Mock Dáil produces a government of national unity - and it only took 90 minutes

Public voting experiment in Dublin explores feasibility of electing a powersharing government

Róisín Shortall TD said the traditional approach of majority rule in the Dáil could be improved upon. Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times

Róisín Shortall TD said the traditional approach of majority rule in the Dáil could be improved upon. Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times

 

Willie O’Dea is talking to the Sinn Féin delegation to see if he can strike a deal to make Micheál Martin taoiseach when in barges Michael Healy-Rae: “What are you going to do about rural broadband?”

In the next room, Fine Gael are offering AAA/PBP a cabinet seat if they support Enda Kenny.

The scene - unlikely as it may seem - was played out at Ballymun Civic Centre on Saturday as part of a public voting experiment, co-hosted by The Irish Times, DCU, the de Borda Institute and CiviQ.

The challenge: Could a random group of citizens do a better job at electing a government than the 32nd Dáil - and within just 90 minutes?

There was one rule: it had to be a powersharing government. Under the role play, members of the Dáil would vote as a whole on how the administration would be formed. Thus, all parties would have a chance to be represented at cabinet - assuming, that is, they could gain cross-party support for their nominations.

Easier said than done as Willie O’Dea - or rather Aileen Molloy, the Dubliner playing his part - was finding out.

“We want Lisa Chambers for Education,” she explained to Anthony Keane, an English teacher from Athlone who had landed the role of Sinn Féin TD Imelda Munster.

“No, we can’t support that,” he replied. “We’re looking for Mary Lou in Education.”

Participants drew lots as which TD they would represent in the talks, and were charged with first selecting cabinet nominees for their party or political grouping, and then trying to shore up support by trading votes.

An advanced form of proportional representation known as the modified Borda count was used. The ballot paper takes the form of a matrix, with candidates on one axis and departmental portfolios on the other.

No party is capable of holding all cabinet seats so cooperation is the name of the game. Groupings must decide which ministry matters to them most.

Speaking of which, Healy-Rae (Seanán Ó Coistín, from Kilcock Co Kildare) is now deep in talks with Fianna Fáil; he is looking for the Environment portfolio but the party is pushing John McGuinness for that one. Would Healy Rae consider another post?

Finding his inner Kerryman, Ó Coistín replies after a judicious pause: “Potentially agriculture”.

It is chaotic and unreal but there’s a serious objective, as Peter Emerson, director of the Belfast-based de Borda Institute explains: “We have this fixation with majority voting. But majority voting is the most inaccurate measure of collective opinion ever invented”.

Emerson has run similar voting simulations in the Balkans, China, the developing world and Northern Ireland, trialing a powersharing exercise in Belfast all of 30 years ago. He points out that elections in Europe tend to produce coalitions where the “tail wags the dog”, namely a smaller party has disproportionate influence.

Powersharing avoids this risk and is also more representative - on paper at least. But would it work in practice?

In a panel discussion afterwards, there was some scepticism expressed. Could voters stomach the idea of certain parties in government? And would a powersharing government take collective responsibility, or leave certain ministers hang out to dry?

DCU political scientist Dr Jane Suiter said parties would run the risk of “losing their identity” under powersharing and this would be one source of resistance to the model.

Different methods of forming a government apply in other countries, including the minority government model that may emerge from the Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil talks, and “there is no one ideal system”, she added.

Róisín Shortall, Social Democrats TD for Dublin North West, agreed that the traditional approach of majority rule could be improved upon, describing the talks at Trinity College Dublin as “potentially very exciting because you will have a majority on the opposition benches; Ministers will have to defend what they are doing, and to my mind that is a healthy thing”.

Ultimately, however, “it’s the policies that matter” and decision-making needs to be transparent and evidenced-based. A system of “objective resource allocation” should be introduced to end the “high level of cronyism” in government, she said.

But for the manner of government to change public expectations would have to change too, noted Irish Times Political Editor Stephen Collins. Citing the horse-trading going on over Waterford hospital in the current negotiations, he said “if decisions are taken on a rational basis it can provoke outrage”.

Journalists have a responsibility here, Collins said, as “the media has a tendency to treat vested interests as though they were absolutely sacrosanct”.

Emerson agreed the minority government currently envisaged - the “Borgen” model - “is a step in the right direction” and certainly better than majority rule. But he would like to see it as “one step forward to all party government”.

For the record, the role play vote produced a “fantasy” cabinet led by Taoiseach Enda Kenny, and featuring four FG ministers, three FF, three SF (Mary Lou got education in the end), two Independents , one SD and one Labour.

The full rundown was as follows:

Enda Kenny (FG) - Taoiseach

Michael Martin (FF) - Finance

Richard Bruton (FG) - Health

Simon Coveney (FG) - Agriculture

Pearse Doherty (SF) - Environment

Frances Fitzgerald (FG) - Justice

Michael Healy-Rae (Ind) - Transport

Brendan Howlin (Lab) - Jobs

Mary Lou McDonald (SF) - Education

Michael McGrath (FF) - Communications

Catherine Murphy (SD) - Social Protection

Michael Noonan (FG) - Public Expenditure

Jim O’Callaghan (FF) - Foreign Affairs

Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin (SF) - Arts

Maureen O’Sullivan (Ind) - Children

How long would this government last? “If they revert to majority voting then it would be gone overnight,” replies Emerson. “But if they continued to work on the principles of a unity government it would be work a lot better than what we have at the moment.”

A full report on the public voting experiment will be published at deborda.org