Little sign of crisis among our nation's precious politicians

 

OPINION:An Bord Snip should turn its attention to the Dáil: overstaffed with TDs who work pathetically inadequate hours, writes TIM PAT COOGAN

CANDIDLY, GIVEN the scale of the crisis, Brian Cowen’s recent paying off of five Ministers of State had all the significance of a ram’s defecation in a deer park.

Nevertheless the gesture has established the principle that I first argued for in these columns last February: reform of our system of government is necessary and doable.

Understandably, as unemployment mounts, public outrage has focused on politicians’ lavish pay, expenses and Mugabe-like trappings such as the fleets of taxpayer-funded Mercedes, their Garda drivers and the squadron of Air Corps pilots on standby to fly them about in taxpayer-funded jets and helicopters.

That debate should continue. We have heard more words in a few days from disgruntled Fianna Fáil politicians objecting to their salaries being cut, or their ministries lost, than we got over the Galway tent/tribunal years from the combined ranks on both sides of the Dáil chamber on the risks of a property bubble. The Irish electorate have for too long tolerated the stroke-pulling, nods-and-winks culture of government by child or grandchild of former deputies.

Parliaments, like businesses, rarely flourish under the tutelage of the third generation. We are witnessing the greatest disconnect between the governed and those who govern that I have witnessed in more than 50 years of studying the Irish political system. However, though an election could bring change and an alleviation of dangerous pressures, the issue of system reform does and will remain.

Ironically, it was one of those disgruntled Fianna Fáil TDs, Noel O’Flynn, who may well prove to be the political turkey who voted for Christmas. He said that as TDs were paid like Civil Service principal officers they should be treated equally with them, not singled out for special cuts.

Leaving aside what this tells us about O’Flynn’s attitude to the giving of example and leadership, we should take him at his word and extend to the politicians that which is being done for the Civil Service – scrutiny by An Bord Snip with a view to cutting the number of Dáil deputies, perhaps by as many as 60. Certainly, our population does not require 166 TDs. Given the size of the UK’s population, there could well be something in the region of 2,500 MPs at Westminster if they followed our example.

In the wake of such serious change, which – like the measures proposed below – would have to be put to the people by way of constitutional referendum, I would advocate a far greater use of referendums generally. Such democratic exercises provide citizens with a direct input into national policy. I would also advocate that a Bord Snip-type committee would remain in existence – outside Dáil committee clutches, as the Dáil’s efforts at reforming itself are notoriously inefficient.

This committee would monitor anomalies. Any proposals on increasing, reducing, or otherwise altering our governmental systems would be submitted to the people by referendum, at, at least, inter-censal interludes when population changes would have been thoroughly assessed.

To prevent any fall-off in democratic accountability, and because it would be a healthy thing in itself, we should also safeguard and improve the public’s right to know by vastly improving the workings of the Freedom of Information Act, by providing the necessary Civil Service back-up and by removing the charges for using the Act.

We should also at least double the amount of time devoted to Dáil sittings. Ninety-five days or so a year is a pathetic apology for proper parliamentary attendance. TDs make much of their role as representatives but they have another, rarely talked about, equally vital duty. They are legislators, supposedly enacting the laws of our Republic.

In reality however, how much input does a TD, or even a minister, have into legislative proposals drafted by civil servants which come before the Dáil? How often do they take the Green or White Papers out of the boots of their cars? How many of the politicians’ proposed amendments are accepted by the civil servants’ drafting committees?

More Dáil time would allow more use of Dáil committees. These need to be further strengthened and resourced but by the provision of research facilities – not, as now, by giving politicians additional pay and expenses.

The left hand of Government does not appear to know what the right hand is doing. The e-voting saga was a financial debacle. But what about the payment of some €30 million for agricultural land at Thornton Hall, outside Swords in Co Dublin, as a site for a prison when there are seemingly not enough gardaí to control the streets of Limerick?

The complexities of legislation affecting the newer issues thrown up by the communications explosion, climate change, a growing Europe and shrinking world resources cannot be adequately dealt with by so-called legislators whose main interest lies in parish-pump politics, designed to get themselves re-elected.

The Seanad should be abolished. It has outlived the purpose of the original Senate, that of providing southern unionists with a voice at the inception of the State. Today’s Seanad has no real powers and has in fact become an appendix to the body politic, of even less relevance than a human appendix. It is to the Council of State, not to it, that the President turns for advice on legislation.

If, after the Seanad went, it was ever felt that an alternative authoritative voice was required, the council is there to be called on. But the fact is that 60 Senators draw €70,000 salaries from it, and there is also the issue of the civil servants employed to attend on senatorial needs.

These would be far more usefully employed in utilising the Freedom of Information Act, as I have suggested earlier.

And finally, to the land of Lawlor and Dunlop – local government. There are 1,627 county and city councillors, borough councillors and town councillors whose pay ranges from €17,000 to €6,000 annually, but they also get expenses.

An illustration of the value of the Freedom of Information Act was sent to me after my February article appeared. It contained figures obtained under the Act which show that last year, in Mayo alone, the 31 members of Mayo County Council were paid an average of €32,000 each in salary and expenses.

For one gentleman this was a reduction in income. Previously he had drawn over €60,000 in one year. In Mayo! But, God help us, reflect on the fact that Ballina and Castlebar town councillors also get paid, though at a lesser rate. It gives one a background against which to contemplate all the other county councils and the big city councils.

We could do without half of these people.


Tim Pat Coogan is an author and historian and a former editor of The Irish Press newspaper

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