10 ways to save Irish politics from total cynicism

With an election in the offing, a growing percentage are completely disillusioned with politics as it has been practiced by the main parties in this country for decades. Time and again we’ve had the merry-go-round of promises to do things differently when in opposition, and subsequent reneging when in government. In that light, we have compiled 10 ideas that might contribute to saving politics from total cynicism, writes Special Correspondent Michael Clifford

10 ways to save Irish politics from total cynicism

1. Verify election promises

One of the main reasons for cynicism in politics is the failure to fulfil election promises. Last time around, in the “democratic revolution” led by Fine Gael and Labour, promises were as in vogue as ever.

Bondholders would not be paid a penny more. There would be no introduction of college fees. Water charges were out.

These kind of promises were made by politicians wearing a straight face. The general attitude was say whatever it takes to get elected and deal with the fall-out afterwards.

That election was supposed to herald a new way of doing things. We know now that it was poppycock. The promises offered were simply undeliverable under the strictures of the Troika. In addition, even those that could have been kept would have to have been fulfilled at a cost to other, often more vital, services. So promises then, as in the forthcoming election, are largely redundant.

We also know that the electorate is a sucker for buying promises. Voters can’t help it. In this country in particular, there is a tendency to lap up what we want to hear rather than what we need to hear.

With all that in mind, one solution is to have independent vetting of all election promises, and particularly those in the economic sphere. For example, currently Sinn Féin are proposing that water charges and the property tax be abolished, and that the respective bills be paid, to a large extent, by those earning over €100,000 per annum.

There are many who would conclude that this is socially just, but is it possible? Do the sums add up or is serious massaging done in order to make it look that way.

The other parties make similar promises, many of which appear dubious. Earlier this year, Fianna Fáil spokesman Michael McGrath suggested in the Dáil that the Fiscal Advisory Council should be mandated to cost the proposals of all political parties and independent candidates.

“To do so would be a great service to members of the public who will have to work out all the different noises emanating from the political parties about this or that being costed or not taken into account,” McGrath said. “Let the gospel be as per the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council when it comes to the election manifestos of different parties and the extent to which they are costed.”

That sounds like not just a sensible proposal, but one that is vital if election promises are to mean anything in the next election.

2. Fix ministerial terms

One of the abiding images of the previous government was the sight of the fleet of Mercedes and Audis arriving for a cabinet meeting in Farmleigh House in October 2010. The meeting was specially convened to discuss the extent and focus of savage cutbacks which were deemed necessary in light of the collapsed economy.

One by one, the Fianna Fáil ministers arrived at this repository of the Anglo Irish aristocracy, some of them waving to the peasants as they passed, completely unaware of the impression being conveyed.

The reality was these people had been in power too long to notice not just the optics but the reality of continuing to conduct themselves as if they were entitled to these trappings.

Most of those ministers had been in situ since 1997 when Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats came to power.

A minister is accorded huge levels of deference. He or she grows accustomed to getting their way. They are entitled to much of this on the basis of their position within a democratic system. But the potential to lose the run of oneself is enormous.

It is debatable if anybody is capable of maintaining a hungry appetite for a job over many years which demands huge levels of energy and mental and physical stamina. In the corporate world, some individuals manage to do so, but their results are plain to see in the bottom line.

The capacity for an elected politician to do so is much more restrained. Apart from anything else, new blood and some creative thought is continually needed in a job that has as its shareholders a whole nation. For that reason it makes perfect sense to have a strict time limit on service as a minister, and possibly even as Taoiseach, although the latter might present some problems.

A seven-year term would make perfect sense. This allows for a full term of government, and when it arises the chance to continue after an election for two years. Such a limit would lend urgency to ministers’ agendas.

The former minister for Education Ruairi Quinn looked to be a man in a hurry for his term in the portfolio, which ran from the 2011 election until his resignation last year. It was common knowledge that he had been lucky to get the appointment and he expected that he would be replaced in a reshuffle. The apparent result was an urgency on his part to get things done while he was there. And to be fair to him, he did achieve a lot while in situ. A little more of that would do no harm at all, and would ensure the dangers of groupthink and complacency were reduced.

3. Change the electoral system

Is it possible to have too much democracy? Is democracy defined by the intensity of the relationship between voter and representative? Should it be?

Questions about the nature of the proportional representation single transferrable vote electoral system we use here are as old as the system itself. This country is one of only two that use the system, the other being Malta.

Twice in the past, the electorate voted down proposals to change the system. On those occasions the biggest fear was that

a more streamlined system would lead to Fianna Fáil governments in perpetuity. That fear no longer pertains.

The argument for change is that the intensity of the relationship between voter and representative in the current system is damaging.

It means that party colleagues, standing on the same policy platform, are often the biggest rivals in an election. It ensures that all politicians are afraid of alienating practically all voters all of the time. This in turn often leads to inertia

There is also an argument that the current system ensures that TDs spend far more time in dealing with constituency matters than on national issues.

A huge volume of constituency work involves interacting with the public service on behalf on constituents, pursing matters which all citizens are entitled to.

The system thereby reacts to politicians in a manner that refuses to facilitate citizens, and candidates are often elected on the basis of how well they perform in this charade. The system also ensures the quality of some elected representatives is dubious, based largely on how well they can operate smoke and mirrors.

Another issue requires debateis whether a change in the system would lead to more stability than seems likely in the current political climate. Is it more democratic to have a real choice of electing from 10 or 12 viable candidates right across the spectrum, or does that just lead to greater instability?

At the very least, the system should be subjected to close scrutiny, and not just from politicians with a vested interest.

4. Demolish the doorstep

Former Fianna Fáil TD John O’Donoghue hitting the doorsteps in Milltown, Co Kerry, in 2011. Picture: Eamonn Keogh 

The doorstep has been a fabled and mythical location in Irish politics. The step speaks to the politician, telling him exactly what he wants to hear, and he in turn conveys this to the wider public as evidence that he knows what he is doing.

Hence, the politician will say, “Well, the feedback I’m getting on the doorstep is that my policies are on the button”. Of course, the member of the public encountered on the doorstep is never around to verify this statement.

This stuff has been taken to a new level by the current Taoiseach. Enda Kenny does not have to visit the doorstep to be provided with ammunition to make a point, or back up what he is saying. Thus he said last January that his office had received calls from various people thanking him for a few extra bob in their paypackets. Later, when the calls were questioned, his spokesman said this wasn’t exactly as conveyed.

In dealing with Irish Water he has met a few people to whom he made a point, not least the man carrying a few pints in his two hands. “I said to him what he was holding in his hands would pay for water for him for nearly ten weeks,” he said.

Even when he was in opposition, good fortune found him running into people who told him what he wanted to hear. In 2009, in a debate on access to hospitals and health care he said: “I met a woman this morning who had driven from Co Cavan for an appointment in the Mater Hospital. She had no bus transport and eventually got a taxi in order to get to her appointment.”

Please, no more.

If politicians want to make a point, make it on its merit. If they have examples of somebody who agrees with this point, or has a story to tell to back it up, produce this person, or at the very least, give a name. Otherwise, it’s just waffle.

5. Appointments to state boards

Taoiseach Enda Kenny with John McNulty, a controversial appointment to the board of IMMA. Picture: Donegal Daily

There are jobs for the boys, and there are jobs for the girls. One of the traditional spoils of power since the foundation of the state has been patronage. State appointments are handed out to party supporters, or sometimes just friends of the minister in question. This has always been so in appointments to the 6,000 positions up for grabs.

These appointments don’t necessarily come with a salary, but they can confer some status on the recipient, which in turn can be used. And then there are the expenses, which tend to be gold plated.

The most obvious example of how little has changed came last September, when it emerged that a county councillor, who was being lined up for a run at the Dáil, was appointed to the board of the Museum of Modern Art in order to give him a profile in “culture”, to better allow him be appointed to the Seanad, which would give him a push towards election to the Dáil.

Enda Kenny and Minister for the arts Heather Humphries were tongue tied and twisted in attempting to explain away the appointment of John McNulty to the IMMA board. It was an old fashioned stroke, one more example that precious little had changed

The real problem was that this carry-on took place after the Government had put in place a cosmetic exercise that was supposed to ensure appointments were made by public application, and on merit.

That fob to the electorate didn’t work out. Less than 25% of state board appointments had been made following the new process. For the greater part, the Government continued to regard appointments as the spoils of election victory

Following the fall-out from the McNulty affair, the Minister for Public Enterprise and Reform Brendan Howlin introduced yet another reform

The new system includes guidelines on how appointments would be made, which Howlin said, represented “a sea-change” in how things were done.

“There will be independent vetting of all candidates and a short list drawn up independently by the (Public Appointments Service) and given to the line minister for final selection,” Howlin said in February on publication of the guidelines.

Maybe, maybe not. We already know that such a system pertains for appointments to the judiciary, yet some observers note the Government still manages to appoint legal people who just happened to have been supporters. Time and the next controversy will tell.

6. Commit to committees and make the executive more accountable

The unaccountability of the executive is a recurring theme in any examination of politics in Ireland today.

Far from conducting a “democratic revolution”, the current Government has actually regressed in terms of removing the Oireachtas as a check and balance against its power.

The establishment of the economic management council, consisting of Taoiseach, Tanaiste and ministers for finance and public expenditure concentrated greater power within a sub-committee of the cabinet.

Also, the share out of chairs and vice chairs of the various Oireachtas committees was done in a way that minimised the number of opposition figures in these roles.

Any meaningful reform will require that the committees have a proper role within governance. This would involve in the first instance the awarding of chairs in a fair and proportionate manner. A more important action, though, would be to enhance the role of committees in a manner that makes their input meaningful.

For instance, committees currently examine policy and legislation in a reactive fashion after the big decisions are made. This renders input marginal

Committees could be consulted at an early stage of policy formation, and all the various options thrashed out in public, properly weighed up and examined.

Such consultation is most important when dealing with financial matters, particularly the budget. In other jurisdictions the details and options for the budget are discussed in parliamentary forums, where problems can be foreseen and policy options parsed. Not here. Instead, it’s all reactive.

Unless the Oireachtas is given a proper role in scrutinising and formulating policy and legislation, all other reforms will remain largely cosmetic.

7. Elect the Ceann Comhairle

Sean Barrett Ceann Comhairle in the Dáil.

The MacGill Summer School tends to deal in the theoretical when it comes to politics, but this year a proposal was brought up that has every chance of being implemented.

Opening the school in Glenties, former minister for justice Michael McDowell went into detail on a proposal for the election of the Ceann Comhairle by secret ballot. On the face of it, this doesn’t appear to be an earth shattering proposal. And it’s not. Before the last general election, all of the parties were in favour of a secret ballot to elect the speaker of the Dáil.

Then, when the election was out of the way, Enda Kenny proposed Sean Barrett and everybody said he was a fine fellow for the job. Which he is, but that’s neither here nor there.

If the election was by secret ballot, it would in the first instance ensure that the Ceann Comhairle was elected by the members rather than the government. This would give the Dáil greater muscle in its relationship with the executive.

It would also ensure that the Ceann Comhairle isn’t open to accusations by the opposition that he is favouring government, as has been the case in the current Dáil.

One of the great problems with the Irish system is that the Oireachtas is largely redundant in holding the executive to account. If the Ceann Comhairle was elected by the Dáil rather than the government it might make the slightest of inroads in rebalancing the power between these two arms of government.

However, as has been pointed out by McDowell, the time to act is now. If the next Ceann Comhairle is to be elected by secret ballot it will take a change to standing orders, which would have to be done by the members. That means that between now and Christmas a group of TDs – preferably cross-party – come together to request a debate to have the orders changed.

If such a scenario unfolds, it is unthinkable that any of the main parties would vote against it, considering they were all in favour ahead of the last election.

It would be a small step, but in a country where reform comes dropping with the urgency of a snail, any change has to be welcomed.

8. Open the veil

Alan Dukes, former chairman of IBRC

The recent saga over Sitesev and IBRC tells much about how the country is run, but in particular it highlighted the culture of secrecy operated by government, not to mention most agencies of state.

Catherine Murphy is an elected parliamentarian who asked legitimate questions in the Dáil about the sale of Siteserv. She didn’t get straight answers. Instead, she got Jesuitical responses which were designed to deflect her pursuit of the truth, and keep the real answers under wraps.

In total, she had to ask 19 parliamentary questions before receiving full and complete answers. And then, the only reason she accessed the truth was that the department was aware that she had submitted a Freedom of Information request that would have to be complied with.

The approach is typical for Government and most State agencies. The imperative is to protect the institution, even from the distant rumble of a potential controversy. The public, and their representatives, are treated not as citizens — of whom the state and its employees are servants — but as a potential threat.

None of this is unique to the current administration. Secrecy is a byword for governance in the state. When the Freedom of Information Act was introduced in the mid 1990s, the country was already lagging in the kind of democratic norms that ensure citizens are informed of almost everything that doesn’t impinge on the security of the state.

That was even too much for some politicians, and was restricted by Charlie McCreevy in 2003. The current Government has reformed the act to a certain extent, but that is a mere fig leaf.

What is at issue is the culture whereby Government does not believe it is incumbent on its members to keep everybody informed as much as possible.

The fall-out from this culture has ensured that controversies build up around what appear to be cover-ups, generating further controversy, and ultimately leading to calls for an inquiry of sorts.

Hence instead of openness and transparency in the political system we have a way of doing things that information is painfully extracted, usually retrospectively and at great cost. It also adds further cynicism towards politics as it is practiced here.

9. End focus groupthink and ensure that government takes the lead

Governing by focus groups has become a way of life.

The focus group in politics came into its own in these islands 20 years ago through Tony Blair’s New Labour. One of Blair’s main strategists, the late Philip Gould, perfected the science.

A group of voters is brought together and tested for responses to various policies.

Policy is then formulated accordingly on the basis that it is likely to attract votes.

This conforms closely to the great quote, “These are my policies and if you don’t like them, I can change them”.

Political parties on this side of the Irish Sea cottoned onto Blair’s electoral success and began to use focus groups extensively.

During Bertie Ahern’s time in government, focus groups were elevated to a sacred status.

Since the recession, focus groups have not been used as extensively simply because governments have been restricted in terms of policy and economic freedom.

Now, as the dawn of a new paradigm apparently beckons, the focus group is set to be brought out into the foreground once more.

Using focus groups as a compass thus means that governments follow rather than lead.

A passing fad gets elevated, a transient irritation among voters is regarded as a no-go zone. It means that the short-term is given priority over the long term public good.

It also leads to an echo chamber in which politicians armed with the most immediate concerns of the voter publicly declares his or her intention of dealing with this matter immediately.

This is the kind of politics that leads to auctioneering at elections, and pandering to short termism at the constant expense of the greater good. Focus groups definitely have a role in politics but their elevation under Britain’s New Labour, and subsequent embrace in this country has been a blight on proper governance.

At a time when leadership is sadly lacking, the relegation of the focus group might go some way towards bringing in a better politics.

10. Curtail parliamentary questions

Renua TD Terence Flanagan

Last June, Renua TD Terence Flanagan used a parliamentary question to ask if the Department of Social Protection cuts the dole of people protesting against the Government and specifically those involved in demonstrations against Irish Water.

It was a silly question. Flanagan must, or at least should, know that there is no basis for such a measure. Sanctions such as that could only be invoked a dictatorship. Yet, the question gained headlines and that was the objective.

It also necessitated time spent in the department in question responding to it. The question was far from the silliest or most irrelevant parliamentary question tabled in the Dáil in recent years.

Most if the questions asked concern constituents, and are largely asked in order to give the impression of doing something rather than actually getting something done.

It’s a costly charade. Each Dáil year, the volume of questions asked in parliament ranges somewhere between 40,000 and 50,000.

Some such questions are designed to shine a light on the machinations of State, the spending, the waste, the systems failures.

Most, however, are questions put forward on behalf of constituents, more often than not resulting in no action or change to the constituent’s circumstances. There are personnel in agencies like the HSE who are forced to spend large chunks of their day sifting through parliamentary questions and representations from TDs.

The cost of this? In 2008, an exercise by the Department of Enterprise came to the conclusion that a Dáil question costs an average of €200, which adds up to about €10m per annum. The cost associated with other forms of representations made by TDs is unknown.

This is what passes for bread and butter politics in our State. There are few limits to the number of questions a TD can table. There are no limits to how ludicrous or redundant some questions are. It’s all about giving the impression that the TD is acting on a constituent’s behalf, against the might and oppression of the State.

If curtailments could be put on the scope, extent and focus on parliamentary questions, TDs would be freed from expectation to provide this service for constituents. It would also mean that TDs could then concentrate on tabling the kind of questions for which the system was designed. And it would free up hundreds of personnel to do some constructive work for the public.

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