We are still waiting to find out who pays for the election of Irish governments
Referendum campaigns have also been at the mercy of the power of big money
Ireland’s political culture – facilitated by our electoral system – places extraordinary and excessive emphasis on constituency work. This has placed a crushing burden on the Oireachtas committee system in the shape of a near complete lack of electoral reward for almost anything committees do. Consequently, we get frequently poorly attended committees, whose work is disproportionately borne by a diligent minority. Current proposals to replace the Seanad with strengthened committees won’t work: they will operate in the absence of any electoral incentive for TDs to make them work. Instead, an already weak committee system – bled of the added value of senators under less electoral pressure than their Dáil colleagues – is likely to disimprove.
Irish democracy is mostly representative. We switch occasionally to direct democracy – but reflect little on when we should do this, simply having referendums when legally required to and not otherwise.
Effectively, we let our courts do the thinking for us. The judicial reaction, particularly in EU matters, has been sporadically revolutionary. The 1987 Crotty ruling (including its super-sensitive test of sovereignty violations) has caused uniquely frequent EU-related referendums here. The Supreme Court position shifted recently. Last October’s Pringle judgments moderated Crotty, instituting a more workable-looking test regarding sovereignty. The difference this will make in practice remains to be seen, however. Less desirably, December’s McCrystal ruling confirmed the 1995 McKenna (No 2) decision, blocking government – but not private – referendum financing.
Since 1995, Irish referendum campaigns have been at the mercy of big money – not always flooded with cash, but always subject to this risk.
Ireland struggles generally to contain the corrosive effect of big money on political life. Our recent economic history testifies to the disastrous effects which inadequate regulation in this area has. Even if the infamous tent at Ballybrit racecourse is long gone, this was in any case merely the physical manifestation of a bigger problem: a regulatory system which permits private wealth to play far too great a role in politics. One particularly blatant failure has been the continued refusal of successive administrations to ensure the absolute minimum standard of complete transparency regarding all political donations. Incredibly, we are still not given full information on who pays for the election of Irish governments.
Dr Gavin Barrett is a senior lecturer in the school of law, University College Dublin