A couple of interesting stories in the Irish media today caused me to re-consider the notion that political reform should be the exclusive domain of elected politicians. With their electoral mandates, experience of the day-to-day functioning of political institutions and (in Ireland, at least) their exclusive right to initiate constitutional change, our professional politicians certainly have more claim than most other social groups or organisations to take the lead on this issue.
On the surface, two rather hopeful stories point to the benefits of politician-led political reform: 1) the development of a Seanad Reform Bill and 2) the publication of a set of proposals for Dáil reform by Eoghan Murphy TD as a discussion document for a Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting. Both point to the wherewithal of politicians in terms of arriving at concrete proposals for change based on practical experience.
I imagine (or, at least, I hope) that this was the reasoning behind the government’s decision to break with international precedent when establishing the Constitutional Convention by making a third of its (voting) membership professional politicians.
However, to those more familiar with the sclerotic Irish political system, these stories are rather less hopeful . The measures proposed in both the Seanad Reform Bill and Deputy Murphy’s document are by no means new ideas – rather they have been outlined in various (official) reports, submissions and discussions going back decades. While such changes would probably have strengthened our parliamentary institutions, they would also have upset the status quo.
Given that those charged with implementing institutional reform were the very people who most benefited from that status quo (i.e., the elected, professional politicians holding power) – it is not surprising that these good ideas were stymied. Indeed, the sole reason why we are seeing any action on Seanad reform at the moment is the impending referendum on its abolition – a change to the status quo that would negatively impact on both incumbent Senators and those TDs in marginal seats who view the Seanad as a fallback option.
This feedback loop between the rules of the political game and the fortunes of those who are winning that game at any time helps to explain why even patently dysfunctional institutions are so resistant to reform. The whole idea of a Citizens’ Assembly is to circumvent this loop, and to provide a mechanism for reform ideas to emerge without fears that they will be manipulated by a self-interested political class. However, with the Irish Convention on the Constitution mainly confined to the outer layers of what Kristof Jacobs describes as the institutional ‘onion’, it looks likely that, absent an explosion in votes for radical reform parties such as Direct Democracy Ireland, Ireland’s political class will continue to control the architecture of the political system for some time to come. Overall, this would not lead us to anticipate anything too different from what’s come before.