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Column: Getting a new driver isn’t enough – this country needs repairs

We may have a different government. But without serious political reform we’re headed for another crisis, writes Oliver Moran.

Oliver Moran

TACKLING THE FAILURE of politics that caused the bubble – and determined our reaction to it – is a part of addressing the financial crisis. Just as we have all become economists since 2008, we now need to become political scientists as well.

The response of many to the crisis has been like someone stepping out of a car crash and blaming the road, the driver, or others, but not examining the car itself. If we don’t address political reform now, it will be like getting back into the same car and thinking that everything will be okay if we just change the driver or go down a different road. It won’t.

It was a failure of checks and balances that led to the crisis and that informed our response to it. The accelerator is stuck. The brakes don’t work. The fuses are blown and the warning lights are on the blink. The temperature gauge is missing its needle. The wipers are worn. And it’s raining. Would you get in this car? Maybe the last driver was no good. Maybe the road was wrong. But if we don’t fix the car, no matter the driver or the road, we are going to crash again.

This is not a point that is lost on our political representatives. However, when we visited the Oireachtas in January of this year to make presentations to TDs and senators on the topic of a Constitutional Convention, even the most cynical of our group came away convinced of a paradox. Among our TDs and senators there is at once a great desire for reform and a simultaneous sense of helplessness that reform will ever happen.

One, who I remember clearly, spoke passionately against the current system. As he put it: if you’re in the Seanad, you don’t count, if you’re in Opposition, you don’t count, if you’re on Government benches, you do as you’re told or you don’t count. Even if you are at the cabinet table, the reality is that three people will walk into the room and they’ve decided everything already between themselves, and no-one else in the room counts. Three people, he said, no matter the government, run the show and no-one else counts. And if you open your mouth to speak against it, you’ll count even less.

‘Voting TDs had all the appearance of trained mice’

As we traversed the Leinster House campus paying visits to groups of TDs from individual parties, the recurring intervention of the division bells, and the reaction of TDs and senators to them, was most striking. The bells — in fact a system of electronic buzzers sounding throughout the campus — would blare for six minutes, apparently (to an observer) at random intervals throughout the day. The sound indicates a division of the Dáil or Seanad is taking place: a vote is happening.

At the sound of the buzzers, TDs and senators would dash away, literally mid-sentence, to vote one way or the other, according to ordination, on whatever motion was being voted upon. They would do so certainly without having followed the debate. While there were TVs throughout the campus showing lonely speakers addressing empty chambers, I saw no TD or senator following the monologues being shown.

There seemed little point. While many knew they would have to leave to vote during the course of a meeting, and would apologise in advance for having to do so, there was a sense that they would vote without fully knowing what they were voting on. The reaction – in particular the automatic character of it – had all of the appearance of trained mice and there was something deeply unedifying about it. Particularly so since the people we met were knowledgeable, intelligent and in all other ways able to think for themselves.

We have all known for a long time that there is something wrong with the way our parliament works. Maybe we blame our politicians but, whatever it is, we are uncomfortable with it. We have compared it to what we see in the UK parliament at Westminster and maybe we have contented ourselves with the thought that the UK, being a far larger state, would naturally have more active parliamentary debates and more able and seemingly more suitable members of parliament.

‘These excuses hold no water’

Watching the Scottish Parliament debate a motion on Scottish independence last week, those excuses can hold no water. Speakers would give way to others and reply immediately to their questions. They were articulate, to the point, answered questions asked of them, and followed through with questions of their own. It is, to the eyes, a functioning parliament. Is ours?

If, 90 years after independence, the sessions of an un-independent Scottish parliament are more lively, intelligent and productive than ours, we have to ask: what is the state of our republic?

This is not a comfortable question for elected representatives. Political reform — genuine reform, at least — always involves some degree of turkeys voting for Christmas, especially for those turkeys who are empowered by the current system. It also carries with it a sense of failure on the part of everyday representatives.

We elect these people to do a job, right? Well, we wouldn’t need reform if they were doing their jobs properly, would we? In this regard, we need to make a distinction between the failure of the employee and the failure the workplace. There are many excellent representatives in the Oireachtas (there are unquestionably many duds as well) but what we need to look at is the way they do their work. In particular, we need to look at how labour and responsibility is divided between them, or guarded by a few; how we select the people we hire to do this work; and how we supervise them once they are doing it.

In light of the failures of the State that led to the need for an IMF bailout, each of the political parties pledged to support reform ahead of the 2011 election. Those promises are beginning to bear shape in the form of the Constitutional Convention that is to begin work in the autumn.

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‘Pushed down the agenda’

The Convention will consist of 66 citizens randomly selected from the electoral register, together with 33 elected representatives, and will consider eight areas of reform. Of these, only reform of the Dáil electoral system can be considered truly core. And it is even now, at this early stage, being pushed down the agenda. Bizarrely, it will not consider reform of the Seanad, on which the Government has said it will put abolition alone as the sole option for referendum.

Nonetheless, even in considering this small number of mostly peripheral issues, we should approach the task properly. If the structures set in place by the Oireachtas are transparent and equitable then it will be a worthwhile venture and we can push for more meaningful areas to be added later.

There is a danger that 33 politicians, with specific agendas, experience and support networks, will exert undue influence on 66 randomly-selected citizens. Additionally, experience from abroad has shown that the success of a convention of this kind will hinge on public involvement in it and understanding of its work. The Oireachtas needs to consider these concerns when it enables the Convention before the summer recess.

More troubling though is that despite promises in the Programme for Government of “a real shift in power” from the State to the citizen, the Cabinet will decide “whether or not to bring forward legislation proposing Constitutional change.”

Since the mid-90s alone, there have been reports from no less than three All-Party Oireachtas Committees on the Constitution to no meaningful end. Even a positive result to the 1979 referendum on reform of the Seanad failed to spur the Oireachtas to give effect to reform. Consequently, without a commitment in advance to put the recommendations of the Convention to a referendum, more good work could be shelved for reasons of political expediency and another opportunity could be lost.

Reform is one side of the coin that will fix the country. Options like ‘separation of powers’, ‘direct democracy’ and ‘freedom of information’ need to become as widely talked about as ‘burn the bondholder’, ‘return to the markets’ and ‘second bailout’. Without it, we will merely find ourselves on a different road, with a different driver, but winding up in the same place.

Oliver Moran is a committee member of Second Republic, a non-aligned campaign group for political reform in Ireland. For more information visit the Second Republic website, Facebook page, email info@2nd-republic.ie or follow Second Republic on Twitter.

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Oliver Moran

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