Time to prune drastically our puffed-up political system

 

With the economic survival of the State at stake, the political system must shape up, writes TIM PAT COOGAN.

OUR POLITICAL system is not measuring up to the challenge of the current crisis. The issue is the economic survival of the State. Not so long ago the combined worth of a share in each of our two main banks was close on €40. Today two shares would not buy one Irish Times.

This is a depression not a recession. We should be considering the formation of a national government, and one strand of our discussions should not merely be concerned with TDs’ allowances, but of drastically pruning the numbers of TDs senators and councillors who feed from the public trough. Then we could talk about demanding sacrifice from the needy. Perhaps – dream on – even pay cuts for consultants and lawyers, including a voluntary reduction by judges.

Granted we have come to this pass partly through the actions of Leviathan, ie the murderous financial and diplomatic incompetence of Bush and Cheney’s leadership of the US which brought war, the subprime debacle and the destruction of the dollar.

But Lilliput has played its part also. Through domestic corruption, grandiosity and the seeming irrelevance of our governmental and local governmental players to affect what was and is developing. Either of two commentators, George Lee and David McWilliams, did more in recent years to heighten public consciousness about where the economy was heading than did all the vote-catching cabinets of the past decade.

The cynical might say that we did get a strong signal from Brian Cowen (after Bertie’s long goodbye) that the world of the Fianna Fáil/builder/developer alliance was about to collapse. The new Taoiseach’s first significant gesture on taking office last year was to close the Galway Races tent. Nevertheless, so far, the only member of the Oireachtas who has had a demonstrable effect on waste and inefficiency is Shane Ross and he highlighted Fás, not as a senator, but as an investigative journalist making use of the Freedom of Information Act.

It was traditionally said of Ireland that she had enough boards to make her own coffin. Now she has sufficient politicians to run several flourishing undertaking businesses.

Consider the following: there are 166 TDs from whose ranks are chosen the Ceann Comhairle, and Leas Cheann Comhairle, 15 Cabinet members, 20 Junior Ministers and 23 Dáil committees whose chairpersons receive an additional €20,000. The taxpayers pay €10.5 million for the 215 constituency and office staff employed by Ministers to help them stay in power. The 187 staff employed by Junior Ministers cost over €8 million. There are 60 Senators, and 1,627 county and city councillors, borough councillors and town councillors.

Every one of these people has one thing in common: if you examined their well-cushioned bottoms you would not find a single bayonet mark. They deliberately seek office and fight vigorously to keep it.

The Irish Times this week published a table indicating the Oireachtas members’ incomes as of today, before the pension levy comes into effect. It included:

TD: €100,190.68

Senator: €70,133.58

Minister and Ceann Comhairle: €202,678

Minister of State and Leas Cheann Comhairle: €139,266

Taoiseach: €257,024

Tánaiste: €220, 290

The figures do not include the cost of State cars, drivers, and the various allowances such as the infamous “walking around money”. I have heard it said that some backbenchers using the system can earn close enough to €250,000 a year.

The Dáil and Seanad only sit for between 90 and 100 days a year and we pay our taoiseach more than the US president. A minister can draw an index-linked pension for life, after serving for less than five years. On top of this it is a given that the taxpayer has constantly to pay for costly consultants’ reports into matters, such as the affairs of Anglo Irish Bank, that our politicians cannot work out for themselves.

County councillors, who of course draw their rewards on top of the day job, are paid on a scale that ranges from €17,604 for the county and city councils down to €2,401 for the small town councils.

Not much this last, but the total political bill is far too high. I would advocate slashing the present total of TDs to about 100, and addressing the number of ministers, certainly junior ministers and committees, appropriately. We should halve the number of councillors and close the Seanad.

Since the original Senate was abolished, under the 1937 Constitution, the Seanad has long outlived its original purpose (of giving ex-unionists a legislative voice in the new State). It has largely become a rubber- stamping appendage of government – in reality an outlet for political patronage and the Dáil old boy network.

Any role it still possesses as “the additional authoritative voice”, could well be taken over by the Council of State. The threat of a democratic deficit from a reduction in TD numbers could be countered by doubling Dáil sitting time.

The guff about the amount of constituency endeavour politicians are allegedly putting in while Oireachtas Report films all those empty seats is very largely that – guff.

There are of course many hard-working, patriotic and dedicated Dáil deputies. But a high percentage of them are mere lobby fodder who have little or no input into legislation. Their vaunted “service to constituents” consists mainly of ostentatiously writing to ministers and then sending a copy of the predictably negative reply back to the unfortunate voter – activity without movement.

Tim Pat Coogan is an author and former editor of the Irish Press. Breda O’Brien is on leave