Striking a better balance between democracy and regulation

Theresa Reidy and myself had a piece in the Irish Times earlier this week on the need to think about change for referendum rules. Many of the comments on The Irish Times site were from no voters in the Children’s Referendum who appeared to think that we would seek to ensure that their voices are not heard. However, in fact what we argue is that if we are to utilise the tools of direct democracy such as referendums then we should seek to maximise the democratic outputs. Referendums with low turnouts and large sections of the population not understanding the issue at hand are not enhancing of our democracy. Thus we need to look at new models.

21 thoughts on “Striking a better balance between democracy and regulation

  1. I submitted a comment linking to this piece when it first appeared in th IT. It disappeared in the ether. Perhaps the same thing will happen to this one.

    But, in any event, I don’t understand why “new models are required”. At general elections citizens delegate the exercise of their ultimate power and authority to their elected representatives. Every time a referendum is used the delegated power and authority of the Oireachtas is diminished. Ireland is no longer a representative parliamentary democracy in any meaningful sense. The extent to which special interest groups and narrow sectional economic interests prevent government and parliament from governing and legislating, resp., in the public interest is truly frightening. The abrogation by the Oireachtas of its primary responsibility to direct, scrutinise and restrain governments – and to hold them to account – is even more frightening.

    The vast majority of the policy issues and matters of public concern that continuously arise should be resolved by parliament. Recourse to amending the Constitution should be exceptionally rare.

    Worrying about the conduct of referendums is pure displacement activity. It’s a focus on relieving the symptoms so as to avoid diagnosing and treating the disease. Many Irish people seem to have this ability to suspend disbelief indefinitely and to accept the sustained projection of optical illusions. Some of these illusions were shattered on 30 Sep 2008, but the projection of quite a few others continues to be sustained. Eventually these, too, will be shattered.

    • Paul I’m not sure why you continue to harrangue us all here, the constant negativity is tiring. Nothing is ever to your taste or satisfaction. If you would like to set up your own blog and Ill put up a link to it from here.

      • You may perceive negativity, but, while the ability to see what one wants to see may be universal, it has been developed in to an art-form in Ireland. On the contrary, I am passionately positive about properly functioning representative parliamentary democracy. For example, while it still falls short of what is possible – and often has unintended consequences – I take great encouragement from the increased ‘bolshiness’ of the British Parliament and the increased role of parliamentary committees in investigating matters of public concern, in holding government to account and in putting a spanner in the implementation of the frequent hare-brained schemes that governments concoct to favour their corporate and special interest benefactors. I also take great encouragement from the behaviour of parliaments in northern Europe, in particular, the Bundestag where Chancellor Merkel has lost her ‘Chancellor’s majority’ in key recent EU-related votes – yet the skies haven’t fallen in.

        The absence of a properly functioning parliament is one of the principal reasons Ireland is in this mess – and also why it is finding it so difficult to extract itself from this mess. But there are none so blind as those who will not see.

        In any event, I get the message. I realise I have been de-invited.

    • @paul
      “Every time a referendum is used the delegated power and authority of the Oireachtas is diminished.”
      Frankly, I do not understand this statement at all. To my way of thinking, it does not make any sense.
      The Oireachtas derives its authority from the people. So how is the delgated power and authority diminished when the Oireachtas goes back to the people in a referendum?.

      In contrast to the UK we, in the Republic of Ireland actually have a written constitution which specifies that it can only be changed if a majority of those voting support a change proposed by the Oireachtas.
      Note that only the Oireachtas has the power to propose changes .*

      In this context, I think it entirely appropriate that political scientists should draw our attention to ” new models” of running referenda.
      I thank both Jane and Theresa for doing just that. This is one of the things I expect of academics.

      As regards your other points about the state of this Republic’s representative democracy, I suggest that we have strengths that are clearly missing in the UK.
      Our electoral system ensures that those elected to the Dáil actually represent the voters.

      The first-past the post electoral system in single member constituencies can result in MPs being elected by a minority of those voting during an election.

      Just how representative is that?

      * I favour that we citizens give ourselves the power to initiate changes to the Constitution directly, since we are the source of all power of the State see here

      and here

      • I should be gone, because I know my continued presence is p1ssing off our hosts, but, since you raise some valid points, you deserve a response. I expect we’ll have to agree to disagree, but here goes anyway.

        In my view, constitutions should be minimalist; they should establish and govern the basic institutions and procedures of a democratic polity; and they should establish and protect the rights and responsibities of citizens. Public opinion changes over time; social and cultural mores change and adapt; the political and economic environment in which the state operates is subject to continuous change; and the application of science and technology continuously advances human development and pushes the bounds of what is possible.

        All these require continuous changes in governance and in the formulation and implementation of public policy. Citizens delegate their ultimate authority (for a maximum period of time – generally 5 years) to their elected representatives to deal with these matters – in most cases because they don’t have the time, interest or expertise to address and resolve these matters, but more crucially, because it is more efficient and effective. They are generally happy with this delegation of their authority for a number of reasons that include the protections enshrined in the constitution, the continuous scrutiny of government in parliament and by the media (lord help us all) and the ability to eject unsatisfactory representatives at the next time of asking.

        I remain convinced that the vast majority of citizens (there will always be those with axes to grind) are perfectly happy to allow their elected representatives to get on with the business of governance. They expect them to make judgements and decisions on matters that they, either individually or collectively, would find it difficult to make.

        It may be that the Constitution needs almost continuous amendment because it is no longer fit for purpose – it is indeed a constitution for a confessional state drafted at a time when democracy, globally, was under threat. But I would distinguish between amendments that are required to make piecemeal changes that might render it more fit for purpose and amendments that are required because the elected representatives have neither the guts nor gumption to decide on a matter.

        Do those who reckon there should be new models for referendums ever wonder why many citizens fail to put the effort in to understanding the minutiae of the issues on which they’re being asked to decide? Might it not be because they are wondering why they are being asked to decide when they have already delegated their authority to their elected representatives to give full consideration to these matters and to decide – and pay them handsomely to do so?

        Because, in some respects, the Constitution is no longer fit for purpose, it is right and proper to ask the people to decide on certain matters – though it would make far more sense to conduct a major revision and put that to the people as a package – but there are other matters on which the elected representatives should decide – and citizens should compel them to decide. When the elected representatives lack the guts or gumption to decide on matters on which they should decide, by default, they diminish their authority. (There will always be headbangers pursuing specific agendas which invariably fail to secure sufficient popular traction who will want to put almost everything to a referendum so that they can make a furore, but the majority of citizens have the good sense to treat these headbangers with the disdain they deserve every time they get the opportunity.)

        As for your second point which is primarily about proportional representation I have pointed out in previous comments that I am increasingly coming to favour majoritarian voting systems because they allow the process of parliamentary democracy to more closely mimic the effects of natural evolution. It is for the political factions to adapt their offers to voters to ensure that the winning candidate secures more than 50% of the votes cast.

        Many thanks again for you willingness to engage here – I’m sure we’ll continue to do so in other ways and in other fora.

  2. @Paul
    While I usually agree with a lot of what you say regarding parliamentary democracy, I don’t buy your argument that “every time a referendum is used the delegated power and authority of the Oireachtas is diminished.” (it’s one you’ve made often before). The Oireachtas is particularly weak here but IMO the use of referendums and their role is at most a tiny factor in this.

    @Jane Suiter
    While I definitely don’t have an in-depth knowledge of referendum regulatory setups in various countries (there’s only so much time in the day! 🙂 ), I did take a quick look at what usually is a good source of info for these type of things (the Venice commission website ). I remembered a nice report on referendum setups around Europe: . Pages 15-18 are perhaps most relevant to this topic. My impression from this summary is that several European countries have fairly strict referendum regulations. Several have restrictions on funding. Several don’t allow the state (or state funding) to come in behind one side or the other. Several have requirements of fairness (and some have requirements of equal time) in public media (Portugal has the additional requirement for equal time for each side in private media also). There are other models of course (Spain seems to allocate funding to party groups in proportion to their strengths). Switzerland (referendum central!) seems to be one of the most heavily regulated (with requirements of state objectivity and the putting of arguments from both sides in informational literature).

    My general feeling in the Irish case is that the government would rather put out minimal information that the previous setup where literature from the referendum commission contained arguments from both sides. Can’t really see what was the inherent problem with that previous setup. Seemingly several other European countries can operate such a framework.

    No doubt Irish governments would be happier with the hybrid model you propose (half of funding in proportion to Oireachtas strengths and half split between both sides). But in the recent Oireachtas inquiries all major parties were purportedly in favour of the amendment (only some of the technical group seemed to be against). In practical terms that would have worked out at slightly less than 75:25 yes:no allocation (or maybe a panel of 3:1 against if such a ratio applied to media airtime). Better than the likely 90%:10% ratio that a Spanish-style party allocation model would have given. Still, must say I instinctively prefer a crude 50:50 breakdown. I think the McKenna and related judgments were good law. And seemingly form type of equal airtime setup is workable in other places in Europe.

    • Thanks for those links. You have done us a service by pointing to an authoritative source for comparing how referenda are organised and run in other parts of Europe.

      It is very useful to have this now. I get the impression that the powers-that-be that moves are afoot to change the McKenna and other similar judgements so that they can run referenda as they used to be – virtually unlimited government resources being applied to the side that the Government wants. The governing elite really do not like checks and balances of any sort.

      As regards your other points, I am struck by how often the powers-that-be use fear of a court judgement to do nothing or do the minimum possible when considering issues.

      The most recent example is the reduction in judges’ pay. One retired judge, Donal Barrington judge was reported as having said that it was not necessary. If I remember correctly, his argument this was on the basis that the reduction to be applied was to all judges, as part of a general pay reduction of “comparative positions” in the wider public service. The constitutional restraint in Art. 35.5 states that “The remuneration of a judge shall not be reduced during his continuance in office” is clear when applied to one judge. Without having looked at Kelly’s The Irish Constitution, I assume that this Article is designed to prevent arbitrary and whimsical action by Government or the Dáil against a (single) judge. But when applied to the whole judiciary in the context of a general reduction in pay, I wonder?

      A less pusillanimous Government would have rreduced the judges’ pay along with other similar reductions and waited for the constitutional challenge. If it came, the public esteem for the judiciary would not have been enhanced.

      The other example is the usual argument for the non-implementation of the 1970s Kenny report on the control of the price of development land. It is glibly said that the recommendations are contrary to the Constitution. Kenny was a High Court Judge who had deep knowledge of the Constitution. He considered the issue in in detail in a special section (Chapter VIII) of his report see p.45-56 here

      Jane and Theresa have point to the absurdity which this ultra-conservative approach to legality is leading us
      “An event organised by the Oireachtas health committee was cancelled and then rescheduled amid worries about whether the McKenna judgment might preclude such events.”

      • @Donal
        Thanks for the reply. Your comment on the Venice Commission being an “authoritative source for comparing how referenda are organised and run in other parts of Europe” did seem particularly apt today (brought a wry smile of amusement to my face). The Venice Commission seemed to have been a sufficiently authoritative source for our own Supreme Court Justices anyway to refer to in their preliminary judgment upholding Mark McCrystal’s appeal: (successfully arguing that recent government-funded referendum literature went against the McKenna principles).

      • I agree with the authors of the above post that there’s a problem (and for the record I will vote yes in Saturday’s referendum). But I’m not convinced regarding the diagnosis of the source of the problem. We do seem to be on the heavily-regulated end of referendum spectrum, but we don’t seem to be unique in this regard. Does such regulation inevitably lead to dysfunction in all other similar jurisdictions? My suspicion is the source is simply a lack of government will to work within the current legal constraints (they’d rather have no information than an objective and balanced case being made with state funds). Really how difficult would it be to produce a balanced and objective presentation setting out of arguments on both sides? Last time, for the Oireachtas Inquiries referendum, the UCD Constitution Studies Group took it upon themselves to produce such a guide: . This time they’ve done it again for the upcoming referendum:

        Anyway, today’s Supreme court judgment merely confirms a series of past judgments (the full judgment next month will be interesting to read). It would seem from the Venice Commission report that our legal setup isn’t anything all that exceptional in terms of European legal norms. Was expecting such a result from our court, but one never knows. Despite its non-transparent and rather haphazard appointments process, the Supreme Court still seems to be one of the few institutions of state capable of showing some real independence. It’s hard to see, at this stage, a future court clipping its own wings and rowing back on all this. Probably only a constitutional amendment could change the current setup (and really what’s the likelihood the people would actually vote to overturn this?).

  3. Finbar,

    I’m going to miss the constructive engagement with you, Donal and namy others here. But even you must concede that there is a huge gulf between the objectives, ambitions and desires of those who wish to see some real, effective change in the broader public interest and those of the academics who are embedded in Official Ireland.

    I take your point about the excessive use of referendums being but a factor in the inexorable and persistent weakening of the Oireachtas relative to the ‘government machine, but I would continue to contend that it is for the Oireachtas to exercise its authority to limit the use of these referendums. A parliament is the forum where the ‘business of the nation’ is transacted. To function effectively representative parliamentary democracy has to mimic natural evolution – the most powerful and relentless force in the living world. Ineffective or dangerous leaders can be peacefully removed; ineffective, counter-productive or damaging policies can be amended or discarded; and more effective and appropriate policies can be advanced in the public interest.

    But that has never been the case in Ireland. The first Dail (a picture of the members whe were free to attend it adorns this web-site) was a democratic expression of Irish independence from the British Crown, government and parliament. But it was largely symbolic until some measure of freedom was secured. Its symbolism has diminished to almost nothing over the years, but it has not been accompanied by a compensating increase in effectiveness. In fact it has been quite the opposite. Its effectiveness has diminished pro rata with the decline in symbolism and in inverse relationship to the increase in the dominance, centralisation and expansion of the power and reach of the government machine.

    This is the rebalancing that must be performed. (The latest legislative proposaIs by a senior government minister to allow an almost entirely ineffective increase in the effectively non-existent powers of the Oireachtas to conduct proper investigations that would allow it to scrutinise, restrain and hold the government machine to account would wither in the full blast of public ridicule they would attract in any other democratic polity with a properly functioning system of representative parliamentary democracy.)

    I will continue the battle – because it is a battle against the forces of darkness and resistance – but, obviously, not here.

    • As an occasional viewer, I find it a pity that Paul Hunt is being pressured into self-censorship. His views are direct but it is no harm to have direct discourse in a country brought low by group think (Nyberg). Rather than expelling him to the hades of blogging, why not get him a job writing pieces for the IT?

      • Shane,

        Many thanks for your kind words. Don’t worry. I won’t be silenced – even if there are quite a few who’d like that and are doing their best to do so. For example, I’ve been barred from commenting on the Irish Economy blog, let’s say ‘constructively dismissed from commenting on the Progressive Economy blog and now I’ve been ‘de-invited’ here. And that’s only the overt effort…

    • @Paul
      Apologies for the late response (have been away for the past few days). IMO the absence of your comments would be a real loss around here. I have a feeling that many lurkers here might agree.

      But I must admit I do value this blog as a useful source of information and debate on Irish political reform (there are not too many such places!). I suppose it’s exactly the type of thing conscientious Irish polsci academics should be doing anyway (particularly given current circumstances). Credit to them, but still all just part of being a good academic (and it isn’t as if that isn’t properly remunerated in the overall scheme of things). It’s a pity your comments were considered too robust. As a somewhat semi-public figure, you’ve stuck your neck out in highlighting some real problems where economics and governance intersect in this country. Have probably made yourself into a marked man by the powers-that-be (can’t imagine they’ll appoint you to an energy policy quango anytime soon! 😉 ). You obviously care (it isn’t as if you’re storing up any future rewards for playing a gadfly role).

      Positivity is all well-and-good but I often find myself unwilling to cheer small baby steps. When economic times eventually improve there’ll inevitably be some retrenchment and clawing back of any current reform improvements. Grudgingly slow and limited incrementalism might well in the longer scheme of things ultimately amount to the sum total of nothing. We’ve seen past “reform” responses to embarrassing public incidents, e.g. the creation of the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board (JAAB) in response to the Harry Whelan affair, which ultimately have proved to be so wooly and vague as to essentially amount to close to zilch/nada. Positivity where it’s due certainly has it’s place but I tend to be fairly reluctant to throw on any green jersey. Maybe that makes me a negative person! 🙂

      I’m mostly just interested in the ideas surrounding political reform. I’m no public figure, so neither much risk nor reward is involved (just find the area interesting in its own right). My basic desire is that all the various political reform angles be thrashed out in detail in this and other forums. Who knows, perhaps our TDs will eventually get their act together, or perhaps some reform party or movement may get started and run for office. Can’t say I’m hugely hopeful. The day will eventually come when there’s a sufficient change in political culture amongst the electorate and/or politicians and sufficient desire for good governance that this will come about, but it might well take yet another 30 year cycle of boom and mismanagement for the right circumstances to finally come together. But it’s not inconceivable this will happen in the short to medium term (as austerity bites more and more). A useful service places like this (or with its “shadow constitutional convention”) could provide is that at least all the various routes, angles, options and possible avenues of reform be fully explored and thrashed out by our various experts.

      Far away fields often seem greener. It’s easy to get carried away regarding the quality of governance in other countries. However, in practically all categories I’ve considered, the general caliber of how we’ve been governed in this country over the past few decades seems fairly abysmal. Recently got around to reading Conor McCabe’s “Sins of the Father” (see for a review)
      Am no economist, but a lot of McCabe’s arguments and narrative seemed pretty convincing and also depressing. Its subject matter is firmly planted in the intersection between economics and politics (coming from quite a left-wing viewpoint).

      The only major policy success of the Irish state seems to have been as a multinational base for the US (a confluence of EU membership, upsides of the Lynch splurge in the 70s going into education for the masses, and corporate tax policy). Though that’s perhaps all starting to wear a bit thin now (and perhaps masked plenty of other underlying problems). The whole overlap between politics and economics seems an important area. Seems a real pity you have been sidelined off of and seem to be leaving here now also. I’ve no doubt you’ll keep fighting the good fight though! 🙂

      • Finbar,

        Many thanks for the kind words. The problem (and Ireland is not unique in this respect – it is common across all the advanced economies with established democracies) is that those academics with knowledge and competence and who have secured some ‘public standing’ – particularly in the areas of economics and political science (the ‘flavour of the month’ disciplines) – use the taking of umbrage at any preceived lack of respect or deference (or ‘politeness’) as a tool to suppress critiques of the status quo – a status quo in which they are comfortably ensconced and have every incentive not to critique in a manner that might provoke the profound changes required. They have the skills to convey the impression of forecfully critiquing the status quo, but the reality is that they are indulging in academic parlour games and charades.

        But, you’re right. The fight goes on – elsewhere.

      • @Paul
        There are seldom free lunches in this life. Most things come with strings attached! In this country (and most of Europe) third-level institutions are for the most part state-funded, same goes for funding agencies/sources. In places like the US that is often not quite so true (e.g. some of the big US universities with large historic endowments run by governing boards elected by their own graduates and/or faculty, certainly not with substantial numbers of politicians). And there are many philanthropic foundations and commercial entities willing to sponsor research. Plus we seem to be borrowing managerialism from the UK with academics being increasingly watched and managed by administrators. And in Ireland we’ve never been good at notions of independence and at putting state institutions at arms’ length from politicians. I suppose there’s probably still plenty of scope for a senior late-career academic to say “what the hell” and become a useful nuisance (it’d be a far more comfortable place than most from which to do this).

        The tentacles of the state reach everywhere (even much of “civil society”/voluntary sector/NGOs were sucked into the official tent and compromised to a degree during Bertie’s tenure with grants/funding). And Ireland is a really small place (even more so, I guess, within the circles of academia). And, to focus on political science in particular, there probably couldn’t be a more politically charged discipline! It’s very obviously a topic close to politicians’ hearts. A political scientist may be watching/observing/studying them (Dian Fosey or David Attenborough style 🙂 ) but, by God, the politicians are keeping an interested eye on them also. I suspect academia is a pretty nice and privileged place to be in general in Ireland, but I’d guess many aspects of the constraints/tradeoffs of the polsci academic career environment are not enviable. I wouldn’t tend to be that hard on them!

        I think, in general, systems and culture here seem ideally (by intent or by accident) calibrated to suck life out of any dissent (despite protestations that we’ve learned the lessons of Nyberg on group-think). Thinking further about the David Deutsche/FPTP point, there might well be something to that. There’s definitely a lot of bluntness to that electoral system. Another angle to it might be that the shackles/constraints of having just two major catch-all parties are probably so tight that a certain amount of dissent just has to be allowed within their ranks (e.g. rebellions/free votes on Europe and social policy issues within both major UK parties). In PR such minority factions would probably organize themselves in their own distinct (perhaps small) parties (and hence their views get representation within parliament). There’s a certain degree of bluntness even within most PR systems (a voter can only pin his support to a single party mast), voter party support is mutually exclusive.

        Our form of PR-STV is about as far from blunt as an electoral system could be with its extremely fine-grained expressiveness of voters’ preferences. That probably has a strong centralizing/moderating tendency (the desire to be inoffensive). That might be great characteristic in a riven/divided society. But in a homogenous small conservative society like Ireland? And with a grudgingly small amount of proportionality (average constituency size is only about 4 I think), the core vote of small parties just doesn’t suffice. They need friendly transfers. Not only does this enforce the trend to blandness and centrality, but usually the smaller party becomes the mudguard of the larger. Once friendly transfers dry up in the next election, the core vote no longer is enough to get representation, the larger party survives but the smaller party is devastated.

        The limited proportionality and presence of independents ensures that most views have some Dáil representation. There might be substantial minorities on Europe or social policy issues in the major parties. However, because some tiny fringe party or a number of independents can articulate this view, then there’s less pressure on such TDs to break ranks and express private personal dissent.

        And leading back to the central topic of this blog post: referendums and regulation, the history of referendum regulation in Ireland seems to me to be symptomatic of this general lack of tolerance of dissent. Lisbon 1 didn’t go the way it was supposed to. Hence, the referendum commission was neutered (it could no longer list arguments for and against). So a rational and independent arbiter between various arguments on both sides was eliminated (obviously the general populace couldn’t be trusted with both sides of the argument). So referendum commissions were confined to giving information and seemed to be formed closer and closer to the referendum day (let’s not give them too much time to get organized). But the Coughlan judgment still required equal airtime for both sides. So the “wrong sorts” of people, “fringe elements”, undesirable sorts were getting airtime (and, shock horror, possibly with electoral benefits). Definitely couldn’t be having that! But I suppose that’s fairly inevitable given our oppressive party/whip/electoral system (in FPTP they might break ranks, in proper PR they might have their own parties, in our system they mostly just keep silent). Overturning McKenna and related judgments (and perhaps moving to a more party-proportionate funding) would certainly sanitize the debates (a bit paradoxical that the objective of less regulation would be a greater exclusion of dissent from the more fringe/chaotic/marginal viewpoints). But, I was heartened by the (seeminly unanimous if McCrystal is correct) Supreme Court judgment, which will further entrench the particular legal philosophical approach to referendums taken by our courts over the past few decades (and which is IMO particularly necessary given the nature of Irish politics). Ironic that this occured leading up to an as quintessentially a “mother’s love and apple pie” referendum as it could possibly be (and seemingly with no chance of being lost).

        There’s no doubt our approach to referendums needs to be improved (properly empowering referendum commissions and restoring their role to rationally and objectively enumerate arguments on both sides should be the very first step). But, thankfully, all this will have to remain within the overarching framework of McKenna and related judgments.

  4. re. Paul Hunt’s contributions
    It is news to me that Paul has been barred from and
    In this context, the following comments spring to mind

    1) the Swiss President pointed out (in a forewrod to a book on direct democracy)
    “Democracy is hard work – sweat and often uncomfortable confrontation. As former journalist Ulrich Kägi noted, democracy lives in “the conflict of interests and opinions – but also in the wisdom to recognise the limitations of this conflict”.”
    ….No fair and decent globalisation without direct democracy. Foreword to Kaufmann, Bruno, Rolf Büchi, and Nadja Braun. Guidebook to Direct Democracy in Switzerland and Beyond. Initiative and Referendum Institute Europe, 2010.

    2) Almost 100 years ago, a very different woman in a comment on the Communist Revolution in Russia Rosa Luxembourg pointed out

    “The only way to a rebirth is the school of public life itself, the most unlimited, the broadest democracy and public opinion. It is rule by terror which demoralizes…..Without general elections, without unrestricted freedom of press and assembly, without a free struggle of opinion, life dies out in every public institution, becomes a mere semblance of life, in which only the bureaucracy remains as the active element. Public life gradually falls asleep, a few dozen party leaders of inexhaustible energy and boundless experience direct and rule. ”

    3) “From the clash of ideas, minds ignite” was what the late Patrick Lynch (public servant, Economics professor in UCD, long-time advocate of public sector reform, anti-apartheid marcher, AIB Board member) sought in his public life

    I suggest that those of us who engage in public debate must work to make sure that we observe sufficient common courtesies that it is the clash of ideas we are engaged in. Such clashes may be uncomfortable.

    I admire those who set up and maintain these fora as another means of raising issues, presenting options, challenging ideas presented. IMO, the “editorial control” is much lighter that in printed media – perhaps only because “on-line space” is cheaper than printed media.
    Long may the PSAI continue to support this forum on political and institutional reform which is long overdue here in this Republic.

  5. @Paul Hunt – your reply of 3rd November 01.11

    Perhaps we agree more than we agree – on some basic points.
    “In my view, constitutions should be minimalist; they should establish and govern the basic institutions and procedures of a democratic polity; and they should establish and protect the rights and responsibities of citizens.”

    As written – not much to disagree with.

    We disagree on the actual form of parliamentary democracy.
    Surely our being “in receivership” (as some Government Ministers like to remind us), shows that our present constitutional specification of Government being in and of the Dáil has reached its limits.

    If we want to change the result, we have to change the approach.

    Having started to pay attention to the structures of government during the 1980s crisis, I came to believe then – and still do – that to enhance our way of governing ourselves, we have to completely separate the Dáil ( representative assembly/legislature) from the Rialtas (executive/government) so that both can be improved.

    Our present structure is like a see-saw, with the elected representative function at one end and the Minister/executive role at the other. Any rise in the effectiveness of one implies a drop in the other. A new structure is needed which would cut the tie so that each can be improved without weakening the other equally necessary activity.

    Montesquieu, a pre-revolutionary French political commentator pointed out “When the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person, there can be no liberty”.

    Our constitution can be enhanced as a framework for a free government that limits, restrains and allows for the exercise of political power, which we as citizens of a Republic own.

    We need to go beyond that a simple separation of powers to design, implement and use a series of checks and balances to limit the scope for excess by the powerful, whether they be public or private, elected or appointed in order to ;
    • ensure competence and moderation in government
    • overcome inertia at government level, both national and local

    In this effort, we need to ensure that our way of governing ourselves has both
    • the means to be successful for the common good with increased democratic accountability
    • the capacity and of adapting to the changes that constantly descend upon it.

    Given the failure of our governing to ensure a stable economic framework over the last 40 years, we citizens need to ensure that the state’s decision making-processes are structured and disciplined . We need to copper fasten new ways of governing ourselves to avoid the kind of muddling through, inertia lack of foresight , and reversal that marks previous efforts at reform.

    • Is there evidence that the level of direct versus indirect participation by citizens in executive decisions is of greater importance in effective governance than electoral demographics or the prevailing national culture? Peter Senge highlighted Singapore as a positive example of a country devoted to learning in order to drive down costs and deliver effective services, but I doubt they would be held up as paragons of an effective democratic system. To me, it is more likely that raising the level of diversity and independence of the electorate from the executive would have a far greater impact on resolving governance problems than copying the mechanics of governance from other jurisdictions.

      • “To me, it is more likely that raising the level of diversity and independence of the electorate from the executive would have a far greater impact on resolving governance problems than copying the mechanics of governance from other jurisdictions.”

        I agree with you. With that aim, I have made an effort to present some means by which diversity and independence from the executive by proposing measures which give us, citizens from which the power of the state derives, means to exercise such independence
        eg. “the Mutual education of the democratic process – a case for citzens initiative and direct democracy”
        which gave rise to some discussion here

        eg. Freedom of Information – so that we can find out what the executive is doing and form our own view, independently of what the executive cares to present to us – here
        and – here
        and here

        Just as we learn from one another both formally and informally, I do think we can learn from how others govern themselves. We have been doing so from the foundation of the state in many ways eg.
        the county management system was introduced here as a means of minimising corruption in local government and was inspired by US practice;
        on joining the EU, we got rid of the ban on women resigning from the civil service on marriage.

        I suspect you do realise that our first Constitution (of the Free State) did provide for citizens’ initiative.

        I continue to believe we can learn from how others govern themselves. It is clear that our own way of doing so has let us down, repeatedly and badly. If it had not failed, we would not need the financial support of the EU-ECB-IMF programme.

        “Is there evidence that the level of direct versus indirect participation by citizens in executive decisions is of greater importance in effective governance than electoral demographics or the prevailing national culture?”

        Frankly, I am not sure what exactly you mean by this, nor what kind of evidence you would regard as convincing or even conclusive.
        “Executive decisions” may not always be the aim of a direct initiative proposed by citizens compared with a general law under which executive decisions are taken.

        As an example, in a referendum on 23 Sept last, the Swiss supported a measure put forward by the Federal Government (as a counter-proposal to a similar measure proposed by citizens) on the musical education of young people. While I do not know the detail, implementing that particular measure will require lots of executive decisions

        I am not sufficiently well-versed in the literature of political science to know what studies, if any, have been done which compare
        1) the relative importance of “electoral demographics” (in itself, it seems a very broad topic)
        2) the prevailing “national culture” – how one measures this in a statistically valid and reliable way strikes me as an imprecise art form –
        using factor analysis. regressions etc.

  6. To Finbar 0n 10 Nov at 11.29,

    Wow! once again you’ve crafted a mini-essay. I can only hope that some sentient beings still check out this site and get to read this. I’m (almost) in entire agreement with what you say.

    My only quibble is that you neglect to note that the parliamentary system in Ireland does not provide an appropriate role for academics with a knowledge and competence in the public policy sphere. Yes, they may be ‘hired’ by the government-machine to perfrom some role or some study or other, but that results in them being conflicted, compromised and constrained – and totally beholden to the government machine. And all the others who aspire to perform these roles or to conduct these studies are probably even more conflicted, compromised and constrained lest they damage their chances of preferment.

    We have a parliamentary system whose committees cannot make a finding of fact in most instances – and therefore cannot impose any effective scrutiny or restraint on government or the government machine. And even if they were to do so and the government were displeased it would simply ignore it or overrule it by whipping the lobby-fodder appropriately. And even if its committees could make findings of fact the Oireachtas doesn’t have the resources or powers to commission the relevant academic expertise. Which is exactly the way governments like it.

    As a result, any academics with even a smidgin of public spiritedness are compelled to rely on academic publications, op-eds in the ‘serious’ papers and blogs of this nature – but they have to be very.very careful lest they uspet the ‘powers-that-be’.

    It’s little wonder that Ireland is in the mess it’s in. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, but I continue to be surprised that the handful of public-spirited academics we have are not campaigning collectively for reform of the parliamentary committee system in a way that would allow their knowledge and competence to be deployed effectively in the public interest.

    When you have your snout in the trough the only time you’ll lift your head is to pay homage to the person filling it or to shed some crocodile tears about those who are being deprived..

    • @Paul
      “My only quibble is that you neglect to note that the parliamentary system in Ireland does not provide an appropriate role for academics with a knowledge and competence in the public policy sphere.”

      Now now, Paul.
      How can you overlook the fact that 10 percent of the seats of the Senate are elected by graduates of two universities only?
      While I have not checked, I suspect that this is a real outlier (oddity) in parliamentary democracies. It is no surprise that academics have been consistently been elected from these panels eg. Mary Robinson, David Norris, Ivanna Bacik, Sean Barrett, Joe Lee, Brendan Ryan and others whom I cannot recall.

      Other academics have stood in general elections, David Thornley, Garret FitzGerald, Joan Burton, Richard Bruton, Michael D. Higgins

      I do see see why academics should have any more appropriate role in our way of governing ourselves than any other citizen – in the public policy sphere.

      Yes, I do expect academics to engage in public discourse – bringing their insights to the attention of a wider public. IMO. this is the origin of this web-forum and many others eg.

      Personally, I have no objection to academics advocating particular options in which they believe (for whatever reason), just as others with specialised knowledge and interests do.
      Just because they seem well informed and articulate does not mean that they are wiser than any of the rest of us. We can and do challenge them – hopefully not in an “ad hominem” way. Just like the rest of us, some enjoy such discussion, debate and the search of a better understanding of whatever is the subject of the day. Others clearly do not.

      What I find sad in Ireland is that the political and governing elites do not like (putting it mildly) options being teased out in public.

      Issues are referred to inter-departmental committees, but are not referred to Oireachtas committees until decisions have been more or less been made eg. a bill is presented or perhaps the heads of a bill. We rarely get to see what options are being considered, the arguments supporting each option and cost-effectiveness. One contemporary example is the way the new property tax is being designed.

      Secrecy rules, including secrecy on those who are consulted. Such secrecy hides incompetence, bad management just as much as it facilitates corruption.

      As Swift noted “Providence never intended to make the management of public affairs a mystery to be comprehended by a few persons of sublime genius”.

      Secrecy in government is in stark contrast to the way in which academics advance human knowledge, insight and understanding, through the processes of experimentation (including thought experiments), publication, peer-review and making these discussions publicly available.

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