Lynch’s ‘leniency’ letter is product of the political system we favour

IN light of the embarrassing position Kathleen Lynch TD has found herself in after supplying a character reference for a rapist awaiting sentence, the decision by the Labour Party leader Eamon Gilmore to urge his party’s TDs to exercise caution when supplying such letters is a sensible one.

But it will not make any difference unless all TDs agree to a particular code of conduct regarding such correspondence. It is no surprise that calls for Lynch’s resignation came from outside Leinster House and not inside.

At the beginning of 2007, when Fianna Fáil’s Tony Killeen got into trouble for petitioning for the early release of prisoners, including a murderer, there was a similar reluctance to demand that his head roll for the simple reason most politicians believe this is a grey area.

What the Lynch case might do is provide the impetus for politicians to revisit the idea of cross-party agreement on a code of practice to end these representations. This was what happened after the Killeen case and it failed because TDs felt it might prevent them from making legitimate queries on behalf of prisoners.

This is understandable. Prisoners and their families are represented by TDs just like the rest of us. Bertie Ahern raised this question at the time of the Killeen controversy when he asked during a Dáil debate: “Is it wrong that a prisoner who might be in for a long stay, that they might get out on humanitarian and welfare grounds, that they might get out for an hour for a communion or for a confirmation or for the baptism of their child?”

At the time of the Killeen controversy, the then Labour party leader, Pat Rabbitte, said while it was “immensely regrettable, very damaging and hurtful for the families involved”, he would not call for Killeen’s resignation. Rabbitte said he had never made representations “for the release of a prisoner or anything like that“, but he could recall making representations for the transfer of young prisoners, for example, to the training section of a prison so they could acquire a skill.

All these cases differ. Ministers are given considerably more staff resources at taxpayers’ expense to write letters, some of which are sent without the full knowledge of the minister. This issue arose during the controversy surrounding PD junior minister Bobby Molloy in 2002 when he resigned over representations made by his constituency staff on behalf of a constituent whose relative was charged with serious sexual offences. All these cases raise the question of what exactly the function of a TD is and also what they have to do to secure election and re-election. That is not to suggest TDs do not genuinely care about the distress of individual constituents; it is simply the reality of a system of multi-seat constituencies by means of the single transferable vote (only used in Malta, Ireland and Tasmania). If TDs do not agree to a request, the chances are another TD in the constituency will, thus securing a precious extra vote.

Traditionally, constituents have expected and demanded a lot from their TDs. In his memoir on his time in politics, former Labour party minister Barry Desmond recalled an anecdote told to him by Charlie McCreevy of a local supporter calling to his house on Christmas morning: “I thought I would get you in! Will you ever fill in this form for me?”, the constituent asked. McCreevy duly completed the paperwork, but pointed out that the letter also needed to be filled in by a doctor and suggested his constituent should go the local GP’s residence to finish the job: “Ah Charlie, I could never do that. It’s Christmas morning!”

It used to be suggested there were four functions of a backbench TD: legislating, debating, approving the budget and servicing their constituents. Over the last two decades there has been an obvious weakening of the functions of the Dáil, as the first three roles of parliamentarians were displaced by the cabinet, the courts, social partnership, the tribunals, the EU and government-appointed quangos.

The fourth function — service to constituents — was not displaced. The growing irrelevance of the Dáil was recognised as far back as 1988 when Barry Desmond bluntly concluded: “Dáil Eireann is to many observers a sleepily middle class, quasi-professional, male-dominated, conservatively deliberative, poorly-attended debating assembly. Deputies play less role in the formation and enactment of legislation and more and more occupy their time as political favour-peddlers, consumer representatives and clerical messenger boys on behalf of their constituents … it is hardly an effective medium for the scrutiny of decisions after they are taken … it is a political resting place …while the cabinet and the civil service department heads get on with the job of running the country.”

Another aspect of the powerlessness of the Dáil is that the current structures remove many items from the agenda of public discussion, which does little to strengthen representative democracy.

As far back as 1963, political scientist Basil Chubb characterised the task of the TD as “going about persecuting civil servants” in the service of their constituents and the task of representation for the TD today has not changed substantially. But it is also the case that many political scientists are wary of cynical generalisations about clientelism, arguing that TDs provide an important brokerage role between voters, bureaucracy and government.

THIS has changed somewhat in recent years because voters now have access to more information through enhanced technology and advice centres, but it is still important, and something voters prize. The fact that they live in a country with weak local government also contributes to a culture of clientelism, as mediation between local and central government is rarely an option.

According to the Irish Election Study, researched by political scientists Michael Marsh of TCD and Richard Sinnott of UCD, more than half the Irish electorate who voted in 2002 reported that a candidate called to the house and more than half also reported being contacted by a party worker. Almost 80% of voters received one or other of these.

The Comparative Study of Electoral Systems, an international data archive including 23 states, reveals that Ireland scores highest for personal contact at 56.3%, the US at 47.4% Iceland at 28.3% and Belgium at 28.1%, with Britain at roughly 25%. Spain was a mere 5.8% and France 6.9%. Their findings also reveal high levels of contact between voters and politicians between elections.

The Irish voter likes the choice the current system offers and expresses high satisfaction with that system as it is. The reasons for that were contained in the conclusion of the all-party Oireachtas committee report on the constitution in 2002: “The fundamental and insurmountable argument against change is that the current Irish electoral system provides the greatest degree of voter choice of any available voter. A switch to any other system would reduce the power of the individual voter”.

The letters will continue to be written by TDs and there will inevitably be more controversies.

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