Maurice Hayes calls for strong local government

Former senator addresses 34th MacGill Summer School on political reform

Dr Maurice Hayes called for “the transfer of substantial powers and responsibilities to a reinvigorated local government”. Photograph: Eric Luke / THE IRISH TIMES

Dr Maurice Hayes called for “the transfer of substantial powers and responsibilities to a reinvigorated local government”. Photograph: Eric Luke / THE IRISH TIMES

Mon, Jul 21, 2014, 01:00

Ireland’s political difficulties are compounded by a “lack of engagement” by the electorate and especially by the young, the MacGill Summer School has heard in Co Donegal.

Delivering the annual John Hume lecture, former senator and Stormont civil servant Maurice Hayes outlined a possible route to greater democratic involvement throughout Ireland, North and South.

In its 34th year, the summer school, officially opened by British ambassador Dominick Chilcott, is addressing the question “Without fundamental reform of our politics and institutions can we meet the challenges ahead?” It is also addressing “the loss and legacy” of poet Seamus Heaney.

Dr Hayes described John Hume as one of Ireland’s greatest constitutional politicians, in the mould of Parnell and O’Connell. But he devoted most of his address to political affairs in the Republic in light of the economic crisis.

Capitalising on protest

“The irony is that the Fianna Fáil-Green coalition was eviscerated at the polls for having got the country into a mess, while Fine Gael-Labour have been thrashed for getting us out of it (more or less),” he said.

In a pointed remark against Sinn Féin, Dr Hayes noted the party had capitalised on a protest vote and from “general dissatisfaction and the feeling of being hard done by in a prolonged period of belt-tightening and austerity”. The rise of Sinn Féin was testimony to hard constituency work and “some stellar parliamentary performances in opposition as the Government gave a master class in self-abuse in the weeks before polling”, he said.

“It all goes to show what a trendy political brand can achieve without an economic policy which is endorsed by any serious economist, or a fiscal policy in which the sums actually add up.”

Dr Hayes then detailed what could boost democratic engagement. He called for “the transfer of substantial powers and responsibilities to a reinvigorated local government”.

The State was too centralised he said, and such a move would “take many of the parish pump issues out of the Dáil and leave room for more serious strategic consideration of issues of national importance.

“There needs to be reduction in the power of governments to exercise patronage,” he said, calling for a system of public appointments based more on merit than on political preferment.

He concluded with warm references to Seamus Heaney, quoting his call for partition “to become more like a net on a tennis court, a demarcation allowing for agile give and take”.

Ambassador’s address

Ambassador Chilcott said Heaney’s work reflected “lyrical beauty and ethical depth” and was now studied by all children in Britain born after 1980. Hailing the successful state visit by President Michael D Higgins to Britain in April, he then turned to the questions raised by the Scottish referendum, the political prospects for Northern Ireland and for Britain’s role in the EU.

He expected “the Scots, for most intents and purposes, will become masters in their own house while enjoying the wider economic and security benefits that the Union brings”.

On Northern Ireland, he insisted the British government stood “four square behind the Good Friday agreement’s political institutions”. On the EU, the ambassador detailed Britain’s complex relations with other EU countries and appealed for reform of EU institutions to help underscore British determination to remain in the EU.