Economic crisis could threaten democracy
Deaglán de Bréadún
No one needs reminding that as we face into the New Year there is massive economic uncertainty. Layoffs are already widespread but by the springtime we could be looking at a minor tsunami in that respect, at least that’s the implication behind some of the commentaries.
At the same time there seems to be relatively little confidence among the ordinary punters that our political leaders have the capacity to get them out of this mess. We are of course at the mercy of events internationally but government can and should seek to lessen the impact of the crisis. And steps have been taken by government but the public seems curiously unreceptive to their initiatives, judging from opinion polls.
Herewith a slightly-longer version of a piece I wrote in the Opinion page of The Irish Times earlier this week. At least some of you will have already seen it, but I am running it here in the hope of generating some blogosphere discussion on the issues raised.
It suggests that parliamentary reform has a role to play in restoring public confidence in our system of government and ensuring that we do not end up with the kind of upheaval seen in Greece and Thailand. With regard to my suggestion that the number of TDs be reduced to 120, I have since been reminded that when Charlie Haughey was Taoiseach in 1981 the numbers were only 148 and he oversaw an increase to 166 and that when Dev brought in his Constitution in 1937 the numbers were actually cut from 153 to 138. Anyway, here’s the article:–
John Lennon said that Elvis died when he joined the US Army. This changed him from a symbol of cultural transformation into part of the existing establishment. It was a contradiction of everything he seemed to represent.
You couldn’t say the Progressive Democrats had much in common with the King of Rock and Roll except for this: the PDs died when they went into government with Charles Haughey.After all they had founded and built up their party on the basis of opposition to the Laird of Kinsealy and all his works and pomps. Then they turned around in 1989 and in the interests of political survival and salvaging their political careers, kept him in power and shared the spoils of office with the man they had denounced so lustily over the years (although I am not suggesting there were involved in the stuff Charlie was doing behind the scenes).
So the final obsequies of the PDs which took place over recent months were a mere formality. Whatever the role and contribution of individual members, as a party they had been dead for years.Before the dust settles on their political grave, however, there are some elements of their legacy which should be preserved. I found myself in difficulty on the Vincent Browne show on TV3 trying to assert that the PDs weren’t all bad. Former Fine Gael “Young Tiger” that he is, Vincent wasn’t having any of it. It was barely a blip in PD history, but back in January 1988 the party published a document entitled “Constitution for a New Republic” which was designed to modernise and update Eamon de Valera’s Bunreacht na hEireann.
There was a row over the omission of any reference to God in the preamble and the bright new charter soon lost its shine. It has now become the Irish political equivalent of the Dead Sea Scrolls but a slightly-abridged version is available in The Irish Times digital archive for January 14th, 1988 and it’s well worth a look in the light of today’s problems.
The document was ahead of its time with regard to removing the constitutional ban on divorce. In dropping the claim to the North, it was well-intentioned but premature because Articles 2 and 3 proved an important bargaining-chip in the Good Friday negotiations.
The most revolutionary proposal was that, “The Oireachtas shall consist of the President and a House of Representatives to be called Dail Eireann.” What, no Seanad? The document also provided for a reduction in the number of TDs.
Whatever about the detail of these proposals, we need some of that spirit now. At a time of severe economic stringency when public expenditure cuts are the order of the day, it is time for a serious look at parliamentary reform. There is a strong argument that savings can be made as a necessary and overdue austerity measure.
Could we live without the Seanad? It’s certain that political life would be the poorer without the more colourful and outspoken Senators who are like a breath of fresh air through the portals of Leinster H ouse. But they are a minority.
Getting rid of the Seanad entirely, as the PDs advocated, would not benefit our democracy. But it must be asked whether we really need 60 members in the Upper House. At a salary of €70,000 each, this amounts to a total of €4.2million.
Consider the fact that the combined total in Budget cutbacks imposed on the Equality Authority and the Irish Human Rights Commission was €2.9m. That’s just short of the total salary cost of 42 Senators.
Could we survive with just 18 Senators – let’s say 20? How many people would notice the difference? I recall that a former leas-chathaoirleach of the Seanad, the late Pat Lindsay of Fine Gael once told me in an interview that the Seanad was “a haven of failed politicians and political eunuchs”.
So maybe An Bord Snip Nua should take a look at our parliamentary institutions. Do we really need 166 Dail Deputies? What are they all for? Wouldn’t 120 be enough in a State as small as ours?
Then we have what can only be called the scandal of the junior ministries. Thankfully Bunreacht na hEireann restricts the number of full cabinet posts to 15 but there are now 20 ministers of state. Given the proliferation of Committee posts in the Oireachtas, genuine backbenchers are in danger of becoming extinct.
It’s not so long ago that there were only seven ministers of state and they had the modest title of “parliamentary secretary”. Although the public are not given free access to Leinster House, they are still able to hear the rattle and hum of the gravy-train from outside the gates.
Much has been written about the current government’s failures of leadership as we face the greatest economic crisis of modern times. But it is more than a failure of individual cabinet-members, the problem exists right across the system. And it’s not good enough to ask the public to take a hit if you’re not willing to make genuine sacrifices of your own.
There is what the Americans call a “disconnect” between the public and the political system. Whatever one thinks about the result of the last Lisbon referendum, the fact that so many people ignored the advice of their political leaders is an ominous development.
The upheavals in Greece and Thailand show that political stability cannot be taken for granted. We don’t want similar disturbances here and genuine parliamentary reform should be part of the strategy for avoiding this type of upheaval. But on a seasonal note, do turkeys ever vote for Christmas?
Deaglán de Bréadún, Political Corresponden, The Irish Times