Are voters hungry for radical reform?


OPINION:Flaws in Irish political culture have been starkly revealed but we are deeply attached to some of its peculiarities, writes MARY C MURPHY

THERE IS little public or political acknowledgment that serious changes to Ireland’s political system are now required. In the absence of public agitation and support for radical change, there is little incentive for politicians to reform their own affairs.

Politicians have proven themselves capable of making difficult and unpopular economic decisions in recent times. Where the Taoiseach and his parliamentary colleagues have disappointed most profoundly, however, is in their failure to acknowledge the serious flaws and failings of the political system within which they work.

There have been numerous examples of political weakness in recent months. The most significant and worrying has been the inability of the political system to either adequately display accountability itself or to extract it from others.

The failure of the Oireachtas, for example, to compel individuals to appear before parliamentary committees has graphically underlined the impotency of the institution.

Such fundamental failings demand change. The reality is, however, that until such time as voters call loudly and forcefully for change, politicians are unlikely to initiate serious reform.

In recent weeks, the public has called for a reduction in the number of Ministers of State and has expressed dismay at the pay and expenses enjoyed by politicians. The Government responded.

Limited and tokenistic a response it may have been, but there is no denying that some welcome change resulted.

However, criticism of the Irish political system which is focused on numbers is both narrow and misguided. If the Irish political system is to be meaningfully reformed, it demands more than simply tinkering at the edges of what are in reality deep-seated institutional and cultural problems.

Other contributors to this newspaper have called for wide-ranging changes. Proposals for reform include a new electoral system, the abolition of Seanad Éireann, a reduction in the size of Dáil Éireann and a strengthening of parliamentary committees.

If implemented, many of these changes would pose serious challenges to the traditional character and culture of Irish political life. Some would require public approval via referendum. There is no guarantee, however, that voters would necessarily support changes of this magnitude. With respect to changing the electoral system, political scientists differ as to what the potential impact might be. Brokerage existed before proportional representation and the single transferable vote and it is unlikely that a new electoral system will eliminate brokerage, either quickly or completely.

In any case, for many constituents, there are very real benefits in having close proximity and easy accessibility to their elected representatives. Reducing the number of TDs and abolishing Seanad Éireann would further undermine the direct link between voters and their public representatives. Are Irish voters ready to change the dynamics of this relationship?

Strengthening parliamentary committees would also confront key features of the Irish political system. Such changes would be to the benefit of the Oireachtas and to the detriment of government. Ireland has traditionally enjoyed a political system based on strong government and weaker parliament. Rebalancing that relationship may improve the quality of legislation and the pursuit of greater accountability; however, it may simultaneously produce a political system which is more complex, more divisive and slower to react. Here again such a trade-off may not necessarily appeal to voters.

The limitations and inadequacies of the Irish political system are more apparent than ever. That said, the means to resolving them may not be entirely compatible with public opinion. The strength of voter attachment to many of the characteristics of Ireland’s political system should not be underestimated.

Politicians do not readily embrace radical change (even when the archaic nature of the system within which they work has been exposed). What is necessary to push politicians in the direction of change is either a resounding public mandate – immediately after a large election victory, for example – or ominous levels of public dissatisfaction and discontent. With respect to any reform of Ireland’s political system, there is no evidence to suggest that the necessary intensity of feeling exists among Irish voters today.

Dr Mary C Murphy is a lecturer in politics with the department of government at University College Cork. She is currently a visiting research fellow at the Centre for Canadian-Irish Studies, Concordia University, Montreal, Canada