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Column: Politicians can’t fix Ireland – ordinary people must take the lead

The financial crisis was sparked by a broken system. If we’re going to fix this we can’t leave it up to politicians, write Bronagh Geraghty and John Hughes.

Bronagh Geraghty and John Hughes

THE FUNDAMENTAL CAUSE of the Irish financial crisis was a failure of governance facilitated by a dysfunctional political system. And while the cabinet scrambles to try and fix the crisis, the very structures which allowed this crisis to happen remain firmly in place.

In his recent book Renewing the Republic, President Michael D Higgins comments that in Ireland “parliamentary accountability has eroded to such a degree as to make parliament a charade.” There are insufficient checks and balances in the Irish Constitution to limit damages by a cabinet acting in pursuit of electoral advantage alone. Apart from voting at elections, it is virtually impossible for individual citizens to hold politicians (let alone public administrators) to account for poor or corrupt decisions.

Over the years Irish politicians proved themselves incapable of reforming the political system and unwilling to implement even the most straightforward procedural reforms. For instance in 1982 the right to vote in Seanad University Panel elections (presently restricted to NUI and TCD graduates) was extended to graduates of all Irish third level institutions in a national referendum. This solemn decision of the people was ignored and never legislated for, thereby disenfranchising thousands of graduates ever since.

The Irish Constitution adopted by the people in 1937 is the only serious revision of our political system implemented since the foundation of the State. At least thirty constitutional reviews and reports were published by the State since 1982 recommending modest changes to the Constitution. Although no fundamental changes were recommended, even modest changes were largely ignored by successive Cabinets.

In the Programme for Government published by the current Cabinet in February 2011 there are fourteen pages of planned reforms to the political system and reforms of public administration systems. However, one year later little has been put in place to implement planned reforms. If the politicians will not implement the necessary changes, then it’s time for citizens in this country to take the lead in transforming the Irish political system.

‘Politicians are too closely involved in the system to see its flaws’

In July 2010 the Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution recommended a citizens’ assembly be appointed to draw up constitutional amendment proposals for reform of our electoral system. It stated that in other countries “the citizens’ assembly was seen as a mechanism that took the question of electoral reform out of the hands of the political parties, and removed any possibility of politically motivated bias that might affect the outcomes of the process.” The same conclusion can be drawn for reform of the entire Irish political system.

Oliver Moran, an IT engineer and the founder and chairperson of the Second Republic group, makes the point: “When I write a code, it will always be checked for flaws by another engineer who has not been involved. Politicians are too closely involved in the political system to see its flaws in a detached way or to objectively consider any solutions which might affect their power and privilege. We need to see how decisions are made and we need to be able to question and scrutinise decisions that may possibly be against the national interest.”

Citizens’ assemblies with only randomly appointed ordinary citizens as participants are ideally suited to initiating political reform. Deliberative democracy models such as citizens’ assemblies ensure deliberation on proposals is carried out by equal participants so that decisions are free from the usual distortions created by unequal political power, exceptional personal wealth or powerful lobby groups. A citizens’ assembly however has no executive power and cannot become a substitute parliament. Only voters in a referendum will have the power to choose or reject the assembly’s proposals.

Examples of citizens’ assemblies can be found in Canada, Iceland and the Netherlands. Second Republic have spoken to people involved directly in these assemblies and a common theme which emerged was the need to give ordinary citizens ownership of the process of reform. Other similar models exist in Latin America and the Philippines.

In their election manifestos of January 2011, all political parties promised formal structures to involve ordinary citizens in drafting reform proposals. The coalition government are presently planning a Constitutional Convention about which little is known. There is some indication to date that ordinary citizens will be a token minority and that the Convention will simply send a report to Cabinet, with no obligation for change.

‘We were struck by the frustration of many politicians with the system’

The political scientists’ project We the Citizens, which concluded in December 2011, brought the practice as well as the theory of citizens’ assemblies to Ireland in an inspiring way. Welcoming their final report, Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore said: “The evidence produced by We the Citizens is heartening, and provides valuable lessons for how we can improve our democracy in practical and meaningful ways.”

Since December 2010 Second Republic has been calling for the establishment of a clearly empowered Irish Citizens’ Assembly for Political Reform and issued a comprehensive proposal in October 2011.

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This proposed assembly should be established by referendum, managed under the auspices of the President of Ireland and empowered to put its proposals directly to the people in a referendum. Rather than undermine the democratic mandate of the Dáil, a Citizens’ Assembly for Political Reform (or several) has the potential to revitalise the political system and make Dáil Éireann more democratic in the way it operates. Currently Second Republic is debating the idea of a series of legally empowered citizens’ assemblies which could be employed to carry out the mammoth task of drafting referendum proposals for political reform over several years.

Having met TDs and Senators in Leinster House recently to discuss the proposed Citizens’ Assembly for Political Reform, Second Republic were struck by the frustration of many politicians with aspects of the present political system.

Ultimately it is up to citizens to hold their governments accountable. We believe it has become necessary for ordinary citizens to attempt to kick-start the process of political reform by applying pressure from outside conventional political structures. Only by acting together in the face of apathy and cynicism can ordinary citizens ensure that there is sufficient incentive for politicians to make real political reform happen.

Bronagh Geraghty is on the national committee of Second Republic, an independent voluntary grassroots pressure group focused on political reform. John Hughes coordinated the writing of Second Republic’s comprehensive proposal Citizens’ Assembly for Political Reform, which was co-authored by seventeen people.

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Bronagh Geraghty and John Hughes

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