Enough of the gombeen politics: it's time for a republican revolution


Undermined on the one hand by Ministers and on the other by clientelism, the Irish parliament is probably the weakest in the democratic world. In an extract from his new book, FINTAN O’TOOLEsets out a programme to fix the country

IRISH PEOPLE believe they live in a parliamentary democracy. Until they grasp the rather obvious fact that they don’t, they have no hope of creating a republican system of government.

The Irish parliament is probably the weakest in the democratic world. The Dáil does not make laws: it passes them. Legislation is almost never initiated by TDs. At best they get to debate the rights and wrongs of legislation proposed by government and perhaps to make some minor amendments. But even these privileges can be taken away whenever a government chooses to do so, usually at the end of a term, when it pushes through all its unfinished business.

Consider a single day’s work: that of July 1st this year, the day after it was announced that Anglo Irish Bank is officially the biggest bank failure in the world. In this one day the Dáil “debated” and “scrutinised” the ratification of the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants; the report and final stages of the Central Bank Reform Bill; the report and final stages of the Planning and Development Bill; and the report and final stages of the Civil Partnership Bill.

This is, by any standards, an impressive range of work. The Stockholm Convention is a very important international environmental treaty. The Central Bank and Planning bills were the key government responses to the anarchy in banking and development that had destroyed the economy. The Civil Partnership Bill was a historic step towards full equality for gay and lesbian citizens. What kind of parliament could possibly deal with all of this momentous matter in a day? Answer: one made of rubber with a large wooden handle coming out its back and the word “Passed” carved backwards on its chest.

All of these crucial issues were debated the way that a juggernaut debates roadkill and scrutinised with the intensity that a dead man fixes on the inside of his coffin lid.

IT NEVER, EVERhappens that a Minister resigns from office because of maladministration in the department that he or she theoretically heads. And yet in law (reinforced as recently as 1997) the Minister isthe department. As the Ombudsman put it in 2001, legally “all acts of the Department and of its officials are the acts of the Minister”. Why does the transparent pretence that the Minister is the flesh-and-blood incarnation of the department survive its own patent absurdity? Because it suits both Ministers and civil servants. It is the perfect shield against accountability. When there is a screw-up the senior civil servants point out that it is the Minister who should answer for it to the Dáil. And the Minister explains to the Dáil that he or she could not possibly have known what was happening in the bowels of the bureaucracy and that it would be absurd to blame the Minister for somebody else’s cock-up. Hence, in fact, nobody is answerable to anyone.

There is a long history of this dodging, but it reached its zenith in 2005 with the unravelling of a particularly egregious blunder. It emerged that the State had been charging elderly people for beds in public nursing homes even though it had no legal power to do so. About €2 billion had been taken unlawfully by the State from vulnerable citizens. Who was responsible? In 2003 the minister for health, Micheál Martin (along with his special advisors and junior ministers), was given a briefing document that disclosed the scandal, but he did nothing. Why? Because, he explained, he did not read the brief.

IF THE DÁILdoes not legislate and cannot hold Ministers to account, what does it do? The one remaining recognisable function of a democratic parliament is to conduct inquiries on issues of public policy and the performance of state institutions.

The Dáil (sometimes jointly with the Senate) does this, but in a pitifully weak way. Its one success, the Public Accounts Committee investigation into the evasion of Dirt tax by the Irish banks, was followed by a legal dismantling of the powers that allowed that investigation to be conducted.

The Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that parliamentary committees could not make adverse findings against citizens. It ruled that the Dáil had “no explicit, implicit or inherent power to conduct an inquiry”.

Any self-respecting parliament would have asked the people to change the Constitution to reverse this decision. The Dáil did nothing. The vast majority of TDs seemed largely indifferent to the ruling. They probably assumed that their voters didn’t give a damn either. And they may have been right: Jim Mitchell, who chaired the successful Dirt inquiry, was rewarded by a grateful electorate with the loss of his seat in the 2002 election.

Our system, then, gives us a parliament that does not hold governments to account, does not create laws, does not have the power to conduct serious investigations and is not representative of the people in terms either of seeking to express their views or of being at all typical of them in class, age or gender. A parliamentary system that is unable to meet any one of these basic requirements is in need of radical reform. A system that fails to meet a single one of them needs to be demolished and entirely rebuilt.

CHANGE IN THEpolitical system has to start with local democracy. But the creation of real local government opens the way to the creation of a real national parliament. It puts the parish pump back where it belongs: in the parish. That in turn forces the Oireachtas to clarify exactly what it is for.

For a start, with local issues handled at local level, the Dáil can be both smaller and more efficient. Exact numbers can be argued over, but it is hard to see why the Dáil needs more than 100 members.

This is especially so if the Senate is to be retained. In its current form, the Senate is an utterly indefensible institution. It bears no relation even to the “vocational” body that is envisaged in the Constitution, representing different professional and social groups. It is so discredited that no one seems to care that a constitutional amendment to reform it slightly by broadening the numbers of third-level educational institutions whose graduates could vote for Senators, passed by referendum in 1979, has not been implemented.

There is, nevertheless, a good case for having a second chamber that allows those other than professional politicians to contribute to the law-making process. Such a chamber should be made up partly of representatives of new local councils and partly of representatives of the social partners and civil-society groups. It should be used, quite consciously, to make politics more representative of the population by having a requirement for gender balance and by reserving places for youth groups and religious and ethnic minorities.

As for the Dáil itself, four sweeping changes are necessary. The first is in the electoral system. The single transferable vote (STV) is arguably the most sophisticated of voting systems and is relatively fair. The problem with the system, though, is that it creates intense competition within political parties. Larger parties will put up multiple candidates, especially in the larger constituencies. We know from bitter experience in Ireland that this contributes hugely to the maintenance of a clientelist culture.

One truism of Irish politics that is not mythical is that it is internal party rivalry that turns politicians into demented ward-heelers. In an Oireachtas survey, TDs themselves reported that for every extra candidate from their party in their constituency, TDs engage in higher proportions of constituency work. It is impossible to break this mentality without ditching the STV system, at least at national level.

For the Dáil the most viable alternative is probably what’s called the additional member system (AMS). The basic idea is simple enough. About half the seats in parliament are elected in a straightforward first-past-the-post system in each constituency. But the citizen has a second vote for the other half. This is a national PR election for candidates on competing (usually party) lists.

Effectively, the national-list seats balance out the disproportional effect of the first-past-the-post vote. The one serious drawback of the system is that it works against independent candidates, who are effectively forced to form groups in order to complete under the list system. (On the other hand, small parties can do well under the system: in Scotland the Greens got 2 per cent of the vote in the 2010 Scottish parliament elections and the same proportion of seats: two.) But this is surely a price worth paying for the considerable benefits of greatly reducing clientelism and creating a new category of national politicians who are not dependent on constituency work.

The second essential change is one that is much easier to implement in this new electoral system: quotas for women. Quotas are at best a necessary evil. Women politicians who have been elected without them tend to resent the idea as potentially devaluing their own achievements; of the current 23 female TDs, 14 are against a quota for female candidates, eight are in favour and one is undecided. But there is absolutely no reason to believe that the grotesque imbalance in political life is going to change of its own accord.

The best way to create quotas is not through complex legislation but through financial penalties. Most of the money on which political parties run comes directly from the State. Under a list system it is far easier for those parties to ensure that their lists (drawn up by the national organisations) are gender- balanced. Parties should get all their current state money if they have a list that is 50 per cent women. They should be docked proportionally as their number of women on the list falls below 50 per cent. Below 30 per cent and they get nothing.

The third big change that has to be made is to give Dáil and Oireachtas committees real powers to conduct inquiries. It says much about the gutlessness of so many TDs that, having gained some respect by conducting its groundbreaking inquiry into the evasion of Dirt by the banks, the Dáil has acquiesced in the impossibility of conducting such an inquiry ever again.

What needs to be established, preferably in the Constitution, is that the Oireachtas has not merely the power but also the duty to conduct inquiries for the purposes of examining the uses to which public money is being put, of holding the government of the day accountable and of scrutinising the implementation of the laws it has passed. Such inquiries by Dáil or Oireachtas committees should have the same powers and privileges as tribunals of inquiry: to compel witnesses to attend, to demand the production of all documents a committee wishes to see and to publish its findings without the risk of being sued.

The fourth crucial change is to end the charade of ministerial “responsibility”. The system whereby Ministers hide behind civil servants who hide behind Ministers and no one is personally responsible for anything is at the heart of the failure of accountability in the administrative and governmental systems.

We have to establish real transparency in the system of government, so that the name of the person who makes a decision is recorded and disclosed. Ministers should be accountable for three things: decisions they actually make, the way they follow up information they are given and the way they supervise the implementation of instructions they give to civil servants. (There are circumstances in which a Minister should be held accountable for not knowing something.) Named officials should be accountable for everything else. They should be able to defend themselves when questioned, if appropriate by pointing to a Minister’s actions or wilful inaction. And they should take the rap when they themselves have screwed up.

THESE FOUR CHANGESwill not of themselves create a parliamentary democracy where none has existed before in Ireland. If voters still want gombeen politics, stroke-pullers and local messengers, they will get them in any conceivable electoral system.

Equally, no parliament will ever transcend that culture unless it has a party system that offers voters real and serious alternatives. Those alternative ideas have to be carried into parliament by people who actually believe in them and are prepared to vote in accordance with those beliefs. Radical change does not guarantee the emergence of a functioning parliamentary democracy. But its absence guarantees the survival of a dysfunctional one.

Can we fix it? Yes we can 30 key steps to take

1Establish a genuine system of local democracy. Introduce a property tax to fund it.

2Transfer the useful functions of quangos to local councils.

3Bring in legally binding national standards for planning and development and give the National Spatial Strategy statutory status.

4Implement the Kenny report of 1974, allowing councils to purchase development land for its existing value plus 25 per cent.

5Establish “deliberative democracy” experiments in every substantial community.

6Severely limit the ability of governments to use the guillotine mechanism to pass legislation that has not been debated in parliament.

7End the fiction that Ministers are responsible for everything that happens in their departments. Make them responsible for decisions they take and for information they ought to know. Make senior civil servants responsible for the decisions they take.

8Restore the right of the Oireachtas to inquire into all activities involving the use of public money.

9Make all appointments to state and public boards open to public competition and subject to Oireachtas scrutiny.

10Reduce the size of the Dáil to 100 members.

11Either make the Seanad representative of civil society, social partners and the new local councils within a short time frame or abolish it.

12Change the Dáil electoral system to the additional-member system.

13Introduce a gender quota of at least 30 per cent, to be enforced by reducing public payments to political parties by the degree to which they fail to introduce gender balance.

14Hand primary schools over to local and democratic ownership and control.

15Replace GDP as the primary measure of progress with a well-being index.

16Radically curtail tax incentives for private pensions and stop putting money into the National Pension Reserve Fund. Use the money to increase the state pension for everyone to 40 per cent of pre-retirement income.

17Switch spending from both social-welfare rent supplements and tax breaks for landlords to the provision of decent social housing.

18Introduce a national system of social health insurance, abolishing the two-tier health system and radically reducing the size of the Health Service Executive.

19Switch more health spending towards community and preventive services. Implement the primary-care strategy.

20Charge university fees to those who can afford them. Increase grants for those who are currently excluded.

21Expand adult and continuing education. Consider the idea of individual “education funds” attaching equally to each citizen.

22Identify children at risk of failure from an early age and intervene immediately with personal and family supports.

23Make the pay of those at the top a fixed percentage of that of those at the bottom.

24Bring taxes up to average European levels. Reduce tax breaks to average EU levels, saving more than €5 billion.

25Limit to three the number of directorships of public companies that any one individual can hold at the same time.

26Give coherent legislative protection to bona-fide whistleblowers.

27Restore the Freedom of Information Act to its former status.

28Create a register of lobbyists and publish records of all meetings between lobbyists, ministers and public officials.

29Review company law to end impunity for white-collar crime.

30Ban all significant private donations to political parties and force all registered parties to publish full annual accounts.

Enough Is Enough