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Column: Enda Kenny should seize this moment to overturn political malaise

With the onset of the crisis five years ago, the malaise in our political system came to the surface; now, thanks in part to the Seand referendum, it is bubbling over, writes Colin Murphy.

Colin Murphy

AN INCOHERENT CAMPAIGN, a poor turnout, an almost-split decision, a vote for the status quo – it may look like there’s not much to savour in the defeat of the Seanad referendum. But the reality is the opposite: we are now at a moment of unprecedented opportunity for political reform.

Political reform will always be an esoteric subject. It will never be as urgent as issues of finance. You’ll never get as big a turnout for such a referendum as you will for a general election.

That was why the last general election seemed to offer a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for political reform – because the financial crisis and political crisis seemed to be inextricable. But the people voted for conservative politicians (of right and left) who held up a fig-leaf of reform to sate that demand, and it had seemed like the opportunity was squandered.

A chance for unprecedented reform

The surprise of this referendum, which had its origins in an opportunistic, populist stunt and which was promoted with cynical messages and misleading information, is that it now presents this government with the opportunity to gain the credit for facilitating an unprecedented reform programme.

Forget about the blame game for a moment; put aside the Punch & Judy commentary that focuses on how bad the result is for Enda Kenny, or what Lucinda Creighton will do next. Underlying that is a series of novel developments in Irish political life.

One and a quarter million people have taken the trouble to inform themselves and vote on an issue of political reform. The vast majority of them clearly believe the Seanad should be reformed.

The referendum provoked two groups of high-profile, well-qualified people to come together in well-organised “civil society” groups. They were campaigning on opposite sides but their objective was identical: political reform.

Each of the political parties has now invested resources in the reform issue, and key representatives have nailed their colours to the mast in demanding reform. One side said Seanad abolition wasn’t real reform; the other side said it was a start. One side said the real place in need of reform was the Dáil; the other side said they’d already started, and planned more. With the exception of the last general election, it may be that never before in Irish political life have so many politicians publicly identified themselves with the need for significant political reform.

Glass-half-full?

Pat Rabbitte made the point that more or less 20 per cent of the people had voted for change, 20 per cent had voted for no change, and 60 per cent had stayed at home. That’s a glass-half-empty perspective. The glass-half-full is this: 40 per cent of the electorate, a million and a quarter people, have engaged with the reform issue.

Mainstream political commentators are now routinely discussing the “guillotine” and how it is used to close off debate in the Dáil. Discussion of the whip system is now a commonplace in any argument on politics. Even a year ago, these were relatively obscure topics outside of reform wonks and political pundits.

The upshot is that there is now an unprecedented degree of agreement in the Dáil on the need for reform (whatever the details of it may be), a commentariat that is universally calling for it, an unusual number of non-partisan “expert” figures willing to campaign on the issue, and an electorate with a unique degree of engagement with it.

On top of that, there is a Taoiseach who needs to reassert himself over the reform agenda, a Fine Gael party that’s struggling to contain a reform-minded body of young TDs, a Labour party that sees itself as the natural driver of reform within the coalition, a Fianna Fáil that wishes to further champion its reform credentials, a Sinn Féin that needs to regain lost ground on an issue on which it sees itself as more rightfully being in the vanguard, and two groups of independents (the Technical Group and now the Reform Alliance) that have to a large degree defined themselves by the issue.

Debate creates momentum

Most attention will now move to the budget. But not all attention, and the country will need a good news story to leaven the inevitable austerity of budget debate. Reform could be that story. Of course there is disagreement on the details, but that disagreement can be productive: disagreement creates debate, and debate creates momentum.

The Taoiseach should now set up a cross-party group with a mandate to make recommendations for reform that doesn’t require constitutional change, and which can therefore be implemented relatively quickly: “an bord snip” for the Oireachtas.

Some change should be implemented immediately, such as the restriction of the guillotine to emergency legislation. But other reforms could feasibly wait till the next general election: the less threatening they are to the incumbents, the more chance they have of ultimately being implemented. The aim should be to hold a general election (possibly in 2016) to a Seanad elected on universal suffrage but not on party political lines, and to a significantly emboldened Dáil, one that is no longer under the thumb of the government (itself under the thumb of the Economic Management Council).

The malaise in our political system has come to the surface

The coalition could claim credit for advancing the issue; some or all parties could run on a commitment to implement the reform package; and there may be a new party or alliance that could hold the balance of power on the basis of the reform agenda, and that would demand its implementation as the precondition for entering coalition or supporting a minority administration.

The last time we came close to significant reform was when Noel Dempsey allied with Garret Fitzgerald to champion reform of the electoral system in the late 1990s. But, then, the issue remained a niche, wonkish one; without mainstream interest (of the public or press), it foundered. Plastic bags were a visible blight: Dempsey took them on and won. But political malaise was invisible to most; he couldn’t convince people of its urgency, and the issue defeated him.

With the onset of the crisis five years ago, the malaise in our political system came to the surface; now, thanks in part to the referendum, it is bubbling over. If left untreated, it will soon simmer down again, and return to festering in the murky depths of our politics, ensnaring good policies and well-meaning endeavours. But if Enda Kenny seizes the moment, he could overturn that malaise and reenergise our politics with significant reform. If he doesn’t do it now, a unique opportunity will be squandered.

Colin Murphy is a journalist and writer. His acclaimed documentary play about the bank guarantee, Guaranteed!, goes on national tour in November, including two nights in Smock Alley Theatre in Dublin. See www.fishamble.com/guaranteed for full details.

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