Rhetoric on political reform masks failure to deliver
Pre-election promises made by Government parties have amounted to little of substance, writes NOEL WHELAN
ONE THING is now apparent. The opportunity for real political reform presented by the economic crisis, the change of government and the shifts in the party system has been wasted.
The political parties, and the Government parties in particular, have managed and manoeuvred their way through the pressure for political change.
Before the election and throughout the campaign itself, all of the parties talked the talk around political reform. They spouted the language of grand redesigns on a range of issues, although whenever they were asked for specifics, they announced only superficial proposals for constitutional and political change.
They sounded radical by talking about citizens’ assemblies and constitutional conventions designed to allow us, as citizens, greater input to any process of reform. It was as if the more grand the tone and tenor of their contributions, the less substance there had to be.
The previous government shuffled through its last 18 months in power without delivering on even the minimalist reforms they had promised. Political reform does not cost a lot of money. Fianna Fáil and Green ministers had an opportunity to enact a lasting and positive legacy of transformative political change. The phrase “it’s the economy, stupid” is often used as an excuse for inaction.
One would have been entitled to hope that a fresh government of Fine Gael and Labour with such a historically large majority would have been much more energetic and ambitious for real improvement in our political system. Having talked in lofty and exalted terms this Government like so many governments before it delayed and then watered down a whole series of political reforms or so-called political reform initiatives.
Speaking in Glenties on Monday the Taoiseach rattled off a checklist of what in reality are small, incremental changes. The long overdue reform in political donations, while weaker than that recommended by tribunals, is welcome. So too are proposals to further protect whistleblowers and to register lobbyists. Strengthening anti-corruption legislation is also a good idea. Cumulatively, however, these changes amount to little more than tinkering at the edges.
The Dáil reform implemented by the Government has been minimalist. It has involved renaming committees and allowing for Friday sittings at which individual TDs can introduce Bills, almost all of which go nowhere.
In a classic delaying tactic in addressing the big issues, the Government has now dispatched the issue of constitutional reform to a very impressive sounding committee indeed – “the constitutional convention”.
It is a convention only in name, and will deal with only peripheral constitutional issues. It will have no binding impact on the pace or nature of any future constitutional change. Speaking in Glenties, Taoiseach Enda Kenny described the convention as an “influential adviser” to the Government. He did so thinking that he was thereby underlining its importance. Sir Humphrey himself could not have scripted or designed such false flattery.