‘Reform’ is not a magic wand that can remake our political culture

Opinion: Clientelism is a feature of Irish political life that has been with us for a very long time

Professor Robert Putnam: designers of new constitutions may be writing on water. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

Professor Robert Putnam: designers of new constitutions may be writing on water. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

Sat, Dec 21, 2013, 00:01

A recurring theme in political debate since the financial crisis put an end to the Celtic Tiger economy has been the demand for political reform. Politicians and pundits alike clamoured for fundamental change as a prerequisite for a healthy democracy and return to a sustainable economy.

In the 2011 general election campaign all of the parties put political reform at the centre of their manifesto commitments. The Coalition came into office with a commitment from Enda Kenny to “changing the way we do politics”.

While a number of improvements in the way the Dáil does its business have been introduced since the election, the rejection by the people of the Government’s proposal to abolish the Seanad put a serious dent in the reform project.

The limited remit of the Constitutional Convention, with the exclusion to date of big issues such as a thorough examination of the electoral system, hasn’t helped either.

Now with encouraging signs that the long-awaited economic recovery is finally under way it is unlikely that radical reform of political institutions will come to the top of the agenda any time soon. That may not be an entirely bad thing, as the notion that political reform is in itself a panacea for the country’s ills was always misplaced. Improving the way our political institutions work is certainly a worthy objective but there is no easy way of transforming the system to ensure the mistakes of the past can never happen again.

Sweeping changes
One of the country’s leading political scientists, John Coakley of UCD, has written a fascinating book on the topic of political reform and his conclusions will come as a surprise to those who believe that sweeping changes in the institutions of the State are vital. For a start he says the development of the European Union and the euro zone over the past two decades have lifted much of the decision-making burden off the Irish State and has lowered the stakes in domestic politics.

“There is a second reason for caution in advocating constitutional reform. It is very tempting to blame ‘the system’ or underlying structures for defects that are more properly attributed to individuals, or to human agency. Campaigns for constitutional reform may end up not only in failing to tackle real issues but in distracting attention from them.

“In large measure, Ireland’s problems may be laid at the door of short-sighted policymakers whether in government or the civil service. Reforming political structures will have at most a limited impact on underlying political cultural values, the transformation of which constitutes a much bigger challenge.”

Fundamental changes in the country’s political culture are not something that can be dictated by elites. The reluctance to change the constitution shows that it runs deep with the mass of the electorate.

The clientelist nature of Irish politics is one of the most frequent criticisms of the system. The blame for clientelism is usually attributed to our single transferable vote system of proportional representation which encourages intense competition for votes between TDs of the same parties in multi-seat constituencies.

Coakely looks at the extraordinarily high level of activism by TDs on behalf of their constituents. He punctures the theory that this is all due to PR by the simple expedient of taking a random example of Dáil questions about Cahirsiveen harbour in Kerry that have cropped up at regular intervals in the Dáil since the foundation of the State.

He then goes back a century to 1912 when the Irish Party MP for South Kerry, John Pius Boland, asked a question in the House of Commons demanding to know why the authorities had “not yet undertaken a boatslip at Cahirsiveen; and whether steps will be taken to complete it before the autumn fishing season opens?”

In 1912 Irish MPs were elected under the straight vote system in single seat constituencies but it seems they were just as susceptible to the concerns of their constituents as their successors of different parties have been under multi-seat PR.

This evidence that clientelism goes back a long way in Irish history demonstrates the enduring nature of the political culture. The chances are that any referendum to abolish multi-seat constituencies would be regarded by the electorate as an attempt by the political elite to concentrate more power in its own hands.

While clientelism certainly has negative aspects for good governance there is also a positive aspect to a political system in which the voters have such direct access to their politicians. For instance the social cohesion that marked the country’s response to the financial crisis and the bailout was a testament to the strength of our democratic institutions.

While some commentators would have preferred to see a robust challenge to the established order, such a development could easily have degenerated into a Greek style response with rioting on the streets and a real erosion of international confidence in the Irish economy.

What happened instead was that the electorate turned away from the dominant party of power, Fianna Fáil, to the long established Opposition parties of Fine Gael and Labour who effectively implemented a budget programme already in place. The result is the exit on schedule from the bailout and the beginnings of an economic recovery.

There is certainly room for continuing reform to make the executive more accountable to the Dáil but the necessity for wholesale change is another matter. Coakely quotes the US political scientist Robert Putnam: “Two centuries of constitution writing around the world warn us . . . that designers of new institutions are often writing on water. Institutional reform does not always alter fundamental patterns of politics.”

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