Political system won’t change itself – we the people have got to do it

WE got a real glimpse into the Irish political soul last week with the row over stag-hunting and dog-breeding. Just imagine trying to explaining it to a foreign observer.

You: “Our parliamentarians are rebelling.”

Them: “Over the billions you have given your banks? Over white-collar corruption? Over the fact that no one is going to jail for your Anglo-Irish Bank? Over the state of your A&E departments? Or maybe even over cutbacks in frontline services for the disadvantaged?”

You: “No. Our parliamentarians feel that licensing bitches to breed is the issue to withhold support on.”

Cue foreign jaw swinging agape in disbelief. Yet, here’s a funny thing. I wouldn’t blame our TDs even if they did rebel over all the big stuff because most of their voters don’t ‘do’ the big stuff either; it’s as if we, the Irish people, just don’t ‘get’ that it is we, the self-same Irish people, who actually have the responsibility, and the power, to run our society, rather than someone else – “they” – to whom we like to point the finger when something goes wrong.

Electing a local fixer is the best we can do because we don’t actually believe we can influence the bigger stuff.

Other small countries think otherwise. Finland, by most international standards, is one of the least corrupt countries in the world and is universally acknowledged as a well-run democracy; Denmark and Norway aren’t a million miles behind the Finns. How can they do it, these democracies with similar populations to ours, when we can’t?

One reason is that our political system is not fit for purpose in that it doesn’t provide an appropriate mechanism for running the country in the way we say we want it run.

When we established our parliament in 1919 we copied the British system because that’s what we thought grown-up countries did, even though our culture, if anything, is closer to that of an African big chief delivering for his local tribe.

We created a parliamentary structure geared to debating laws, even though this is not something our culture rewards. We empower our Dáil to choose a government from among its members, even though the means of entering the parliament usually deny access to the type of people most likely to be equipped with the technical skills and experience to be effective members of an effective government.

We have supplied various international stages with world-calibre people like Peter Sutherland, Niall Fitzgerald, Detta O’Cathain, Pat Cox, Catherine Day and Michael O’Leary, to name but a few; yet why do we so rarely utilise these people and others like them in our domestic political system? Because it’s well-nigh impossible for them to achieve election and, even if they managed to do so, the probability is they would be asked to serve an apprenticeship on the backbenches with little real power to change anything until lucky enough to get a cabinet spot. Sit on the backbenches or work to change the world outside the Dáil ? A no-brainer when you look at it that way.

If we can’t imagine talent like that being appropriate for cabinet membership, then we have a serious problem. So what should we do?

We could make a start by having a political system that reflects our reality: three terms and go home. One of the most debilitating factors affecting politics right across the western world is the rise of a permanent professional political class who come straight from college as advisers or parliamentary assistants, then councillors and then TDs or senators.

They don’t know what it’s like to worry about meeting a payroll deadline or actually having receipts for expenses. We are not served well by handing over our system of government to them – so let’s limit their potential. No one should be a TD for longer than three terms, or a minister or Taoiseach for longer than two.

Come into politics knowing that you are time-limited in what you want to do and that, one way or another, after 15 years, you are going back to Planet Earth, and be recompensed appropriately.

If a Taoiseach can’t get what he or she wants done in 10 years, they’re in the wrong job. Ronald Reagan, a retired film star, broke up the mighty Soviet Union, and he was only US president for eight years.

Separate the government from the Dáil and Seanad. Let the Dáil elect a Taoiseach, and let the Taoiseach appoint ministers who are not TDs, as is done in France and a number of other European countries. This way, from the get-go, ministers primary loyalty is to the country and everyone of its constituencies rather than merely the one to whom they owe their position.

And if there’s a perception of a possible deficit of democracy in this suggestion, I’d quote as an example the head of the HSE who currently controls a bigger budget than most ministers. Under my suggestion, he’d be working as the Minister for Health and answerable to the Dáil – which he patently is not at present. That’s self-evidently more democratic than the current system. By the way, this is not a new idea to Irish politics. When our system of local government was reformed in the 1920s, the whole idea behind appointing county managers was to bring in professionals from outside the councils to run them while answering to the elected members of the council. It was only in later years that (elected) politicians turned county managers into the creatures of the then Department of Local Government, now the Environment, Heritage and Local Government..

We also need a voting system that reflects reality. Let’s be honest, there are two types of voters – there’s the one who wants a local-big-chief-make-local-problem-go-away type, while the other wants a national legislator. We need a system that gives both. Why not have two votes? One for your local TDs, as at present, and a second ballot for a large national constituency of, say, 25 to 30 TDs.

YES, you’ll still have fellas running on a local ticket, but you will also have people running as a small business candidate, a religious candidate or gay rights candidate, or maybe even a prisoners’ candidate, all trying to appeal to the issues of a non-geographic, socially-based, constituency. We’ll then have some TDs speaking for different social groups all over the country (including, maybe, dog breeders) as opposed to the usual “my area and screw the rest of ya.”.

Finally, we have to ask ourselves about how we bring about change. In the unlikely event of us being totally honest with ourselves, we would have to plead guilty as charged to leaving the changing of OUR political system to politicians – akin to appointing the Ku Klux Klan to run Barack Obama’s re-election campaign.

We have a wonderful facility for asserting our rights. Regrettably it’s more than matched by our capacity for conveniently forgetting about our responsibilities. You can’t have one without the other.

There’s another report on political reform due out shortly from the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution. What are the chances it says the system is pretty much OK? For as long as the members of the Oireachtas control what we the people get to vote on, we the people will never have the fundamental change we so badly need. We’ve got to start coming up with proposed solutions and initiating the changes ourselves – remember, a TD is a Teachta Dála, a messenger to parliament, not a messenger from parliament.


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