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Dublin: 10 °C Monday 21 April, 2014

Column: Irish politics won’t change until people demand accountability from leaders

A system of direct democracy would give people a more transparent form of government, writes Raymond Whitehead.

Image: bluelake via Shutterstock

Direct Democracy Ireland was established in November 2012 with the aim of allowing citizens to petition for a referendum on any issue through the collection of a certain number of signatures – and remove public representatives failing to perform. Founder Raymond Whitehead explains why he believes in the system…

DIRECT DEMOCRACY IRELAND (DDI) came about from a combination of my having studied and worked in Switzerland in my youth, as a result of the financial crisis in 2008, and my sense of sheer disbelief and helplessness like so many people in Ireland since then at how we got to this state of affairs.

I suddenly got interested in politics (I couldn’t avoid it, it was everywhere – newspapers, radio, TV, general conversation – and was affecting my own life like never before). I looked at Switzerland today, which, while feeling the effects of this global crisis is not as impacted as the rest of Europe, is not in the EU or the EMS (European Monetary System), and seem to be doing OK.

My experience of working and studying there was something of a culture shock. This was an alien culture, I had worked and lived in England and the Isle of Man and, of course Ireland, but this was something else. There was a surreal sense of order and calm about the place. Everything worked like a well-oiled Swiss watch. The place was spotless. There was a real sense of history about the place; old and beautiful buildings were lovingly preserved – while, back in Ireland, we were busy destroying our heritage. I missed many boats, trains and buses because I couldn’t get it into my mind that everything went on time (and this from someone who had worked for CIE before travelling to Switzerland).

What is ‘direct democracy’?

I discovered that the Swiss had what is called ‘direct’ democracy. That is, a democracy that comes ‘directly’ from the people on an ongoing basis and not just exercised once in five years with one vote and dictated to for the next five years. They could vote in a government to do a job but could also exercise their right to call referendum any time within the term of that government to bring about change as a result of changing circumstances, or to hold their politicians accountable and demand transparency, or prevent actions by the government that they might feel were not in the interest of the people. And, having been voted upon, that became law: the people had spoken.

This was the complete opposite to what I had understood about Irish politics. The Swiss never protested or disrupted the economy with demonstrations with the potential for public disorder and possible damage to public property. They just got a required number of signatures and presented them to the government and a referendum was called: very civilized and it worked.

I decided we needed some of that, and was shocked to find that we actually had been given this by the founding fathers of the Irish Free State under our first constitution in 1922 – but that the first government that got in removed it from the constitution, without consulting the people, and gave this right to themselves.

As a result, only the government could call a referendum – despite just short of 100,000 people signing a petition (you only needed 70,000 signatures back then) against what the government were doing. They were completely ignored.

When the new constitution was drawn up in 1937, inserted by Dev was the line: “The government retain the right of referendum” and it was never raised as a matter for national debate/discussion and was buried (despite the fact that they never had this right to retain, as the people never got to vote on it in the first place).

Accountable, transparent government

It’s obvious that this suits the politicians as direct democracy would undermine their power, hold them accountable and make government more transparent. In other words it would make ‘honest’ men of the lot of them… and this is why turkeys will never vote for Christmas and things will never change in Irish politics as long as the people have no power or ‘mechanism’ to demand change.

I started by ringing around my friends and got 60 out of 70 of them together in a hotel room and told them about the (short) history of direct democracy in Ireland and compared Switzerland as it is today – with several hundred years of direct democracy behind it – and asked if they would sign up to restoring what the Founding Fathers of the Irish Free State wished for the people of Ireland. I was surprised when every one of them signed up.

They were all surprised that they had never heard of an alternative to the ‘representational democracy’ that we have. They all thought that what we have is democracy and we had to make do with it.

From there on 99 per cent of the people I spoke to about this new party (service) I was starting signed up.

I couldn’t believe the response and quickly got the required number to register as a political party.

I didn’t realise how much was involved in setting up a political party (if it was easy everyone would be doing it) but we are established now and are concentrating on getting our internal structures in place to contest the next election.

Appetite for change

We have found that there is a huge demand for change – that people are sick of the merry-go-round that is Irish politics, when all we can do as an electorate is look on helplessly as a game of soldiers is played out by cute hoors who just seem to milk the system, award themselves ever larger pensions and pay rises, have only loyalty to their party, and are unaccountable to the people who elected them.

We have a great team now with Ben Gilroy as leader. Ben is well known for fighting for the rights of ordinary people against the financial injustices that are being imposed on them (see “Constitution Halts Sheriff ” on YouTube) and has a case pending in the High Court to stop the our government paying this illegal debt to unsecured German and French bondholders pending a legal investigation into what is known to be illegal under ’odious debt’ in international, EU, and Irish constitutional law.

There is only so much one can say in a short article so I will end by asking you to visit our website which will give much more information about Direct Democracy Ireland.

Raymond Whitehead is a founding member of Direct Democracy Ireland and a photographer.

Read: New political party ‘Direct Democracy Ireland’ launched in Dublin

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