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Dublin: 15 °C Monday 1 September, 2014

Column: Real reform is being overlooked in the deficit scramble

There was broad consensus that our political system needed major change, writes David McCann – but that now seems largely forgotten.

David McCann

IN HIS DOCUMENTARY of the Cowen government, Pat Leahy told viewers that the economic crisis the country faces today is not the failure of any one man, but a failure of a way of doing politics.

Similar statements have been made by political figures such as former finance minister, Brian Lenihan, who defending the past fiscal decisions of the government argued that responsibility for the economic crisis lay with the political establishment of the country – making the infamous quote ‘Let’s be fair about it, we all partied.’ Our response to the economic crisis has been fundamentally flawed as it has seen almost exclusive focus on reforming the economic structure of the country while ignoring the political structure that has been identified as playing a role in causing the problem.

In the last general election all of the main parties devoted sections of their manifestos to political reform. The main opposition parties of the time argued that the system of politics in Ireland was ‘broken’ and that it was at the centre of Ireland’s economic troubles. Even the outgoing government recognised the need for reform was ‘essential’ in achieving economic recovery. All of the manifestos gave stark warnings about the growing credibility gap between politicians and the electorate, arguing that this was unsustainable in any self-respecting democratic republic. However fast-forward almost two years and we can see these ideas about reform have gained little traction among politicians. Looking at some recent polling data, it makes you wonder: why not?

In Ireland we have a Government that according to recent surveys over 70 per cent of the population believe have broken election promises. Just 38 per cent trust them to manage the Government finances. With statistics like this facing a government you would think that the main opposition parties would be roaring ahead in popularity. However this has not been the case as less than 40 per cent of the population are willing to support the two main opposition parties. These results indicate that while people may be disappointed in the government, they are certainly not in huge number flocking to any of the main opposition parties – deciding instead to opt out of the political process all together. We have to ask ourselves: Why?

Trust

In my view it is not the quality of the alternative policies being offered but rather the people delivering them. In a recent international survey they found that seven out of every ten Irish people they asked did not trust their politicians to tell the truth, a figure which was lower than the global average. It is numbers like these that give credibility to President Michael D Higgins’ observation that in Ireland you could get a standing ovation by saying you have no interest in politics.

Since 2008, we have seen politicians devote a huge amount of time to the economic crisis that has engulfed the nation. We constantly hear about economic sovereignty, banks, bailouts and cuts. I feel that they are missing the mark in a major way as I believe what Ireland really needs is a serious shake up of how the country does politics. By a shake-up I don’t mean tinkering round the edges like abolishing the Seanad or reducing the number of TDs by a mere eight. I mean real change in how politicians are elected, what their functions are and how many do we need for the good government of the country. We are four years into this crisis and we still have not properly debated how we should change the political system.

I read reports in newspapers day after day telling me about how much trouble Europe is in and how little control over the future of Europe’s economic destiny we have. We spend so much time worrying about issues we have no control over and yet neglect the structure of our political system which is something that we have exclusive control over. Irish people and Irish people alone decide how politicians are elected and what duties they are entrusted with. Yet we seem to be ducking this important issue. We seem to have a single track mind on the country’s economic health to the detriment of its political health.

Thankless

The main opposition parties are currently focused on economic issues and as the economy is at the moment the only show in town that is understandable. But when party strategists sit and scratch their heads about why their party is not able to break out of a neck and neck position with their main rivals they may want to ask how much confidence the people have in the representatives putting policies forward. You can have the slickest media operation in town but if the majority of the viewing audience at home either don’t care or don’t believe what they are being told then it doesn’t take Terry Prone to tell you that you’re wasting your time.

Political reform is not easy, in many ways it is a thankless task. But as Ireland is going through this recession it would be a serious missed opportunity if new ways of conducting politics were not considered. Restoring confidence in politics is not the job of any one political party but the collective responsibility of all. The current crisis in the Irish economy is a reflection of the wider crisis in the political system and we will have learned nothing if we do not seriously reform the way we do politics in this country.

So I would urge politicians: If they want to adjectives like ‘stroke politics’ and the ‘parish pump’ to be consigned to history then they need to put reform of politics front and centre.

Read more columns from David McCann on TheJournal.ie>

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