Government U-turn on Votes at 16 shows its Contempt for the Dáil

Posted by David Farrell, January 1, 2015

When the government established the Irish Constitutional Convention it committed to providing a response to Dáil Éireann within four months of receipt of a Convention’s report. That this commitment is no longer being adhered to is a matter of some regret. But at least there have been responses to the first couple of reports by the Convention, and in some instances these have included firm commitments for action.

A case in point is the Convention’s recommendation to lower the voting age. On July 18 2013 the then Minister for the Environment, Phil Hogan informed the Dáil (here) that: “[t]he Government … commits to holding a referendum before the end of 2015 on a proposal to amend the Constitution to provide for a voting age of 16. The Government will proceed now with preparations for bringing forward the relevant legislation”.

By the looks of things no “preparations” ever happened. And, now, in an interview published in this morning’s Irish Examiner the Taoiseach appears to have no knowledge of any such promised referendum. The relevant extract of the interview is worth quoting in full:

Mr Kenny was asked about lowering the voting age from 18 to 16, another issue which a slender majority in the Constitutional Convention recommended.

He replied: “We considered this. There were quite a number of recommendations for referenda. We have one to deal with in terms of a Patent Court which is a complex enough issue, there is a recommendation in respect of blasphemy, and there is one in respect of the reduction of the voting age to 16. And a number of others arising from the Electoral Commission recommendations from the Constitutional Convention.”

Mr Kenny suggested voters might get confused with too many referenda on one day and the Coalition had not agreed beyond the two which would be held. “And to be honest with you, I don’t think the Government will make a recommendation for a third, although that is a collective decision we have to make.

“So we might indicate what other referenda arising from all of the reports of the Constitutional Convention should be held and clearly they would drift into the next Government.”

Note the Taoiseach’s words. He is not announcing a reversal of policy; rather he seems to be suggesting that a commitment on the voting age issue has yet to be made! It is as if Minister Hogan’s statement to the Dáil in July 2013 never happened. This speaks volumes about the contempt for the Dáil shown by this government (much like its predecessors).

The new Minister for the Environment needs to clarify the government’s position on the Votes at 16 referendum, and he should do so by way of a fresh statement to the Dáil at the earliest opportunity.

This is not exactly the most auspices of starts to the New Year in terms of the government’s supposed reform agenda.

7 thoughts on “Government U-turn on Votes at 16 shows its Contempt for the Dáil

  1. Shock! Horror! Government treats Dáil with contempt! But there’s little need to be concerned. All of the indications are that a majority of voters are resolved to reject the mainstream parties which have participated in government over the last 80 years – and that includes cameo roles for the now defunct PDs and the flat-lining Greens – and which have persistently treated the Dáil with contempt. Some of the alternatives may appear a tad unsavoury or deluded, but citizens can choose only from among the options offered. It is a measure of the incompetence, arrogance and untrustworthiness of the mainstream parties (as they continue to spin their webs of lies, half-truths and fictions) that so many voters appear content to vote for the unsavoury and the deluded. And if there is delusion it is probably more prevalent among the mainstream parties which are clinging to the forlorn hope that enough voters will ‘come to their senses’, reject the unsavoury and deluded and decide to vote for them again. That looks like the rock they’ll perish on.

    It was regrettable, but magnificent, that people had to mobilise collectively on the water charges issue to assert their utlimate authority over this arrogant and complacent Government which persists in pandering to the special interest groups in the semi-states, local authorities, the public sectr and the sheltered private sector at their expense. But there has been significant ‘collateral damage’. It appears to be the first time in more than 100 years of the practice of economic regulation in the advanced economies that citizens have mobilised collectively to express publicly their rejection of the decision of an economic regulatory body that has a statutory duty to protect their interests. The CER has lost any remaining shred of credibility and public legitimacy it retained as an independent economic regulatory body and the positions of the Commissioners are untenable.

    However, having asserted their ultimate authority over this government and forced a response, it appears that most voters (apart from those supporting the unsavoury and deluded elements) are content to bide their time until they get their opportunity to cast their judgement on this government in the polling booths. It looks like it will be a harsh judgement. And the longer the Government hangs on the harsher it is likely to be.

  2. “Government contempt for the Dáil”
    Why is anyone shocked by this?
    The effect of Constitutional provisions on Government is that the Government must control the Dáil or else it ceases to be the Government. This explains the need for a stronog party whip system, etc.

    The Dáil cannot be a proper check and balance on the exercise of governmental power, as currently set up.

    The Constitutional Convention started to look at this in its review of the Dáil Electoral system.
    But the Convention then lost its nerve when it took on the additional topic of Dáil Reform, as i suggested here
    This loss of nerve is best summarised by a comment made by one of the members of the Convention as the Convention got to the end of its consideration of Dáil REfrom

    “Just before the weekend meeting concluded around midday on Sunday 2nd Feb,
    Martina O’Connell (one of the 66 citizens chosen by a polling company as a citizen member of the Convention) said that her “concern is in relation to the actual Constitution. A lot of the topics that we have discussed over this weekend, I am not sure of their particular constitutional relevance…I am just wondering how we would be perceived outside, by the general public as to what we’re discussing and its relevance to the Constitution”.
    (see here at about 3.30

    IMO, that citizen got it completely right. The Convention’s session on Dáil Reform was mostly faffing around Dáil Standing Orders.

    The Government rerponse to the Convention’s report of its review of the Dáil electoral system can be summarised as
    1. No need to change anything (eg. ignore the explicit recommendation that no Dáil constituencies should have less than 5 seats);
    2. We will do what we were going to do anyway ie. set up an Electoral commission;
    3. Completely ignore the Convention’s vote in favour of non-Parliamentary Ministers and the even strong vote in favour of citizens’ initiative.

    FG TD Paul Murphy put it very well during the Dáil debate on the Government REsponse to the Converntion’s Fourth Report ie. we are spending 90 minutes discussing something that the Convention considered for two full weekends. see Dail Debates 18 Dec 2014

    I cannot find the actual text of the Government response on the websites of either the Departmentof the Taoiseach or the Department of Environment, Community and Local Government.
    So I assume that all we can rely on is the Dáil record of Minister of State Ann Phelan’s presentation of the Government response.

    • Donal, Happy New Year.

      It looks like it will be an interesting one. There is increasing evidence that a majority of voters appear to be resolved to reject the mainstream parties and to vote for non-mainstream parties, factions and individuals. ‘Official Ireland’ is taking fright and predicting chaos, swarms of locusts and all sorts of pestilence. But I see this as a very healthy development. The non-mainstream vote seems to be split between SF and the left-wing factions, on one side, a slew of independents, largely from the FF and FG gene-pool, on the other. Apart from the understandable attraction of clientelist, mini-ombudspersons, I see the support for the latter as an increasing popular rejection of the excessive dominance of governments over the Oireachtas and the use of the whip system to force legislation – that benefits various powerful special interest groups – through the Oireachtas without adequate scrutiny or restraint. As I’ve noted, it was regrettable, but magnificent, that so many ordinary voters mobilised collectively to express their opposition to the grand plan for the water sector that the Government rammed through the Oireachtas. But I sense they have no wish to do this on a regular basis – and this is fuelling public support for this slew of independents. Conversely, SF and the various left-wing factions are focused on securing access to this largely unrestrained exercise of executive dominance to implement their delusional and damaging policies. But there is clearly a limit to the popular support these delusional and damaging policies will secure.

      There appears to be a strong popular demand for competent and sensible, but restrained, governance that relies, not on spin and on the exercise of brute politicial power, but on explanation and persuasion. Perhaps an increasing number of voters are content if it is more difficult and takes longer to get sensible policies implemented while making it harder for stupid and damaging policies to be rammed through.

      There will always be a proportion of the electorate which will vote for the factions and individuals advancing delusional and damaging policies, but I have never lost my faith in the sound good sense of the majority of voters. And this sound good sense is beginning to make itself felt in the best possible way. The mainstream parties will ignore it at their peril, but they appear frightened, defensive and at a loss. They fully deserve all that’s coming to them in the ballot box.

      • Many Happy Returns, Paul.
        “There appears to be a strong popular demand for competent and sensible, but restrained, governance that relies, not on spin and on the exercise of brute politicial power, but on explanation and persuasion. Perhaps an increasing number of voters are content if it is more difficult and takes longer to get sensible policies implemented while making it harder for stupid and damaging policies to be rammed through.”

        If what you detect is true, I suggest that one indicator is that many (or even a few) new and different people post comments on this forum.

        However, I imagine that may happen if the contributors to this forum (- all of us – not just those academics who set up and maintain this website) try to present and develop options for better ways to govern ourselves.

        I suggest that most people interest in politics is on the outcomes ie. work, health, education, welfare and how to pay/who pays for the institutions needed to deliver and sustain good outcomes for most people.
        IMO, the issue we face in this Republic is that our organs of state leave a lot to be desired in terms of coming up with options, developing these options, finding those that are socially and economicallly sustainable, implementation/execution and adaptation over time, including complete abandonment and replacement by new and different ways of delivering the outsomes.
        Trying to change/modifysupplement “organs of state” so that they manage complexity better is not headline-grabbing or easily tweeted. Compare the ease of highlighting the failures eg. boil water notices, hospital queues, over crowded schools/public transport/A&E departments, manifestations of “we are entitled to” bonuses, pay rises, getting something back with say the implementation of a modern performance management system in the public service or a modern financial management system throughout the public sector.

        Extend that to making a case for completely separating the Government from the Dáil and any other of the checks&balances needed for the sustainable exercise of our democratic power for the common good.

        At this stage, it seems that this government will not be reformed after the next general election.
        We have been here before. For 33 years ie. 1969-2002, no outgoing government formed the new government after the next general election. The governing elites (public and private, elected and appointed) main responses to this was calls to change the electoral system and more centralisation of power into organs of state that are demonstrably incompetent. If competent, there would have been no need for a bailout.

        In the 1960s, the late David Thornley wrote of the “mutual education of the democratic process” in a time of change.

        Let us see if the frenetic pre-election activity yields any signs of rebalancing the powers of state within this Republic.

  3. Thank you, Donal. I don’t think the revolution will start on this site. The academics are always playing ‘catch-up’. They excel at analysing something that has happened and showing why it should have been perfectly obvious it was going to happen and how it would play out. But, before the event, they hadn’t a bull’s notion what was going to happen mainly because their modes of analysis tend to be locked in to a linear development of the status quo.

    In the second part of his two-part magnum opus, “Political Order and Political Decay”, Francis Fukuyama is despondent about the ability of the current institional and procedural arrangements in the US to provide good governance – mainly because Madison inserted so many checks and balnces and restraints on the ‘tyranny of faction’ in the US Constitution. Ireland has the opposite problem: the lack of checks and balances and restraints that prevent truly awful and damaging governance.

    However, since the demand for sensible, competent governance and the rejection of the webs of lies, half-truths and fictions spun by the mainstream parties (and by the coalition of special interest groups that is ‘Official Ireland’) is coming from more and more ordinary citizens, I am quite optimistic about the future of democratic governance in Ireland. It will be messy, but democracy is messy. And it will take a while. How messy it will be and how long it will take are down to the existing and aspiring public representatives within and without the mainstream parties. The current governing parties seem determined to hunker down, praying that ordinary citizens will ‘feel the recovery’ that distorted economic statistics indicate is happening, and to crank up the spin. They probably know that this simply increases voters’ visceral disgust at their antics and hardens their resolve to be rid of them. But they appear incapable of doing anything else.

    However, we should not under-estimate Mr. Kenny’s determination to achieve something none of his FG predecessors achieved: the re-election of an FG-dominated government. If FG proves able to retain its position as the largest party in the Dáil, I expect Mr. Kenny will relish not having the monkey of Labour on his back and will seek to come to some arrangement with whatever grouoings of TDs the antics of Mr. Ross and Ms. Creighton manage to deliver – plus any other independents who might be disposed to engage. One of the most effective governments in the modern history of Ireland was the minority FF government of 1961-65 led by Seán Lemass. I wouldn’t insult the memory of Seán Lemass by putting Mr. Kenny in the same category, but if he were to restore cabinet government, operate as an effective chairman delegating responsibility to the talent at this disposal and authorise major changes in the procedures of the Dáil, we might begin to see some sensible competent governance. That, however, is where my optimism fizzles out. I don’t think he has what it takes – and probably doesn’t understand what it takes. So it will likely be messy and time-consumimg before Irish voters get the quality of governance they have so long been without and which they richly deserve.

  4. Paul,
    With due respects, I really do not see that it is at all helpful to the drive for political and institutional reform that the academics (who maintain this forum) are belittled. Fair enough to disagree with them their opinions or their interpretations of data or other analysis.
    Beyond that, the risk is the kind of flaming which I gather is not unusual in 140 character tweets, often by people who chose to remain anonymous.

    Let me remind you that it was this group of academics that led the WetheCitzens series of countrywide forums (with Atlantic Philantropies backing of €750k, I believe). This in turn led to the Constitutional Convention, which the same group of academics advised.
    Having attended two sessions of both forums, it was clear that the drive was for political and institutional reform, with some analysis of what we have and how it compares with other political entities. Neither were perfect, but they were good.
    For that alone, I admire and respect these academics. These were not the actgions of people trying to catch-up, as they preceded the various street protests. These forums may not even have been the kinds of deliberative forums that the academics would have liked, but the academics worked with what they had.

    Yes, if Enda Kenny is again elected Taoiseach after the next general election, it will be historically significant. For that reason alone, i believe it is a distinct possiblity. We, the electorate, are probably bloody-minded enough to continue the historic treatment meted to Fianna Fail in 2011.
    Question is will it only happen to Labour as the polls now suggest.

    However, I do not believe that such a result would be because of “sensible competent” governance since 2011
    I remain to be convinced that this Government can do more than pass the exam (ie. get out of the EU-ECB-IMF programme), as it has lost coherence since the first part of the programme ended.
    I am more struck by the similarties to a teen-age post Leaving Cert binge – with promises to every interest group that things can return to how they were pre-2008 or pre-2010.

    At least, we have an electoral system that enables some refinement – inlcuding the emergence of new parties which can take part in the Government (with Clann na Poblachta in 1948, the PDs during the 1980s, the Greens and as you point out, some power to Independents.

    Apart from culture, to what extent is the capacity of the US Federal system to deal with faction exacerbated by the combination of a First-Past-the-Post electoral system coupled with gerry-mandering in drawing up Congressional districts?

    That said, the US Federal Government gets important things done eg. Obamacare. To what extent was it inspired by what Republic Governor Mitt Romney did in Massachusetts?
    That alone suggests an under-commented aspect of US governance – the extent of state power. This means that there is power to try new and different policies/practices. if successful, they can then be replicated without central government intervention.
    I cannot imagine Enda Kenny or any other possible Taoiseach driving that degree of institutional and political reform.

    • Thanks, Donal. I’ve given the academics here full credit for the Citizens’ Assembly and the ‘wethepeople’ efforts which led to the ‘Constitutional Convention’, but this was always going to run aground on the sands – and the Government made sure it did. It threw up a handful of proposals that the Government might have pursued on its own, but anything substanive was kicked with great energy in to the long grass.

      The nature of the game has changed and I’m surprised that the extent and significance of this change is not being registered. If in Britain or any of the established EU democracies there was clear evidence that more than 50% of voters appeared resolved to reject the mainstream parties it would be registering across the political specturm as highly significant and provoking a variety of major political responses. In Britain, for example, the possibility that UKIP might gain 10 seats and alter the outcomes in a number of other seats and that the SNP might replace Labour in many of its 40-odd Scottish seats (all out of a total of 650 seats) is considered to be of great significance and leading to all sorts of political calculations, machinations, posturing and re-positioning.

      Let’s be clear about this. A majority of voters appear to be rejecting the ‘business-as-usual’ of the mainstream parties (FG, Labour, FF and Greens). It my not be a majority of first preferencescome a general election, but there is no reason why it should fall much short of it. If anything support for FF and the Greens appears to be flat-lining and the more FG and Labour bluster and spin to shore up their support the more it appears voters’ resolve hardens against them. People are simply fed up to the back teeth with being lied to and misled. And yes, many voters in their rejection of the mainstream parties are supporting or indicating support for the unsavoury and the delusional, but many more want change – and significant change – in governance. And this reaches in to the mainstream parties where many voters also want change, but are remaining loyal for fear of the alternatives.

      The inability of the mainstream governing parties to recognise why they’re losing support (and of the mainstream opposition parties to recognise why they’re flat-lining) and the inability tof all of them to do anything substantive to arrest this and to increase popular support is truly remarkable. Powerful and influential special interest groups have suborned the mainstream parties. We are living subject not to the rule of law, but rule by law – with key provisions of the laws enacted being directed and influenced by these special interest groups to protect and advance their extraction of unearned rewards and returns at the expense of the vast majority of citizens. It is anger and disgust at this sustained and persistent gouging by special interest groups that is leading so many citizens to reject all of the mainstream parties.

      To up-date Upton Sinclair: it is difficult to get a person to understand something when his or her salary depends on his or her not understanding it.

      If the cap fits….

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