‘Post-colonial hang-up’ has stymied modern Republic
TDs tell MacGill summer school of need to reform national and local government
Labour deputy Aodhan O Riordain who told the MacGill Summer School that the Republic envisioned by the signatories was based on equality, equal franchise, respect for minorities, religious and civil liberty. Photograph: David Sleator/The Irish Times
Backbench TDs have told the MacGill summer school of the need for thorough reform of both national and local government and a redrawing of Dáil practices.
“But once a certain level of freedom was achieved, the post-colonial hang-up kicked in when searching for a new master, and the Catholic Church was only too willing to step up to the plate,” he said.
Video: MacGill Summer School
Education and health systems were elitist which segregate on the basis of wealth and background, he said.
“Rather than a republican ideal of being educated together, education and schooling remains one of the most socially divisive elements in Irish society.”
“It is hardly controversial to say that in Ireland we also believe that healthcare can be bought and sold, that those with means deserve quicker and better treatment than poorer people.”
A “national obsession” with home ownership has meant that we have little sympathy with those who remain on local authority housing lists, he said.
A central problem was that our democratic institutions reflect those very people who are empowered by separation and segregation, he added.
“Education is the key to equality,” he said. “We have neglected the needs of poorer children, we have ignored the research that pinpoints best practice, and historically we have not invested where it matters.”
“My view is that politics has to move beyond the soundbite model of political discourse that is media friendly but has no depth. We must not be afraid of political ideology, but ideology that is rooted in positivity and practicality.”
Independent TD Catherine Murphy said the political institutions of the Republic are “mediocre at best”.
In common with many addresses to the summer school, she explained how challenged backbenchers are when they attempt to make a difference.
“Decentralising power and radical reform of local government along with separation of executive and legislature is needed,” she said.
“A higher level of political ambition is needed. But we are now driven by cost-cutting.”
She cited Lord William Beveridge in Britain who outlined his vision for a National Health Service in the depths of war in 1942 when there was little hope.
“Revolutions are not about catching up,” she said. “We lack the long view that Beveridge took. He offered hope at a time when people dared not hope. We are now at such a stage.”
There cannot be Dáil reform without local government reform, she said. “We need a stable functioning local government to decentralise to.”
She also questioned if the current county model was the best basis on which to establish reformed local government.
Fine Gael TD Eoghan Murphy detailed the fictional life of a typical backbencher struggling to deal with the whipping system, guillotined Dáil debates on important issues, and attempting to amend bills in the face of opposition from party handlers.
His make-believe account entertained the summer school while making the poignant point that individual Dáil members have little influence and little scope to do anything other than what they are told to do.
“Excessive localism needs to be taken out of the Dáil system and reform carried out to an agreed timetable,” he said. “There is no clear line between the Dáil and the cabinet. It is custom and practice to be subservient to the government. We have the excessive use of guillotines and late publications which are an abuse of process.”
As a backbencher, he described his experience on the back benches as dominated by the “mentality of know your place, lad, and bide your time.”
Former TD Brendan Halligan explained that TDs don’t have the time to read bills and to discuss them with experts to form their own opinions.
“What then is the best model?” he asked.
He suggested two possible innovations - a fixed Dáil term “which removes the sword of Damocles” and the use of outside experts who can be brought in to aid TDs and ministers.
He questioned the copying of the Westminster model of government in which ministers are drawn from the legislature.
“Power should flow from the bottom-up, rather than the monarchical system where power flows down from the top,” he said.