the point – there is no actual will or desire to investigate.

    All the best structures in the world don’t mean a thing when there’s no will to do anything. It comes down to the scale of mindset change required and this is never going to happen when you have the likes of Enda Kenny or Eamon Gilmore heading a government – the real problem for Ireland is that the generation coming after them are as lazy and intellectually incurious as they are so I don’t see how anything can ever change.

    The chances of Ireland meeting the standards set by Iceland are zero because on one side Irish people are inherently supportive of corruption on a scale with southern Europe and as a result, time and time again we elect the same sort of people to office and then we’re surprised when nothing changes?

    We really are the personification of doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

  8. We have had yet to have our big event fully played out.
    Did any one really expect anything different from a 1930s party like Fine Gael.
    The Convention is just one example and the lack of a co-ordinated response from those who have been preaching reform is more of the old Irish disease of fighting among oursleves while the pragmatic Establishment powerholders dig in an ghold what they have.

  9. @Paul
    “My focus has always been on restorative and incremental measures.”
    What was the last such measure that has been implemented in this Republic?

    • @Donal,

      Your question goes right to the heart of the matter. Almost every piece of legislation that has been enacted and that bears on the balance between citizens and their elected representatives, on one side, and the executive, on the other, has increased the power of the state, via the executive and its expanding apparatus. They may have been incremental, but they, effectively, have been the opposite of ‘restorative’ and increasingly tilted the balance of power in favour of the executive.

      And let’s be fair. All these pieces of legislation were generally drafted and enacted with the best of intentions. It is very rare – and only when there was incontrovertible prima facie evidence – that I would accuse any government of mendacity when drafting legislation. But we should all know by now about good intentions and the road to hell. And even when these pieces of legislation included provisions to exercise some restraint and accountability on executive, these provisions were drafted in such a way as to ensure the least scrutiny, restraint and accountability.

      Fintan O’Toole, who frequently has an uncanny ability to grasp the wrong end of the stick, has, in today’s IT, grasped three very important sticks at the right end:
      and wields all three to good effect.

      But yet, apart from a handful of these full-time, well-paid commentators and opinion-formers (often expressing idiosyncratic views without any rigorous basis in an established discipline), our ‘public intellectuals’ fail to engage in any meaningful way. Oh yes, we get the occasional op-ed, which is often too short to present a coherent argument, may be butchered by sub-editors and usually ends up with a strap-line at variance with the content. But there is no evidence of a comprehensive, sustained critique soundly based on the disciplines they profess which this crisis – because that’s what it is – of governance and in the economy and society demands. And yes, some sterling work is being done within the ivory towers, research is conducted in response to commissions from executive-controlled funding bodies, papers and books are published, citations are accumulated, assignments are performed for the executive and its extended apparatus, seminars are conducted, conferences organised, there’s no end of activity. But to what purpose – and to what effect – in the context of this crisis and the increasing disengagement and disaffection of so many citizens with what is perceived as a failed process of governance?

      The lack of purpose and effect becomes very clear when one considers the constraints and incentves to which our ‘public intellectuals’ are exposed. They are funded from the public purse which is controlled utlimately by an excessively centralised executive and its expansive apparatus. One would want to be totally mad to rock this well-appointed and comfortably furnished boat.

      And, in this respect, the behaviour of Irish ‘public intellectuals is no different from that of ‘public intellectuals’ in most other advanced economies. It is just that in Ireland the control of the state apparatus is more pervasive and overwhelming.

      But there is a more fundamental problem which Irish ‘public intellectuals’, particularly those in the disciplines of economics and political science, share with their counterparts elsewhere. What is of economic value in an advanced mixed economy is determined both by how and on what citizens choose to expend their income and by the level and composition of public expenditure they democratically via their elected representatives decide – and on how this expenditure is funded. These decisions are both determined and constrained by the joint exercise of economic and political power.

      But the ‘siloisation’ of economics and political science means that economists generally eschew proper consideration of the acquisition, exercise and retention of political power, while political scientists rarely consider the acquisition, exercise and retention of economic power. And this suits those who exercise both political and economic power just fine. Until this artificial ‘siloisation’ is removed neither economists nor political scientists will have anything useful to communicate to the increasing number of citizens who are increasingly discontented and disaffected with the entire process of democratic governance in the advanced mixed economies.

      • @Paul
        “All these pieces of legislation were generally drafted and enacted with the best of intentions.”

        I am increasingly sceptical this holds any longer.
        As many will know, my favorite example is the 2003 Freedom of Information Act. Who benefits from the implementation of that act?

        In the Sunday Business Post (last Sunday 10 June 2012 – behind a paywall), Paul Appleby (outgoing Director of the ODCE) was reported as “clashing” with the Minister for Finance because of a provision in the 2011 Finance Bill . The effect of this was to reduce heavily the flow of information between the ODCE and the Revenue Commissioners.

        Who benefits from such restrictions?

        The report states that this section was designed to address the lack of a specific tax-related provision governing the confidentiality of taxpayer information provided to Revenue, although specific exemptions can be obtained in relation to certain criminal and legal proceedings.

        Yes, “unintended consequences” will be claimed.
        It would be interesting to see this particular piece of legislation came to be proposed, developed, discussed and finally approved for inclusion in the 2011 Finance Act.
        It would be equally interesting to check what attention this particular measure got from TDs or Senators, who passed the legislation.

        Apparently the ODCE only became aware of the legislation after it was passed.

        Another example is the failure of the those responsible for drawing up the legislation to implement the household charge to consult with the Data Protection Commissioner, prior to having the Act passed.

        The best of intentions do not cover such poor consideration of the basic rights of citizens, which we have.

        Another example emerged last year during the run-up to the budget ie “Back-to-school” payments were being made to 2 and three year olds.

        Schooling is only compulsory here from the age of 6.
        I regard it as an abuse of language to deem payments as “back-to-school” before the age of compulsory schooling.
        This suggests that some political-administrative nexus lack respect for the plain meaning of words.
        It would be interesting to find out what legal basis, if any, was used to justify such public expenditure.

        The best of intentions are betrayed – to the point of institutional corruption – by such abuse of language. If we are to be ruled by laws (both primary and secondary), let those laws sate simply and clearly what they are about.

        Government in all it guieses – local, national and international – needs to bear in ming that we citizens in a Republic with a written constitution have rights and are not to be treated as mere subjects to who some liberties may be accorded at the whim of the powerful.

  10. We may have Consitutional rights but at this stage given custom and practice we are mere subjects. Even in medieval times the Lord would send round the Sherrif if rent was due. No generic bill for the Household charge ever went out explaining to citizens that the government was broke and needed to get the tax in order to satify the troika. What bemuses me is that the Cabinet basically sit on the power and backbenchers watch on with their mouths tightly shut.

    • @Roger
      Agree entirely with you on the implementation of the Household Charge and the ineffectiveness of backbenchers (I would go further to say all TDs and Senators) to bring any checks/balances to bear on the exercise of power.

      Irish Times reports this morning that the Troika expressed concern about the fairness of the implementation of the bail-out programme.
      So is it going too far to suggest that members of the Troika are equally bemused by this particular example of how our Cabinet/senior public service sets about the tasks of governing?

      Whatever about the Troika, it seems to me that the proposed make up and terms of reference of the proposed Constitutional Convention does not offer us, citizens, any means of tackling such poor governance.

      No wonder Matt Wall is demoralised!

      Excuse the many typos/omissions in my posting of 12 June at 5.51pm.

  11. @Donal,

    I fully understand your scepticism about the ‘good intentions’, but, for me, this provides evidence of the extent to which various narrow sectional economic interests have captured an excessively dominat and centralised process of governance. But I am unwilling to condemn the entire political class ‘bell, book and candle’. I would contend that the vast majority have a genuine intent to serve the public interest, but, as they ascend the greasy pole the complexity of such centralised governance simply becomes too much and they, quite understandably, find themselves seeking to balance the conflicting demands of the various narrow sectional interests that press their petitions and lose track of where the public interest actually lies.

    I have previously described a typical government minister as a cross between a highly-paid PR operative and a cushion that bears the imprint of the last sectional interest that sat on it. Ironically, their lives would be so much easier and they would be better able to govern in the public interest if they were prepared to relinquish some power, to distribute, diffuse and decentralise it and to allow more effective scrutiny of policy formulation, enactment and implementation. Perhaps most importantly of all, it would provide them with some protection from the malign impact of powerful and influential sectional interests. But once power has been grasped, there is no politician anywhere who will voluntarily relinquish even the tiniest amount. It has to be wrested from them; and the only people who can do this are the citizens who by default or intent delegated that power to them initially.

    And this is where our ‘public intellectuals’ have a vital role in informing citizens that it is in their power and in their interests to wrest some of this power from governing politicians and to ensure that it is diffused, distributed and decentralised.

    But instead we have our ‘public intellectuals’ suppressing research that might cause the Government some embarrassment:

    This, for me, is just a further example of the extent to which our ‘public intellectuals’ are captured, constrained, conflicted or compromised.

  12. @Paul
    “political class…as they ascend the greasy pole the complexity of such centralised governance simply becomes too much…”

    Complexity of their own creation – given that they are the bearers of our power…
    Among the ways of dealing with complexity are to sub-divide and to improve information processing. Both are clear in nature and in many well-run organisations.

    Compare and contrast with what our powers-that-be have been doing for years – centralising and disimproving the information processing capacity to the extent we now have policy-driven evidence making.

    As an example take what has emerged from the Household Charge which Rodge referred to.
    Despite the delight of those doing the collection from the Non-Principal Private Residence charge, can anyone have any confidence that they have actually covered all those properties that are subject to this charge?

    Similarly, having centralised the provision of health services into the HSE, did the powers that be improve information processing?

    Same thing applies to higher education – where the powers that be apply an employment framework control programme.

    All these result in people micro-managing from the centre.
    Well run organisations use budgets and measure outputs.

    Take joining the €uro, where one expected the powers that be to understand what they were at in terms of dealing with complexity.
    But the governing elites in government, business, farming, trade unions and social partners admitted that their approach left a lot to be desires – an awful lot, as we now know.
    In August 2010, the National Economic and Social Council stated
    “In the past decade, Ireland’s approach to fiscal policy, prices, costs and financial regulation were not sufficiently adapted to the disciplines of a single currency ”

    Our governing elites have no excuse for this failure. For much of our history since independence, we have been in a single currency zone (£Sterling), as is Northern Ireland still. This too had pros and cons, just as being a €urozone member has.

    It seems that our way of governing ourselves is ill adapted to managing the complexities of the modern world. Our central governing institutions have demonstrated their inability and capacity to gather both the know-how and legitimacy needed to govern calmly and competently.

    Assuming that you do not have much faith in the Constitutional Convention, what precise mechanisms do you propose to achieve what you call for in respect of power
    “It has to be wrested from them; and the only people who can do this are the citizens who by default or intent delegated that power to them initially.” ?

    • @Donal,

      The answer to your final question lies in the hands of our ‘public intellectuals’ – those with knowledge and competence in the areas of public policy, regulation and governance and who enjoy some ‘public standing’ – to discharge their public duty to inform, educate and enlighten citizens in a comprehensive and sustained manner about their ability to demand and secure a restoration of effective parliamentary democracy and decentralised governance.

      But we all know this won’t happen. Their response – or non-response – to Tol-dole-gate could not be a more eloquent or comprehensive demonstration of their inability and unwillingness to discharge their public duty in the a time of crisis.

      Official Ireland sails sedately on, but, with this hubris, nemesis will not be held at bay indefinitely. We’ll just have to bide our time. All eyes are on the continuing crisis in the Euro, but the economic, financial and banking aspects are merely symptoms of a more fundamental crisis in governance. The rift in terms of governance is generally portrayed as Germany versus everyone else – and Germany, by virtue of economic heft and number of voters, is leading the charge, but you will find the better governed northern and central states (Austria, Estonia, Finland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Slovenia and Slovakia) not far behind, with Denmark, Sweden and Poland, Lithuania and Latvia (outside the Euro) broadly in support. Having being takens for mugs in the past, they, quite simply, are not prepared to pay for ‘business-as-usual’ in the PIIGS + FR & BE. (The Brits and the Czechs will do their own posturing, but they are broadly in the former camp.)

      The banks, the shadow banks and the bond investors will play their self-interested games, but, apart from the usual vultures and disaster capitalists, the majority have no interest in the whole project going down in flames. The governing politicians and policy-makers in the better-governed nations know this. But they can exert only limited pressure on the governing politicians and policy-makers in the misgoverned PIIGS to shape up. It might need a Greek exit to insert what is required in to their skulls.

  13. I am no scholar of poltics so I am probably out of my depth in this debate, but I dont think its actually that difficult to pinpoint why people are demoralised with the political establishment . .

    I wouldnt say that I am a scholar of psychology, but I do enjoy hypothesising why people do what they do . .If theres one thing thats blatantly obvious jts that people are so decencitised to the fact that voting for a specific person actually effects them, their friends and their family. They actually dont stop, think and comprehend the ramifications of their vote (or not voting).

    Why dont up to 40% people vote ? Its not simply that they dont care, its that they dont comprehend the potential effect it could have on their lives. In fact, even many people that do vote arent actually that self aware, so they just vote for whoever is “a decent skin” cause while they want to vote, they couldnt care much for putting much effort into scrutinising their chosen candidate.

    There are things that I hold dear that are shaped by what has happened to my friends/family and at the peak of my beliefs are a strong ethics/morals ethos. This makes what is considered “part and parcel of politics” something that I just cannot comprehend or accept. Its a lazy, pathetic, conformed answer to the riddle of how we improve politics in this (or any other) country.

    I have wondered how we can improve or change the political landscape that exists in Ireland. Most of the time people give me the usual “are sure it will always be the way it is” which I find offencive. You cannot change or progress by being negative and defeatest before you try anything.

    One thing that has struck me is the fact that there is an overwhelming sense of disillusionment and resentment towards politicians. This suggests that there is a gap for a new approach to be introduced into the political landscape. Im not talking about populist rhetoric, but simplistic, straight up honesty with no regard for large loud voiced vested groups . .

    I genuinley believe that people will follow a leader who is to challange everybody . . Not any one section of society, but every section . .Not sit back and wait to see what certain poles say (what is the least worst cutback to make etc) . .

    I would also see political accountability and reform as a huge part of this transformation. Some people call this a populist view, but its not, its a very basic principle of a leader leading by example. Reform the Dail, slash remuneration/expenses, increase penalties/policing of politics etc . . This gives any government the moral authority (and more importantly the backing of the majority) to implement changes in all aspects of the public service and welfare.

    If we can create a community spirit in the country , undo the celtic tiger years when people lost their sense of “people value”, we can all , through collective reasoning, come through this crisis . .

    • @Oran
      As a citizen, one does not have to be a scholar of politics to take part in discussions on how we govern ourselves. IMO, you are completely in your depth in any such debate, as is any other citizen.

      As regards “the overwhelming sense of disillusionment and resentment towards politicians”, I refer to two recent comments which throw some light on the points you make about voting/not voting, what matters during elections etc

      1) Dan O’Brien the Irish Times Economics Editor wrote (25th May 2012) that
      “….This State has a lamentably long record of appalling fiscal mismanagement. This is no accident. It is the result of a political system that is incapable of steering a large modern State in a fast-changing globalised world.

      No parliament anywhere in democratic Europe is weaker than the Oireachtas – in both its lawmaking and holding-to-account functions.

      The executive branch of government is as weak. It is peopled by part-time amateurs who are usually inexpert in their ministerial briefs, rarely pro-active and, more often than not, more interested in constituency affairs than effectively managing their departments….”

      In summary, our power (which we delegate during elections) is not being used to build a sustainable standard of living, because the institutional design cannot gather the necessary know-how and democratic legitimacy through the single channel to the Dáil.

      2) The Edelman Trust Barometer 2012 for this Republic reported that
      “Trust in Ireland is at a critical inflection point. Citizens seek leadership, clarity and solutions and don’t believe any institution is delivering on these expectations. The clear message for government is that it is perceived not to be getting its message through or listening. The big message for business is to generate trust by moving beyond a purely operational focus to engage with society and deliver solutions which benefit all stakeholders.”

      I suggest that what we have to do in our Republic is to develop institutions that we can trust and means to verify that our trust is not being abused. As the Arab proverb puts it “Trust in God, but tie your camel”
      Such institutions are the essential pre-requisites for restoring and sustaining the kind of community spirit that you suggest.

      • Thanks Donal . . .

        We clearly need reform, I dont have the solution but have read several suggested alternatives. One of the major problems is that there is little or no incentive for those at a higher level of power to implement reform that could potentially dilute the power they can currently exert.

        In terms of your point on having trusted institutions, I came up with an idea (and then googled it and realised somebody else tried it) of trying to setup some sort of social medium like a website that rates politicians on a specified criteria – Promises at elections, answers to questions etc . The idea is to have a trustworthy, non bias, non political media source for people to judge their local guy . .

        Part of the problem is that people are immune to the bullsh*t that politicians get up to because there is so much going on . . Shine a spotlight on their actions and guilt them into doing the right things and answering questions clearly – Why was enquiries on planning problems of land in the boom cancelled? . Minister answers question, people rate his answer – 1. Clear & Acceptable 2. Not sure he answered the question, didnt understand his response 3. Unnaceptable answer . Or something on those lines. If most people choose 2&3, politician , then the politician is not clearly answering questions to the electorate.

        I understand the limitations (certain party people looking to ruin any meaningful impartiality), but it could be a start of a movement of people trying to hold politicians to account, not just at election time.

  14. What strikes me most with this thread is the expectation government should change itself, while at the same time decrying its efforts at not doing so. It will not happen. We are very far from discussing the constitution meaningfully as a nation. Any convention in the near future is a complete distraction and waste of time and money that could be put to better purposes. We need a debate or perhaps better said a clear analysis of our problems, and some ideas on which solutions might bridge the gaps between here and where we must get to. Our problems by the way start with our inability to get the right results from our citizenry: diversity, independence, inquisitiveness, …. I’m very curious about practical ideas to this end.

  15. Matt,
    I pretty much agree with all of that. Felt obliged to give the new government the benefit of the doubt (however forlorn that hope really was). We’ve a new government with a huge majority, and there’s a real desire out there in the population for reform given the recent enormous economic train-wreck we’ve gotten ourselves into. This is a situation where extreme executive dominance might actually be useful! 😉 The right people as Taoiseach and Tánaiste wouldn’t probably have much difficulty in driving through a fairly radical reform agenda. Stranger things have happened! And many politicians seem obsessed with leaving some legacy for posterity. Even Bertie Ahern, train-driver-in-chief when our own economic train went off the rails, still clings tightly to his involvement in the peace process (and his obvious ability to knock heads together in negotiations). Reform is one of the obvious vehicles for a Taoiseach in this period to leave a mark. Of course, we also have a Taoiseach, son of a former TD, the father of the Dáil, who has happily sat in the chamber longer than every single other TD in the House. That type of pedigree and the abject failure of our political classes to institute any significant reform over decades has had me pessimistic from the start. It’s looking likely that pessimism was entirely justified, despite a desire to at least give the government the benefit of the doubt. The outline agenda for this “convention” is frankly laughable and if this remains its scope it’ll be judged harshly by history (along with current government leaders) as a wasted golden opportunity.

    Now to drift off on a fairly long but related tangent 🙂 Have been in a fairly reflective mode recently. Thought some of the comments by Seabhac Siúlach in a recent “Claiming our Future” thread here were spot on (even if perhaps overly harsh on well-intentioned people trying to make a difference in some reform groups):

    I’d agree to the extent that fairly radical reform is only ever likely to come from something of a revolution at the ballot box. There has to be an electoral force where an established, or far more likely a new, party takes on the reform mantle pursuing a fairly radical reform agenda which is supported by a sizable chunk of the population. Only then will other parties rush to take on the reform mantle in any meaningful way (even if only reluctantly and claim it was their aim all along). Another possibility I suppose, is like Paul Hunt here has often argued for, that TDs reassert themselves collectively as a group and wrestle back control. Again, looking at the current batch of TDs, I’m deeply pessimistic as whether that is a remotely likely possibility currently. An electoral force is about the only feasible route as far as I can see (though that’s a tough avenue too coming up against a well-entrenched establishment with every incentive for things to stay exactly as they are and maintain a protected place in the queue to the feeding trough). In Iceland, where serious reform is still looking a more likely possibility, voters actually swept away both main parties. For all the electoral change at our last GE, we still merely put the other default party block into power (just with a far bigger majority than usual) on the back of reform manifestos what were distinctly underwhelming (and have become even more so after being watered down in program for government negotiations). So IMO the only route to necessary reform will be an electoral force with a well thought out and coherent reform plan.

    I must admit I’ve not been greatly interested in the process by which such a blueprint might be arrived at (conventions or citizen assemblies or deliberative processes). If some expert (or bunch of experts) simply wrote a book (at least Fintan O’Toole made the attempt even if he’s not an expert and can’t say the attempt is anywhere near adequate) that would be fine with me also. Don’t really care at the means by which a solution (or suite of solutions/range of possible options) is arrived at. Some kind of plan is needed though so that a potential party can have a coherent message to sell.

    I’ve personally become rather interested in the nuts and bolts of constitutions and constitutional design in the past two or three years (and poked around in the area in some of my free time, political nerd that I seem to have become 😉 ). It’s not an easy topic. And I really can’t understand why part-time amateurs like myself even have to bother to do this. Why haven’t some of the great and good not already pinned their colours to the mast and come more to the fore in outlining and publicizing feasible reform solutions and strategies? There has been some identification of problems. That said, this blog has been useful in teasing out possible solutions (though perhaps there has been more of an emphasis on the process of how solutions might be teased out than actual concrete solutions, more focusing on how the pencil might best be sharpened than on what actually to write with it). It’s not difficult talking about topics such as executive dominance and then decrying their presence, but I’ve a tendency to want to taste and touch actual practical solutions. But when one actually tries to craft actual concrete mechanisms it’s only then the various necessary design compromises become apparent and the various criteria and factors that have to be balanced against each other become evident.

    There’s indeed actually a certain sense to the answer-free approach to reform (to leave everything up to some future convention). It avoids many problems; there’s a danger that discussion within a party or group will become bogged down in the mire of all the various reform options and approaches and get nowhere However, I also suspect this answer-free approach will, in the end, prove too anemic for our particular circumstances. It’s hard to excite people in this way or draw popular support. That said, it has gone a long way so far in the Icelandic case. But that was in the context of an electoral earthquake that simply hasn’t happened here (yet anyway 🙂 but we certainly live in interesting times and who knows what the future will yet bring).

    Have been reflecting on a comment by Seabhac Siúlach: “After all, we all know, roughly, the outline of what needs to change in this country. It does not need endless discussion to tease out every last nuance before action is taken, does it? ” When I read this I kind of both agreed and disagreed with this statement. After some more thought I find myself more agreeing that disagreeing. The broad outlines of what proper reform would entail I think are clear enough. I’d feel the proposed Icelandic constitution (in which I’ve perhaps taken an inordinate interest :) ) is roughly the kind of thing we should be attempting. Their effort touches most of the bases that need to be addressed here. The contrast between the outcome of their constitutional process and the probable outcome of our one is likely to be stark indeed. But IMO the major themes of a proper and genuine constitutional revamp are fairly clear. What needs to be done can, it seems to me, be fairly neatly carved up into a number of major categories, which I’ll do in a second post here (as this one has become far too long already!).

  16. OK, suppose in an Ireland in some parallel universe 😉 a party with a radical political reform agenda had a real prospect of being swept into power, or at least forming a major part of a coalition government. What message should they be selling? Or, if they got into power, what then? How should they attempt to structure and pass the changes needed for a major constitutional revamp. Or if they farmed the task out to a constitutional convention, then what issues should that convention address, or what should be its scope?

    Have been thinking about the proposed Icelandic constitution and why it appeals to me. It doesn’t propose to scrap the old document wholesale, it’s more a major pimping up of the old text, which I think is the more sensible option. There’s no point throwing out the baby with the bathwater, and discarding some of the better aspects of our current document, plus decades of court precedents and case law and have to restart the whole legal system from ground zero all over again. It’s far from being all bad!

    Most of what the Iceland document attempts can be placed in a number of broad categories: direct democracy, the electoral setup, rights, the democratic architecture, and dispersion of power (two major sub-categories in this being local government and the executive-legislature relationship). I intend to run through these categories in turn in separate (hopefully short 😉 ) sub-replies here as I get the time in the next week or two. A little at a time (don’t want to post a flurry of posts at once). Plus I know what I want to say, but actually have to get round to typing it out. Apologies for my hijacking of comments on this blog post to nefarious and somewhat tangential purposes! 😉

    First to direct democracy. The proposed Icelandic constitution is definitely radical in terms of its direct democracy provisions. I’m very much in favour of more direct democracy. But, to be honest, if I were trying to get a provision passed in a referendum here I’d be more conservative in my radicalism (we’re a pretty conservative bunch as a country and this might not be a guaranteed sell to the public). Constitutions are about stability: a more stable fundamental order of law. But too much entrenchment can tip this over into inertia, which there has been no shortage of here. A relatively conservative direct democracy constitutional provision with several safeguards is IMO needed to counteract this. Some Swiss style protections would be in order: the government being allowed up to a two year delay and then also able to put an alternative proposal. A minimum voter turnout (25% of the register wouldn’t be too onerous). I’d tend towards requiring more than a simple majority. The original setup under the Free State constitution had about the right balance I think: requiring either 50% of registered voters to vote in favour or 2/3 otherwise. That effectively means a 2/3 majority is required unless we’ve a turnout significantly above 75% of the electoral register. It also means divisive proposals are likely to fail. I’d still prefer representative democracy as the default with only an absolute majority of all voters or super-majority of voters that turn out able to override. 100,000 signatures or 5% of the register for an initiative is probably about right (Donal O’Brolchain had interesting extra conditions like signatures dispersed over minimum numbers of constituencies in much more detailed writings on this kind of thing). I like the system the Latvians use to collect signatures: a smaller number of signatures triggers the full initiative process. Rooms in public buildings are open to the public to collect signatures for a specified number of months (weekends and Sundays and public holidays included). A final safeguard might be some kind of jury/deliberative democracy process to screen out nuisance initiatives. Assemble a random jury of 100 citizens and bring them together in some public building for a weekend. Various interested parties can put forward arguments why or why not such a referendum should be held. If the initiative cannot garner sufficient support for a referendum go-ahead from a minimum number of these random citizens (maybe a 1/3 or 1/4 of them) then it would be canned. That’s a slightly quirky idea, but would screen out initiatives that likely have no chance of success.

    It’d probably be wiser to confine citizen initiatives in a constitutional revamp to purely constitutional change. Striking down legislation or proposing ordinary legislation and definitely recall elections would only muddy the waters (and perhaps make any referendum a tougher sell). Citizens themselves could attempt to bring in such things later if they wished. In a series of referendums to revamp the constitution this would be the one I’d prefer to be held first. IMO it’s the most important. It also stands relatively independent of and doesn’t interact greatly with the other main categories. Though if it did pass it then that would holds open some other options for the increased use of the referendum in other aspects of the system in future votes in the reform process.

    • On “rights”, the Icelandic document has attempted a rather appealing expansion and rewriting of basic rights. Protections of natural resources and in particular fishing rights wouldn’t probably carry quite the same resonances here. Fishing quotas are a big deal in Iceland and the substantial revenue licences bring in confers substantial and inordinate political influence on the holders. Some of the intent behind these new proposed rights is, I guess, aimed at curbing this. Property and land speculation is probably the closest equivalent here. The Kenny report, a considered response to an earlier property boom by a judge published nearly 40 years ago, has been welcomed and praised by many politicians since (with strategies such as placing a agricultural price + 25% cap on development land) but none of the many governments since have ever got round to implementing its recommendations (what a surprise!). It’s possible no actual constitutional changes are needed, as was the opinion of the 2004 report on private property by the All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution (though perhaps the constitution should be amended to make sure and, if needed, alter the balance between property rights.

      The area of defamation and freedom of expression is another area that should be examined (why confine the focus to blasphemy as the current convention seems bizarely determined to do?). There’s a suspicion that the law is overly calibrated to favour a right to a good name over freedom of expression, allowing powerful people with access to high-priced lawyers to chill free speech to an unhealthy degree in a democracy. A barrister on another forum made the argument to me that recent reforms to the defamation law had solved these problems. Am not entirely convinced to be honest (though I simply don’t have the expertise to make a judgement call). The comprehensive (if overall markedly conservative) 1996 report of the constitution review group made some useful suggestions on how the freedom of expression provisions might be amended.

      Also rather like how the new proposed Icelandic wording on the media explicitly gives a degree of protection to journalistic sources. The new article protecting freedom of information is something we should emulate (one government has already rowed back here on FoI legislative protections and the current one seems quite slow to restore them).

      The Icelandic document also follows a new constitutional fashion in including socio-economic rights (a certain to a certain level of education would be the only equivalent in our own constitution). Wouldn’t be a personal priorty (still unsure how good an idea or really how worth having these would be). Probably worth a look. Might be better to include in a separate later debate with a separate referendum. Though I suspect some left-wing politicians would be mighty keen on their inclusion. There’s also a danger the government may, perhaps deliberately, allow the current convention to stray into social policy areas (where a great deal of heat but perhaps not much reform light might be generated): blasphemy, women’s role in the home, marriage rights etc. Some of these are worthy of debate on their own terms (but is there place really in a constitutional convention formed in response to epic governmental mismangement and system failure?) FYI the “shadow constitutional convention” on does stray into the rights area (environmental rights most recently) over on

      Anyway, that’s more than enough for the moment!

    • One more comment. What I want to describe isn’t probably very clear from what I’ve written above. I don’t intend to get into too much of the nitty-gritty of any particular constitutional design or plan. Just want to give fairly broad and hopefully moderately short descriptions of the major boxes that I feel any reasonably comprehensive reform process needs to tick or at least examine, i.e. direct democracy, the electoral setup, rights, the democratic architecture (apologies for the rather vague term for what I feel is a rather interesting category), and the big and potentially contentious category of dispersion of power (and two major sub-categories local government and the executive-legislature relationship). Maybe that all seems a bit too obvious but I’d like to try it anyway. Within most categories there are many valid approaches to achieving roughly the same outcome (dispersion of power being a prime example). I certainly don’t intend to enumerate all approaches in exhaustive detail, just lay out the broad parameters of what I feel needs to be addressed. In design terms one ideally wants to carve up and organize what needs to be done for reform into units which are as loosely coupled as possible. Think the above categories do that job reasonably well. But inevitably achieving complete independence between categories is not entirely possible, e.g. it would be rather unwise to contemplate changes to the electoral setup in isolation from certain aspects of the executive-legislature relationship. So I also want to get into some of the main interactions between these categories that would really need to be factored into the overall equation for any reform plan. It has seemed to me at times that there was almost a dizzily infinite number of permutations and configurations that could potentially be adopted in a constitutional redesign. But, in reality, I’m coming to the conclusion there are really only a decidedly limited number of themes that would need to be addressed in such a process. Looked through that lens the whole area of constitutional design has begun to look rather less overwhelming and intimidating to me. So my intended slow (and hopefully not too verbose) run-through of the above categories over the next while will be an attempt to describe all this. Apologies if this still all sounds awfully confusing 🙂

  17. @Finbar,

    Wow! You’ve being doing some serious cogitation. Fully agree with the broad categories you’ve identified, but we are still left with the question: how might all this be achieved?

    The size of the barriers to any reform was highlighted by two ‘events’ last week. The first was the publication, and then the withdrawal, by the ESRI of a working paper that could be interpreted as questioning current policy on unemployment benefits and allowances.

    The ESRI, as a policy research institution, has seriously damaged its credibility. It has demonstrated, beyond any reasonable doubt, that research which might question the beliefs and prejudices of governing politicians and policy-makers is either not conducted, or, if conducted, is performed under internal constraints on access to relevant data that should be available – and, most certainly, is not allowed to see the light of day.

    The Indo today provides a superficial assessment of the reputational damage:

    But the damage is much greater than this. The public relies – and has been encouraged (by the Institute itself, successive governments and the media) to rely – on the ESRI to provide impartial objective assessments of economic and social policy- and to explore policy options. There is no other body in Ireland to perform these functions.

    It has been shown that the public, which funds, either directly or indirectly, most of its activities, can no longer rely on the ESRI to provide this public service. The faith of the public in the ESRI will not be restored until there is a comprehensive, ideally external, investigation of the role, functions and funding of the ESRI.

    The second was the publication of the IMF’s latest review of ireland:

    Click to access cr12147.pdf

    It seems most people have missed the real headline here:
    “The IMF bows to demands of public sector unions and of the semi-state managements, staffs and unions”.

    With an initial focus on the Croke Park Agreement, this is what the IMF says:
    “This approach has delivered the budgeted savings while maintaining industrial peace which is critical to the implementation of other fiscal and structural reforms.” (p24)

    And if further evidence is required, the excessively limited scope and nature of the proposed privatisation programme is a real clincher:
    “The government announced in February asset sales of up to €3 billion, comprising energy companies (part of Bord Gais Eireann’s Energy business and some of Electricity Supply Board’s non-strategic power generation capacity), a forestry company (Coillte, excluding land) and the remaining state shares in the national airline (Aer Lingus).” (p27)

    The IMF with the other Troika members sets the broad parameters of economic governance, but the Government has considerable discretion in implementing policy within these parameters. This, for me, demonstrates convincingly, that the Government is employing this discretion to pander to sectional economic interests to the detriment of the interests of the vast majority of citizens.

    Those who prevent government from governing in the public interest – and who compel government to govern in their who narrow interests – are the government.

    These narrow interests retain their power and influence irrespective of whom citizens elect. Is it little wonder that disaffection and discontent with the political process is increasing?

    These are the kinds of issues that need to be addressed as they illustrate serious failures in democratic governance and have the potential to generate broade public interest in refrom.

    • @Paul
      Yes, have been doing a fair amount thinking over the past month or two on these types of issues. Not very much, I admit, about how to get there or achieve any of this, but certainly about where all this might go. Helps to have an idea of the destination before one sets out, I suppose. It’s a start if nothing else.

      Plus, on second thoughts, don’t want to give the blog owners here a bit of a heart attack 🙂 with several long rambling posts (even if they are somewhat related to this thread being about the broad outlines of what a political reform program might look like). So, courtesy of google sites and a bit of fairly basic html, I’ll simply cut and paste a link in future.

      My reflection on the “democratic architecture” became a little longer than expected. It’s also somewhat relevant to the ESRI discussion. Ideally, there should be a well-resourced and independent body within the “democratic architecture” scrutinizing government financial and economic policy, some kind of fiscal council type body, but crucially not too much of a puppet of the government of the day.

      Anyway, some thoughts on the “democratic architecture” can be found here:

  18. Hmmm…interesting reflections Finbar and Paul, maybe we need a Fine Gael style ‘5 point plan’ for democratic reform. It is very useful to think about the relevant domains a real reform commission (or convention, or whatever) should consider. As per the blog though – it’s a bit like football analysts speculating on the Ireland team – the manager (or, in the case of Fg/lab it’s ‘managers’) are so change resistant, even in the face of failure, that we are reduced to speculating about ‘what ifs’. I increasinly fear that some sort of new party would be required to really bring about deep changes, and to bring Ireland’s recalcitrant along for the ride.

    • @Matt
      In my heart of hearts have always thought that a new party (or parties) with radical political reform as part of its overall agenda is the only hope to get the type of change we need. I suspect the upcoming government convention will actually damage the whole concept of a constitutional convention in the public’s mind. My cynical side says that this convention may be partly just an insurance policy to help guard against the very possibility of such a party arising. Delay its start as much as possible, leave it run as long and as close as possible to the end of the electoral term, and leave a little wiggle room in its scope. If it looks like some new party with real electoral threat will indeed arise then some degree of reform concessions will be made. The remit of the convention will suddenly become just a little more radical in an attempt to neutralize the new political force and steal the clothes off its back.

      I know it’s nothing but talk, talk and yet more talk here! 🙂 But can’t say I was overly impressed either by any of the reform manifestos produced by our current main parties before the last GE. Some of them indeed looked like last-minute rush jobs. Even the still-born “Democracy Now” party/political grouping didn’t seem to have any worked out plan (maybe Fintan O’Toole’s book might have formed its nucleus?) A new party would have to have a decent and fairly comprehensive reform manifesto (perhaps containing a catchy 5-point plan also! 😉 ) even if everything wouldn’t have to be set in stone. It’s likely that simply promising a future constitutional convention will no longer cut it, especially if the scope of the currently promised one stays so limited. I fear voters will merely dismiss such a promise as yet another ineffectual talking-shop.

      Have been pondering lately what a reform manifesto for such a new party might in very broad terms look like (or, alternatively, agenda for a constitutional convention or commission in the unlikely event that ever amounts to anything meaningful). Speculation on Irish team selection is fun, if ultimately a completely pointless exercise (and a bit depressing lately 🙂 ), given and assuming there’s a competent and expert manager making the choices for the team. But where are all the public intellectuals who might be busily crafting various viable and concrete reform plans that a new party might then take on board and run with? And that’s not a dig at yourself or the blog owners. Political science academics are perhaps in a somewhat conflicted position. Are academics really allowed to make forays into politics? Advising government-sponsored conventions and the like is desirable and no big deal. Even speaking out against aspects of the system is merely exercising academic freedom. Getting involved in writing political manifestos for nascent political parties? Mmmm … 😉

      • Plus, come to think of it, my last sentence might be construed as a dig against your well-intentioned involvement in advising the Second Republic group, which was not my intent, given that this seems a voluntary group with no particular axe to grind and certainly doesn’t seem to be nascent political party.

      • Not at all Finbar. You do point to a difficulty in political science generally though – how much societal intervention is ‘the right amount’? Frankly, I have no idea myself – I was delighted to work with the people at 2nd Republic (mostly I was just glad to meet others who shared my interest in these issues). As you say, they’re not likely to transmogrify into a party. If and when a party with actual interest in the topic does emerge (or if any of the existing parties decide to make a sustained commitment) I, for one, would be happy to help them in any way i could, without compromising professional impartiality.

  19. @Finbar re. Seabhac Siúlach’s revolution as the way out.
    No sign of revolution more like suffer on in silence. We have had out tipping point and the ship of State has just righted itself slightly and set sail for years of austerity. We need a new party and it should begin recruiting among the people who voted FG/Lab out of desperation.
    We need a Social Democratic Party. (Stephen Donnelly take note.) When the inevitable backlash happens after years of austerity what option have voters but Fianna Fáil or Sinn Féín.
    The intervening three years need to be used by people who care about the future of this country to set a new agenda for this State.

    • @Rodge Arbuckle
      Thanks, agree with that. One problem, though, is that political reform is, for the most part, ideologically neutral. Unfortunately, it’s probably not really enough to sustain a party in its own right, though that said, green parties have carved out a sometimes significant niche for themselves in several European countries on the back of environmental policies (albeit often with a strong centre-left or social-democratic leanings). A green/political reform party might have made a nigh unbeatable combination for mopping up lower transfers within our own voting system (in case anyone is interested see:—the-voting-system and—other-issues-and-complications for some rambling reflections by me on the voting system and possible interactions/complication of voting system changes with the rest of the system ). And, unfortunately, our own Green Party comprehensively self-destructed. It otherwise might have made a particularly natural and convenient vehicle for reform policies (and would likely be riding very high in support and/or the polls now). Water under the bridge now, though, and can’t see it playing any significant role again for a long long time. A social-democratic/reform does sound like a good combination though.

      It’s certainly possible an existing party might take up the reform mantle in a significant way. For example, it might perhaps be well worth Sinn Féin’s while as part of a push for an even greater share of the vote (and no doubt Fianna Fáil would have to counter that in its own way by promising something similar, leading perhaps to reform auction politics covering more than mainly just the Seanad abolition promises at the last GE). Such a push might be further reason for some wavering centre-ground voters to suppress some of their reservations about giving them a vote. But, I’d wonder if power beckoned for Sinn Féin and all the patronage, appointments and goodies that that might potentially deliver to its supporters under the current system, and as it moved more to the center and became itself part of the establishment, would some of the steam inevitably go out of such promises? The same is probably true for all existing parties though.

      Have never been a member of any party myself (though must admit to a bit of canvassing for a friend who ran as an independent candidate once). It’s getting to the stage where I’d seriously consider (even like to) get involved with and support the right kind of political party in a low-key and feet-on-the-ground way (but can’t really imagine doing this though for any of the existing choices).

  20. There isn’t any need for a new political party to drive political and instituional reform – though, perhaps, some further realignment/de-integration of existing parties is required. But the latter is entirely a separate matter.

    We need to focus on examples of institutional failure, bring them to the attention of the public, explain why they matter and outline what needs to be done. The media got hold of the ESRI’s treatment of the Tol et al paper, the Indo in particular, but failed to focus on the institutional failure that underlies it.

    When the ESRI publishes a report it adds the following disclaimer:
    ““The ESRI is an independent research institute. The Institute does not take policy positions and the views expressed in ESRI publications are those of the authors. All ESRI reports are peer-reviewed prior to publication.”

    The ESRI’s disclaimer captures the essence of the problem. The ESRI is not expected, nor is it required, to take policy positions. Governments will always have competing and conflicting policy objectives – and various challenges (most unanticipated) will arise continuously. The primary role of the ESRI – in the absence of sustained and effective policy research across a broad front in the universities – is to evaluate government policy objectives, to conduct research on how these might best be achieved, to attempt to quantify the trade-offs and the distributional impacts of various options and to make some recommendations.

    This does not mean it is taking a policy position. It is simply assembling relevant research, conducting additional research as required and making some recommendations. Governing politicians and policy-makers are perfectly free to ignore these recommendations, but at least the public and media will be able to observe any discrepancies between the advice offered and subsequent policy actions – and to form their judgements. This is a key element of democratic governance.

    Governments, of course, – and this is true everywhere – will not welcome policy recommendations that run counter to their beliefs, prejudices or political calculations and manoeuverings. But there will always be a conflict between governments’ demand for policy-based evidence and the supply of evidence-based policy in the public interest. So a publicly-funded policy research institute has to have strength and conviction to uphold the public interest.

    But, unfortunately, the ESRI fails on all counts. It fails most seriously by exposing individual researchers (or groups of researchers) to full responsibility for any views expressed in perr-reviewed publications. If research has been conducted in accordance with the Institute’s procedures and is approved for publication, then the Institute should stand fully behind it. It is a gross dereliction of its institutional duties to its staff. It almost guarantees that staff will avoid conducting research whose results might not be welcome to government. And the Institute fails the public, who are ultmately funding most of its activities, because it is in the public interest to conduct policy research without fear or favour. The fact that much funding is provided by public or semi-state sector bodies whose interests frequently conflict with the broader public interest merely exacerbates the problem.

    This has gone on for far too long. This episode goes right to the heart of the failures in policy-making and regulation that landed Ireland in this mess – and whose continuance are preventing a sustainable recovery. There is a pressing requirement for a comprehesive (ideally external) investigation of the role, functions and funding of the ESRI.

    Will this happen? Not a chance. Official Ireland has closed ranks – and spat out his wild-haired Dutchman who had the gall to put the public interest first. Of course, this was much easier once he had decamped to pagan England.

    This is the kind of thing people here should be getting energised about.

  21. @Finbar
    Re. “axes to grind”.
    This letter from Second Republic was printed on JUNE 15th in the SUNDAY BUSINESS POST. I am unable to provied an online link.
    “Dear Sir
    The Government is to be commended for following through on their commitment to establish a Constitutional Convention following the failure of politics ahead of the financial crisis. However, certain matters need to be considered now by the Oireachtas regarding the operation of the Convention.
    The Convention’s recommendations will not be binding on Cabinet despite promises in the Programme for Government of “a real shift in power” from the State to the citizen. Cabinet have stated that it will decide “whether or not to bring forward legislation proposing Constitutional change.” Consequently, reform proposals could be shelved for reasons of political expediency. This has happened repeatedly in the past to even modest recommendations for constitutional reform. A commitment is required from Cabinet to put the Convention’s recommendations directly to the people in a referendum.
    There is a danger that the 33 politicians on the Convention, with their specific agendas, broad experience and supports, will exert undue influence on the 66 randomly-selected citizens. The issue of support for these 66 members – with varying educational backgrounds, knowledge of politics – needs to be addressed by the Oireachtas.
    Experience from abroad shows that the success of the Convention will hinge on the extent of public involvement and prior understanding of its work. The planned provision of online IT facilities to encourage involvement by Irish people at home and abroad in the work of the convention is a welcome and significant initiative. However it has not yet been decided by Cabinet how transparent the proceedings of the convention will be. All meetings should be held in public and made available online in the interests of fostering a more accountable, transparent and inclusive democracy in this State.
    Bronagh Geraghty,
    Chairperson, Second Republic,”

    • Was tbh a little uncertain how respond to this. I’ve no doubt given some offence and you’re here (quite ably) defending and publicizing your group’s good work. And perhaps the implication also is that axes are being softly and quietly ground there somewhere in the background re the constitutional convention’s format, structure and scope. If so, the above letter is a good swipe at some of its likely deficiencies. The government would want to pull its socks up re the convention arrangements even for its own sake or it may quickly end up as a target for ridicule. There were even some shenanigans in the Seanad yesterday as some government TDs went missing or changed sides on a vote on the convention that went against the government. And it’s possible the whole convention may ultimately descend into farce if some of its 66 citizen participants (as Paul suggested) eventually decide to no longer play along or collectively rebel.

      • @Finbar,

        I would love it if some or all of the 66 randomly selected citizens took a good look at this charade and decided not to participate, but I doubt they will. The Government and its apparatus, with our tame fourth estate in tow, will make sure these unfortunately importuned citizens will have their 15 minutes of public fame. It will prove very difficult for them to refuse because their selection to perform this (wonderfully convenient for the Government) very special civic duty will be feted with great ceremony and publicity.

        If I were selected I’d have no problem telling them where to stick it, but I reckon most of the citizens selected will not have anything like the exposure to this charade that we’ve had here, and will feel privileged – and will be made to feel very privileged – to be be selected.

        But, as ever, I love in hope. I continue to repose my faith in the sound good sense of the majority of Irish citizens. I suspect the 66 that will be selected will represent that measure of sound good sense, but it is easier to register that sound good sense in the secrecy of a polling booth than it is to make the right decision in the full glare of the media and with the full force of Government effectively seeking to deny you a choice.

        It would be wonderful if all our ‘public intellectuals’ with knowledge and competence in this area were to come out and join the handful of their colleagues who have publicly declared this to be a charade and a joke. That could prove to be a tipping point – and would remove the burden from the likely, but understandably, under-informed selected citizens. But that would probably be a bridge too far for many – for all sorts of reasons (both good and bad).

        While my faith in Irish citizens remains as strong as ever, my faith in our ‘public intellectuals’ is ebbing away.

  22. @Finbar
    No criticism even noticed after all this a political blog not a diplomatic mission.
    It is significant that one of the first breaks of rank is over an issue related to the Convention.
    Of course the Senate should have been on the Convention’s agenda given that it is so intirisic to the whole Constitution.

  23. A couple of interesting op-eds in the IT today that have some relevance here. The first is by Michele Brandt, a US-based lawyer, expert on constitutional reform and co-author of Constitution Making and Reform: Options for the Process, who, according to the IT, gave the keynote address at the Irish Council for Civil Liberties’ symposium on Ireland’s constitutional convention;

    This is all wonderful stuff – designed to convey a warm and fuzzy feeling – but I wonder did she actually read what the Government is proposing with this Constitutional Convention charade.

    The second is by Ronan McCrea, who, according to the IT again, is an Irish barrister who lectures in EU and constitutional law at University College Londo:

    Given the grindingly slow and painful, but very necessary, steps being taken to resolve the Euro crisis, the issue he raises about re-balancing the powers of voters and legislators when deciding on amendments to EU treaties should be close to the top of the list of items to be considered by a Constitutional Convention.

  24. Quick up-date:

    It appears that the ICCL, drawing on the work of Brandt et al, used this symposium to kick off a ‘Hear our Voices’ campaign. Details at

    The accompanying document, which may be downloaded from the front page, is truly hilarious. It’s all about the process of engaging the public and ‘stakeholders’ in an ‘inclusive’ manner. There isn’t a word about the Government’s excessively narrow and self-serving selection of topics that renders the whole exercise a total charade.

    This tack, of course, provides a selection of our ‘public intellectuals’ with knowledge and competence in this area with cover to participate. They can say, quite legitimately, that they got involved to ensure the process was conducted in line with ‘international best practice’. This will allow them to do a Pontius Pilate about the content of the process.

    Bank supervision and financial regulation were declared to be ‘international best practice’ in the run-up to the bursting of the double-bubble – and woe betide any who said it wasn’t. We now know the content was rotten. It is still delared that policy and regulation in every other area is ‘international best practice’. We’ll have to wait another while before we see the content, again, is rotten. And here we have another exercise with a focus on ensuring the process is ‘international best practice’ and the content is rotten.

  25. The Senate revolt by Labour party senators confirms that the agonising over the weakness of the Convention in this blog were very relevant to the central national problem of Cabinet tyranny. It will become a more politically divisive issue than one would have expected in February when those who should have known better seemed to be caught by surprise when the proposal document was issued. The fundamentals had been had been well flagged in the drip-feed of Dáil questions and public addresses by a few ministers and the Taoiseach at various functions in 2011. Donnacha O’Connell while he welcomed the initiative in December pointed out the weaknesses. Anyone who had seen potential in the idea was soon disillusioned but based on media coverage it appears no action to confront the charade in February when the proposal was issued.
    The lack of a concerted joint campaign by academics, commentators and civic society groups in the early stages was unfortunate. There is an element of crying over spilt milk in the present efforts to challenge the Convention at this late stage. Too many jealousies, nit-splitting and turf-watching here I suspect. This lack of a concerted response played directly into the hands of the government hence the matter of fact way the government announced the setting up of the Convention earlier this month.
    Why this sudden explosion on the political front in marked contrast to the politeness on the civic society/ academic front? Are some politicians getting fed up with Cabinet tyranny? The following report in today’s Sunday Independent shows they are.
    “Though three of the 11 Labour senators, Denis Landy, John Kelly and James Heffernan, voted against the party whip, the Sunday Independent has also learnt that three other senators — John Whelan, Jimmy Harte and John Gilroy, who were not present — would also have voted against the Government, and that another Labour senator changed their mind at the last minute and voted with, rather than against, the Government.
    Though the extent of such a rebellion within any organised party is unprecedented, Mr Kenny may face even greater trouble from a group of outspoken independent senators he himself appointed.
    In last week’s defeat, the outspoken university lecturer Marie-Louise O’Donnell, the businesswoman Mary Ann O’Brien, Jillian van Turnhout and the artistic director of the Abbey, Fiach Mac Conghail, all voted against the Government.
    And it is believed other independent senators such as Katherine Zappone and Martin McAleese have serious reservations about the proposal.
    This may pose the Government with unwanted political difficulties for, in spite of the unprecedented parliamentary majority it has in the Dail, its Seanad majority is far more perilous.” – Sunday Independent 24.6.2012

    • @Manus Magee,

      I had a comment preceeding my last one which might have helped to clarify it – and is in line with your contentions – but it’s still in the moderation queue.

      There may be an element of some steam being vented in the Seanad – and being allowed to be vented in the Seanad – as a much, much safer and less impactful alternative to it being vented in the Dail. I would be much more impressed if there had been some serious rumblings in the Dail. One can always live in hope that some public representatives might begin to take their parliamentary duties seriously, but it would be unwise to rely on those who are part of the problem suddently becoming part of the solution.

      It’s a waste of time relying on the academics/commentators/opinion-formers/civil society groups. They all have their own interests to advance or protect – that often deviate from genuinely advancing the public interest. It just needs enough voters to wake up to the way the game is being, and has been, played and to realise that this game-playing is the single most important factor that contributed to Ireland being in the mess it’s in.

  26. @Paul
    “It just needs enough voters to wake up to the way the game is being, and has been, played and to realise that this game-playing is the single most important factor that contributed to Ireland being in the mess it’s in. “
    Ok so now we are at the nub of the problem. Let’s say enough voters wake up one fine morning and decide they have had enough of the game-playing who do they vote for? SF, FF, FG or Labour? Oh I don’t think so. A voter who wants reform might as well spoil their vote given the dreary choice of parties.

    • @Manus,

      Voters can only choose among the offerings by those who are ‘playing the game’. And I agree that voters who might wish to see a change in how the game is played might conclude that the best way of getting the message across is to spoil their votes. Apart from these I expect there will be more ‘protest voting’ the next time around and I think more voters will simply stay at home. I don’t see last year’s 70.1% turnout being repeated.

      There is a sad inevitability about it all. FG and Labour appear to be determined to battle on for as long as they can. SF should do very well and FF, by boxing clever and seeking to re-invigorate its organisation, should also do reasonably well.

      Labour is on a hiding to nothing and FG, inevitably, will lose seats. It came very close to maxing out its seat numbers the last time for its share of votes and transfers. It wouldn’t need a huge drop in 1st preferences or a major change in the parttern of transfers to knife in to their current seat total.

      Dick Spring effected a change of horses during the ’92-’97 Dail without forcing a general election. But I can’t see the current alignment of forces and pressures – both internal and external – leading to a change of horses – even if it is badly needed.

      If enough of the newly elected Labour TDs who will be turfed out were to revolt and FG and FF were prepared to accept a historic re-alignment, many things would be possible. But the parties won’t force this; only the voters can do it at the next election when FF will very likely have a choice of joining with either FG or SF, in some shape or form.

      It is even less likely that FG and Labour will make any effort to change how the game is being played in terms of resolving the imbalance between parliament and the executive. With the overwhelming majority they enjoy they have a once in a generation opportunity, but they are both revelling too much in the executive dominance they enjoy. And the only thing voters can do is to deprive them of that enjoyment at the next time of asking.

      It is sad and stupid because introducing these reforms would resonate with many voters, force a more thorough scrutiny of proposed opposition policies and give them a sporting chance of being re-elected.

      But they are pathologically incapable of seizing the opportunity.

      • I agree com-pletely that the voters need to wake up and realise that the future is in their hands. . This whole “we arent in control” excuse doesnt wash with me. .

        Our choices arent simply to vote FG/FF/LAB etc . . If we take a long term view view of things (something our politicians are incapable of doing), we can begin the process of purging ourselves of repeating the same mistakes over and over again, by allowing the status quo to be maintained. Personally, I dont believe we need a new party because that wont encourage change and will only attract carpet bagger politicians who jump on any populist bandwagon with traction. What you need is to focus on educating people on the importance of their vote. Sounds simple, but its a tough sell because people are so disillusioned with politics, they dont believe anything that comes out of anybodys mouth within politics. That is why you start outside, in a position that has no vested interest, nothing to gain by promoting sound ethical politics.

        It would probabley involve tactics like shaming politicians into doing the right thing. But the idea would be that this is an incorruptable ideal thats about transparency, accountability and sound principles. Unfortunatley, if you were to look at something like the FF constitution ( ) , it sounds perfect and something we could all follow, but in reality its nothing more then words. I wouldnt class any other party much differant.

        What human nature has thought us its that cultures can change. Indeed if we look at the revolution against the catholic church in Ireland, one can see how even we, as a united nation, can eventually find clarity where once we were blind.

        People are lacking a moral leader, who is not here to make promises or tell them what they want to hear. Somebody whose actions are about unifying the country and harnassing the community spirit. People dont feel like they have a voice, because they think that they can only speak to their politicians once every 5 or so years. Can we not come up with something to make it easier for people to get .Even if its just an online medium?

        I dont believe its impossible to find a good leader and I dont believe its impossible to change the way Irish People think and make them value their vote. I dont believe its impossible to force the corrupt culture that exists in politics out . . But somebody has to make a start somewhere . .

  27. @Oran
    What would a new leader do – be a a leader of an existing political party or of campaign/pressure group?

    • Thats exactly what I am saying, a political campaign group whose main initial purpose is to expose the corruption and immoral practises that are an accepted part of “the game” in politics.

      Promising things at election time that cant/wont be performed, not clearly answering important questions (why was planning enquiries cancelled?) and getting deeped into politics (how are ministers chosen – eg is it usually strategically chosen people to benefit the taoiseach keeping his position as opposed to picking the right person for the right job?).

      People want to be led, which is why you need a leader, but the problem arises when that leader is corrupted , but in many cases its corruption by self-preservation and/or just having your principles eroded over time by the culture that exists (ever work in a job where you were once enthustiastic and over time became disillusioned with the politics that went on in the office?).

      The Unions are a perfect example of how non political parties can lead and get support of the people. Unfortunately the Unions are all rhetoric and only serve those who fund them. They have no moral authority and more importantly they have a specific vested interest to improve things for a specific vested group.

      This campaign should be about everybody and nobody in particular. It should be impartial, objective and should encourage an awareness/clarity on politics that tries to involve everybody.

      I don’t have all the answers (this can sometimes be used in discussions by people who think if you don’t have all the answers your idea is futile!), but this campaign shouldn’t be about any one and the message should be that we all have a voice, we are all important, we are all a community and through collective hard work we can/will create a better society.

  28. Irish political party politics is about power. Not entirely, but near enough to ensure policy making is secondary. Irish party politics had a very lopsided start and this continued until the election of 1989. The situation is somewhat changed but it may take one (or possibly two, maybe even three) general elections to fully correct to the western European parliamentary norm of coalition governments. PR-STV is not fully proportional and could be replaced with a fully proportional system. Possibly a single electoral district for the entire country and 80-90 TDs. This would force restructuring of local government.

    I would respectfully suggest no one is foolish enough to attempt to ‘wake up’ our voters. They are most likely to chew your head off. We live in a land of virtuality, fictional legends and comforting delusions. That’s probably a plausible definition of a somnolent volcano. One would be better advised to learn how to grow one’s own food and collect rainwater.

    • As my mother used to say to me Brian, its not necessarily what you say, its how you say it . .

      You dont start a campaign and have its main theme being “wake up Ireland” . . You make it about everybody and try to make it in a way that is about encouraging involvement. I would have the theme being “the peoples voice” or something on those lines , with the idea that its trying to give a voice to those who dont think the partys represent them (pretty anybody not an active member of a party), who doesnt feel the trade Unions represent them and people who dont even vote!

      We once lived in a land where the catholic church was considered the voice of reason, an untouchable organisation physically and even in discussion. Look at where they are now . .

      Im not saying there is an easy solution, all I am saying is waiting for it to happen, even in a time of economic collapse, hasnt worked thus far. Perhaps its time to try and take the bull by the horns and try something differant.

  29. Fire ahead Oran. But my extensive experience tells me that we need a really bad event (politically and economically) to attract and hold folks’ attentions. Then there is the not so little matter of the demogogue who arises to stir the s**t. Gary ‘Rotten Egg’ Keogh was the only critter with moxie. The rest are sheeple. They sat and stared as they were shorn. Would have been interesting if they had stormed the podium and beaten the shit out of the directors and execs. Or at least poured their designer water over them.

    Look at what is exercising folk. A nest of birds in a derelict housing block. Shit tanks. Bogs. A couple shaking hands. We have a very long way to go.

    The sun’s come out. “Where’s my Chablis and Roquefort?”

  30. I agree with alot of your sentiments Brian, but many people thought that there would be a huge political shift when FF were shown the door. (I didnt ).

    I have times where I get all psyched up and wanting to be a part of something positive in this country. The Occupy movement captured the imagination because it represented the feelings of a large majority of people. However, it wasnt really well organised and was mainly reliant on the optics of physically camping outside a bank to further its cause.

    I have no doubt that it would be difficult to start a movement designed to encourage people to get involved and interested in politics, but I dont believe its impossible.

    I was at a motivational seminar (for my job) and there was one speech made that is appropriate in what I say here. Between the ages of 1-5, humans are seldom more focused on what they want and they allow nothing take away from their focus. I believe that we need to focus on what we can do to try and change the political culture, instead of what we cant do. We cant force people to be interested, but we can try differant things to appeal to them.

    I get fedup thinking about politics and take mental Sabbaticals regularly. I think we all get fed up thinking about it which is fine. But if we had a purpose and a strategy to at least focus on in the times when we are up for the fight, I think it would be possible to begin something wonderful.

    The hypocritical part of my posts is that I dont know where to begin and I dont know how much time I could afford to give to my suggestion. I am barely getting by as it is, so political reform from my end will have to wait until I have some sort of financial stability to really commit to a cause I hold dear.

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