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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: December 31, 2008 @ 11:10 am

    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

    • David White says:

      I have no real problem with having 166 TDs. I think it gives a mostly full and fair representation of the people.

      I do however agree that, and I think this is a legacy of Ahern, the increase in Junior Ministers adds unnecessary waste into the management system of the country. The number of Junior Ministers could easily be halved. Senior Ministers in the impacted Departments could be smart around delegating the roles and responsibilities of the Junior Minsters between senior civil servants, and themselves. I really did feel that the addition of extra Junior Ministers by Ahern added nothing to the efficiency of the running of the country.

      Removing the Seanad completely is an interesting and thought-provoking idea. Certainly in its current guise it is not value-added for the running of the country. There is an argument to be made, however, that a reformed Seanad could be effective as part of the checks and balances of the system. I would be uncomfortable with the there being less accountability for the Dáil if the Seanad was not in place, given the limited powers of the President. Perhaps a slimmed-down, and more democratic and representative Seanad would be appropriate. The current method of selecting members is unrepresentative of modern society.


    • Joanna Tuffy T.D. says:


      As a former Senator I am going to make a few points in favour of the defence.

      The idea that the Seanad’s purpose is to be a check in the Dáil has been borne out relatively recently on an issue that was of great interest to the media at the time. In July 2001 it was the Seanad that prevented the passing of a law that no opinion polls be taken or published in the seven-day period prior to any election or referendum and no opinion poll whatsoever be published in the seven-day period prior to any election or referendum.

      A higher percentage of women have been members of the Seanad both presently and since 1922 than the Dáil. Less than 6 per cent women have been elected to the Dail. Almost 9 per cent have been members of the Seanad. Half of the six university seats in the Seanad were at one time filled by women.

      I was a member of the Seanad from 2002 to 2007 and it was my experience at the time that much legislation got far greater debate in Seanad and in the Seanad also a fair amount of opposition amendments to Bills were accepted by the Government. This was particularly so in relation to Bills introduced in the Seanad by the then-Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform Michael McDowell who seemed to have high regard for the Seanad and introduced many of his Bills there.

      There is a need for a reform of the Seanad but I think the focus should be on how to make it more powerful and also how to engage the public with it. When I was a Senator, with that objective in mind I proposed the right for members of the public to petition the Seanad to bring in new laws, etc. I hope to see that proposal implemented as it had cross-party support at the time.

      As regards the number of T.D.s we have in comparison to the numbers of members of parliaments in countries with much higher populations – I have met visitors to our country that have been taken aback about how we get to meet our politicians one to one. That is the advantage of having a high number of representatives per head of population and many voters value that accessibility to their public representatives. Another point is that we, unlike many other countries, do not have a system of regional government in addition to local and national government.

    • Brian Boru says:

      “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.”

      If it is an ominous development, then it is only in one sense – namely that it is worrying that 95% of our politicians are so out of touch with public opinion. There is too much group-think in Leinster House, and that denies the Irish people a real choice in elections. I hope that one consequence of my second No vote is that the ideological cartel of Leinster House on European affairs will come crashing down. Debate on how far European integration should go has been silenced for far too long in that place. As I see it, the problem is “them”, not “us”. We don’t want the Treaty, and neither do the Dutch or French peoples (except their govts/parliaments).

      On the wider question of the economic downturn itself threatening democracy, I have serious doubts about that happening in this country. We have survived worse times than this since the foundation of the State, and despite some of us flirting with Mussolini-type fascism in the 1930′s (Blueshirts), we avoided the political-chaos of Germany, Italy and Spain. I think democracy is a more intrinsically Irish concept than is the case in most of the rest of Europe – going right back to pre-Norman Ireland when we elected our respective kings under Brehon law. It will survive.

    • Deaglán says:

      I’m not disputing the fact that the Seanad can play a valuable role, I am merely querying whether we need 60 Senators. Incidentally, Michael McDowell was one of the joint authors of the PDs’ Draft Constitution, along with Gerard Hogan. The standard of debate is generally higher in the Seanad although it always seems to be the same small group of people who make worthwhile contributions. As for the numbers in the Dáil facilitating contact with the public – contact for what? Is clientelism a good thing?

    • Des Johnson says:

      The problem with Irish government is not its structure. It’s the taoisigh and cabinet you’ve suffered for years. When the going gets rough, why do you blame the tyre pressure and not the driver?

      Irish government hasn’t governed for years. They’ve outsourced the job to all those NGOs and QUANGOs (800+). Cabinet members hired consultants to bring them up to speed just enough to face the odd reporter, to tell them how to dress, to teach them how to speak. But govern? What’s the matter with you, boyo? Sure, we have experts to do that, don’t we?

      The Health Service Executive, for example. They spoke, Mary rubberstamped, then Bertie did likewise. Same for Brian. But a country is not a set of pigeonholes. It’s a living organism. Fouled lakes and rivers have consequences or inputs relating to agriculture, tourism, public health. But what does the HSE care about tourism?

      A splendid cancer centre in Galway would be a fine idea if the people of Donegal, Sligo, Roscommon had a reliable, rapid transport system to get them to Galway in an emergency. But that’s not the HSE’s problem. Bus Éireann, maybe? Day-old chicks and stretchers.

      Now that there’s an economic crisis, and no NGO to deal with it, Brian and Co. flounder. The fish stinks from the head down.

    • Joanna Tuffy T.D. says:

      What is termed by detractors as clientilism but involves constituents directly contacting an elected representative about an issue is in my view a good thing. For the many individuals that make contact with public representatives it is often the last resort. Many public representatives will then take up the cause of a constituent and fight it as far as they possibly can go after every other port of call has been tried by that constituent. They will plug away on behalf of that constituent because they know that they are being treated unfairly by the system and many others who have been contacted by the constituent will not have had the same sense of this. Often with a lot of persistence they get the authorities to take that constituent’s plight on board. A lot of this kind of work goes on behind the scenes and is not publicised because for the constituent concerned it is a private matter. It is this type of contact with constituents that is also in my view the best way to keep in touch with the people you represent and know the lives they are living. The issue then is what you do with that knowledge and how you propose to make people’s lives better in your community. And that’s where the ‘Politics is about ideas’ part comes in. You might think that what I am describing sounds very idealistic but I believe it is how most Irish politicians operate and they do so in good faith. There are a lot of faults in our political system but I dont think “clientelism” is one of them.

    • Patrick Finn says:

      The economic crisis is already threatening democracy here and abroad, but is not yet visible here. The hundreds of thousands of people laid off in the private sector no longer have the valve of emigration as they had previously and being accustomed to relatively good times will not accept the dole so long as the rich and super-rich pay little or nothing towards society’s public needs.
      Furthermore the profligacy with which the Government and its associated public sector spend taxpayers’ money while the private sector struggles to survive is breathtaking. The arrogance of this administration, being in receipt of the highest monetary rewards in the developed world says a lot about their complete lack of morality, and worse, their judgment of the public mood. It appears to me that anyone with access to other people’s money abuses it; the government and its many and varied side-kicks, the banks and a minority of the legal profession being startling examples. Trouble is indeed brewing and sadly for this country a beacon of light, Mr Tony Gregory died today. He will be sadly missed. One of the few remaining genuine representatives of the public interest will leave a further gaping hole in moral democracy.

      Pat Finn

    • Ross O'Mullane says:

      Interesting article, but i think necessity is the mother of invention – and there WILL be reform but only when we really need it. It wouldn’t surprise me if we saw blood on the streets in 2009.

      Joanna Tuffy TD -
      Clientism is part of the problem of our inefficient government system. Sure you should maintain contact with your constituents but your job is to legislate in the Dáil. Wasting time fixing potholes only serves you in the short term.

      Imagine a scenario where a constituent has a right to a service, they should approach the authorities and the authorities should sort out the problem.

      Where it requires a politician to kick an authority up the arse to get anything done is part of the problem, you should be legislating for a more efficient authority in that case.

    • Aengus says:

      We currently have 35 Ministers and Junior Ministers, out of a coalition of just 84 current members.

      I would suggest that we actually need to double, or even treble, the current size of the Dáil. As things stand, the promise of a very lucrative position for TDs who do exactly as they are told means that Government TDs never step out of line, and opposition TDs are simply an irrelevance as far as the Cabinet is concerned (Eamon Gilmore’s comments on Lisbon are just the most recent evidence of this). Decisions are made behind closed Cabinet doors, and sent down to the Dáil to be rubber-stamped under the glare of the Government Whip. Any passing resemblance to actual parliamentary democracy is purely cosmetic. When was the last time that Dáil Éireann actually passed a resolution that was opposed by the Cabinet?

      A Dáil consisting of 500 or 600 members would be far less amenable to being bought-off in this fashion. Expanding the number of TDs needn’t involve an increase in costs – the current budget pays for hundreds of constituency staff, many of whom would make far better representatives than the TDs they currently work for. And many of them are quite familiar with the concept of a 9 to 5 workday, and 4-5 weeks of vacation per year, rather than per session.

      The only reform that the Seanad needs is to return to the model actually described in the Constitution – a body elected to represent interest groups, rather than geographical constituencies. Every voter should be able to decide which of the 5 Seanad “panels” they want to be part of, and cast their vote for candidates standing in that Panel.

      For those who haven’t read the Constitution recently, the 5 panels, apart from the Universities, are:

      i National Language and Culture, Literature, Art, Education and such professional interests as may be defined by law for the purpose of this panel;

      ii Agriculture and allied interests, and Fisheries;

      iii Labour, whether organised or unorganised;

      iv Industry and Commerce, including banking, finance, accountancy, engineering and architecture;

      v Public Administration and social services, including voluntary social activities.

      It has been corrupted to serve as a temporary holding-pen for failed TDs or aspiring County Councillors.

    • Jim says:

      Little recognised fact: we have had 166 TDs since the 1981 election when the population was 3.4m. As it is now estimated at over 4.4m, if we had kept pace with the increase, we would now have 213 TDs, 47 more! This is one economy measure the government never gets credit for.

    • Kieran Magennis says:

      You mentioned regarding the proposed PD constitutional amendments:

      “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.”

      I certainly agree, particularly that ‘being ahead of one’s time’ is not always desirable or beneficial and, when the individual involved is in a powerful position, can sometimes be very damaging or fatal for others in the vicinity.

      This should be remembered by disciples of the most famous of cosmopolitan critics, Conor Cruise O’Brien.

    • Deaglán says:

      Just noticed that my friend and former colleague at The Irish Times, the respected commentator James Downey takes a similar view of the parliamentary gravy-train. See

    • Joanna Tuffy says:


      It is a myth that politicians spend their times getting potholes fixed. And voters don’t take the decision to contact a politician about an issue lightly, and is this not their prerogative?

      I can guarantee you those politicians that are following up the issues their constituents contact them about make better-informed legislators. A legislator should not be working from an ivory tower in a representative democracy.

      And sometimes legislation is changed as a result of voters contacting their elected representative, having failed to achieve success through their dealings with the authorities. An example of this happened over a year ago and got a little but not a lot of media coverage at the time. It followed a visit to an Advice Centre of Pat Rabbitte T.D. by constituents who went to see him about a provision in the law governing inquests into hospital deaths that was operating unfairly in relation to their late child’s death. Because of the constituents raising the problem with him he became convinced the law needed to be changed and he followed up the issue by drafting legislation to make the law fairer. On that occasion the Government agreed with him and his bill was passed. It is not always this easy to get the Government to take on board the legislative proposals of an opposition party but it does happen. And if you are in Government you have much greater opportunity to try and legislate to deal with the problems you come across as a public representative.

      Working for constituents also informs political parties in the policies that put forward at elections.


      At the end of the day we have elections and in our last election the voters voted for the politicians they voted for. If there were more of us and the extra ones were the better ones there still would be a Government that was made up of the parties that either on their own or collectively got the most votes and that Government would have a cabinet.

      There is more cynicism than ever about our politicians and there is a lot of it here, and there is justification for that cynicism. But cynicism won’t make things change or improve. Scepticism where people (and the media) question the received wisdom that informs political decisions and the various party policies is what is needed, and then for voters to be informed by that scepticism when they vote.

    • Dan Sullivan says:

      I was going to mail you about the article once I’m back in harness after the Christmas. I had suggested some ideas not entirely similar to your own but coming from a similar place.


    • Aengus says:

      I’ve just listened to Ms Cooper Flynn on the News at One.

      Joanna Tuffy says that there’s “more cynicism than ever about our politicians”. That’s one word for it, I suppose.

    • paul cadier says:

      “Unrest” is a racing certainty. The depth of this recession has been consistently underestimated by all European governments. Demonstrations have already started in Greece and France.

      Ordinary taxpayers/citizens have been cheated by their élites in banking, commerce and government. Now they are losing their jobs, homes and purchasing power through no fault of their own.

      Alas, Ireland will not escape. The jobs transfered by Dell to Poland have been caused by the Government’s failure to bear down on inflation in Ireland. Dell was literally ” forced out” by rocketing wage bills to a country still outside the eurozone straight-jacket. However, once the Taoiseach of the day committed Ireland to the euro he undertook to match productivity to the European median or suffer capital flight. He also said “goodbye” to the Irish habit of devaluing the punt to match the real level of Irish productivity.

      There are now serious internal stresses between France/Germany; and Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain.(PIGS) One interest rate is unsuitable for both camps. The German fear of inflation has kept the ECB rate higher than is good for Ireland. Germany, being less indebted than the now illegally over-borrowed Irish republic, is worried about inflationary pressures as the continent pulls out of recession. There are serious doubts as to whether some members of the eurozone can sustain membership. For those that think “its all over”already, this is the upcoming challenge, whose name we dare not speak.

    • Ray D says:

      What democracy? Roll on Lisbon 2 where the only answer that the sovereign people are allowed is Yes. Smacks of totalitarianism.

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