GERARD HOWLIN: We, the voters, are just as much to blame for the rot at the top

How do we restore trust in and credibility to our institutions, asks Gerard Howlin?

THIS is the exact question also exercising the MacGill Summer School this week. It addresses a need and opens up a danger. The need, which I believe in, to reform our institutions, also continues perhaps dangerously the rhetoric, which our State is founded on. If only we could be free, of an alien apparatus, all will be well. It is the same assumption, that someone is to blame; but not ourselves.

But someone else is not to blame; we are. We the people are responsible, because we are sovereign. Industrial schools, Magdalene laundries; Mother and Baby homes; bigger mortgages based on ever-higher multiples of wages; a relentless demand for higher wages to fund them and ever-greater levels of public spending to sustain the lot, were founded on popular demand.

Irish politicians are in their weakness eerily representative of us. The serial post-facto self-absolution of public responsibility, is hypocrisy. The rowing back already from the central commitment to put the public finances on a sound footing first, the reliance on growth that is still anaemic now and which for the future has yet to be realised, to reduce targets for debt reduction is a massive fiscal gamble. It is the Russian roulette, we were never going to play again. But it seems we are. So who is to blame? Is it us, or them?

A critical weakness at the heart of Irish politics is the multi-seat constituency. The 2011 election was an aberration. The last landslide victory before that was in 1977. The norm of Irish politics, the one I predict we are re-arrived at, is where a handful of votes, in a handful of constituencies changes governments. Changing this system would have been the single most important reform of our politics. Single-seat constituencies, based on proportional representation, would perceptibly reduce the pressures that repeatedly lead to short-term decision making. But now that is a “what-if”, and it won’t happen.

What was actioned was a constitutional referendum to strengthen the power of Oireachtas committees. This was to ensure our legislature would more effectively interrogate issues and hold office holders to account. But in an act of hubristic over-reach, the proposal was poisoned and voted down.

Similarly lost was a referendum to abolish the Seanad. Seanad Éireann is but a strictly limited platform, for the expression of alternative views has enormous potential to enhance connectivity with a disillusioned electorate. There is a wealth of constructive analysis available for a better way forward, not least from Senators Fergal Quinn and Katherine Zappone. Their proposal is for a universal franchise, within the existing constitutional framework. The government in my view has an obligation either to act on those proposals, or to come up with a better but similarly radical alternative.

The nexus of political power, however, is the Dáil. It is here, that our system is weakest and based on government enforcing its power as an executive over the legislature. Simultaneously, in a double-sided weakness, government fails to enforce effective accountability on the apparatus of state it presides over. By holding the public service in a bear hug, too tight to allow either for real accountability or frank, unfiltered advice, the capacity of our public service to realise its potential for responsibility or accountability is neutered.

In Ireland, government is unchallenged by any systematic oversight. The continuing almost abject failure of Oireachtas committees to effectively scrutinise the budgets of departments and the policies they are premised on, is astonishing. There is a lack of seriousness of purpose that is mirrored by a lack of resources and based on the premise that there is little public interest or thanks. Better off then, hollering and high-kicking about Garth Brooks.

Government is also unchallenged institutionally within, by the expert resource who should be giving advice, free from the political pressures that surround every government. A cohabitation of mutual malaise between government and its their civil servants, is not political; it is institutional. In an oblique exchange of favours, neither adequately challenges the other, nor fulfils its full potential to serve the country better.

A strengthening of the Dáil and its committees in both resources and powers, a transparent legal framework that both effectively holds senior management to account and enables them to advise more independently and frankly would be positive pressures, for the development of better policy. Breaking that cycle of unaccountability , would ultimately strengthen our politics, and our public administration.

Electing the Ceann Comhairle by secret ballot, distributing committee chairs on a D’Hondt system, resourcing committees with expert staff, and making Secretaries General and CEO’s of state agencies, directly responsible for the administration and budgets of their departments is crucial. The scale of modern public administration is beyond the capacity of politicians to effectively manage.

But the management who are trained to fulfil that role, do not have effective legal responsibility. We can’t go on with a politics and public administration akin to a dung heap, astride which are cocks who won’t crow.

The suddenness with which ministers and senior officials succumb, to Stockholm syndrome, in a mutual embrace is astonishing. Our legislature, government and administration are not in any meaningful sense countervailing spheres of influence. It is a single morass that serves none well.

This matters because institutions do shape culture. The flaccidness of our institutional architecture, delivering an avoidance of responsibility, rather than its acceptance, is a beacon of sorts. It succeeds as Sirens do, in bringing the ship of state onto the rocks. Righting the wrongs in our institutions, redesigning the architecture of our public life, would indeed be of benefit. It is within our power to do — and we should do it.

Ours is a politics, where citizens as much as politicians, repeatedly fail in their obligations. The serial subcontracting of responsibility, to the Catholic Church, the Irish government, the EU European Union is fundamentally a false premise. We elect politicians, who invariably insult our intelligence by gratifying our demands. Having gotten what we want, and appalled by the consequences, we denounce them. Why? The fundamental flaw in Irish politics is its inbuilt requirement for a constant tactical trimming of the sails of public policy, to the prevailing wind of public demand, unchecked by institutional inhibition.

The washing of hands and the shifting of blame, corrosive at the top, comes in our society from the bottom up, as much as from the top down. It is hardly surprising if we are appalled.

-This is an abridged version of speech given by Gerard Howlin to the MacGill Summer School, Monday, July 21 on ‘How do we restore trust in and credibility to our institutions?’


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