Tammany Hall lives on in feeble reforms

Tue, Jun 26, 2012, 01:00

THE GREAT handbook of Irish machine politics is Plunkitt of Tammany Hall, the reflections of one of the veteran operators of New York politics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The machine was then in its prime but it was regularly irritated by pesky “reformers” campaigning against cronyism and graft.

The Plunkitt in question was George Washington Plunkitt, leader of the Tammany Society, chairman of the elections committee of Tammany Hall, state senator, assemblyman, police magistrate, county supervisor and alderman.

In the handbook, Plunkitt boasts of a particular election in which he was challenged by a reforming association called the Citizens’ Union. But on election day the Citizens’ Union evaporated, mustering just five votes. Why? Because Plunkitt was also secretly running the Citizens’ Union as well. It allowed “reform” a harmless venting while the machine got on with its business. Reformers, Plunkitt reflected, were “mornin’ glories – looked lovely in the mornin’ and withered up in a short time, while the regular machines went on flourishin’ forever, like fine old oaks”.

It would be overly cynical to suggest that the current Government parties have managed to pull off the same trick but they are certainly on track to achieve the same effect. The machine had its own version of the phantom Citizens’ Union – the citizens’ assembly or people’s convention.

Now it is making sure that it will wither like a morning glory while the fine old oaks flourish forever. There may be welcome reforms of things such as lobbying or whistleblowing, but none to the basic structure of a system that serves the people very badly but political machines very well.

At the last general election, no party could credibly present itself without an upfront acknowldgement that the existing political system was broken beyond repair. Fine Gael told us that “Modern Ireland cannot be governed by a system of government originally designed for 19th century Britain. Ireland needs more than piecemeal reform. It needs radical root-and-branch change.”

This radical change was to be both urgent and comprehensive. Within 12 months of the election we were going to have Constitution Day, when we would all vote on a package of constitutional reform, taking in “the executive, the Dáil, the presidency and the judiciary” – in other words the entire system of national government. In reality, of course, all we got was a botched referendum to give Dáil committees full powers of inquiry.

Now, even the smaller gestures towards “root-and-branch reform” are being scaled back to near-invisibility. Consider all the hullabaloo about last week’s revision of Dáil constituencies. It has a veneer of “reform”. It makes a noise that sounds vaguely like change. But the noise is merely that of the machine clanking back into place. The fuss is what magicians call misdirection – the piece of ostentatious business that takes your eye off the real manoeuvre.

That manoeuvre is the ditching of a very specific Fine Gael manifesto promise: “cutting the number of TDs by 20”. This was itself far too timid. There is no reason for a Dáil to have more than 100 members – if, that is, TDs function as legislators and watchdogs rather than as the dispensers of “imaginary patronage” to constituents. But even the promise to cut 20 has now been reduced to eight.

Much worse, though, is what’s happening to the idea of how reform should happen. Going into the last election, the machine recognised that the public would not be impressed by the notion that it would reform itself. It knew citizens were so alienated from the workings of democracy that they wanted to practise a different kind of democracy. Both Fine Gael and Labour therefore promised to entrust the process of reform to citizens themselves.

Labour told us the new government would “ask a people’s convention to draw up a new Constitution setting out the aspirations, the values and the rules that Irish people want to live by now”. Fine Gael pledged “a Citizens’ Assembly . . . composed of up to 100 members who will be chosen from the public”.

It was absolutely clear in both of these proposals that the purpose of the people’s convention or citizens’ assembly would not be to debate a few piecemeal changes. It would be to act as a compelling force for radical change – in Eamon Gilmore’s words, “to collectively design the kind of Republic that meets the needs and aspirations of the Irish people”.

And what are we getting? Firstly, not quite a “citizens’ assembly” – the convention is to have a mix of “ordinary” citizens and serving politicians. Secondly, not an active body urgently designing a new Republic but what Enda Kenny interestingly calls a “forum”. Thirdly, not a comprehensive redesign of the Republic but a public chat about subjects selected in advance by the Government.

That the first two subjects are the possible reduction of the presidential term and the possible reduction of the voting age says everything that needs to be said about the revolutionary scale of the envisaged change. And when the convention does make a proposal, what will happen? “The relevant Ministers will consider recommendations from the convention and report to Government as appropriate” – government-speak for “not very much really”. Plunkitt would be proud to see such great Tammany traditions alive and well.

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