Informed debate, not wild charges, required for proper approach to political reform

Sense of national self-loathing that permeated some summer school speeches is a little worrying


The silly season is in full swing with “summer-school speak” and “wild rantings”, to use the colourful terminology of former Fianna Fáil deputy leader Mary O’Rourke, filling acres of newsprint and hours of air time.

Irish parliamentary democracy and its institutions have been dismissed by prominent pundits as representing nothing less than “a failed state”, “a perversion of the human rights ideals of 1916” dominated by “unaccountable elites”.

While exaggeration is allowable and even necessary to get attention in the lazy days of summer, the sense of national self-loathing that permeated some of the summer school contributions this year was a bit worrying.

Of course our democracy is far from perfect and needs reform on a number of fronts. But the unremitting denigration of every single institution of State can be corrosive and, ultimately, destructive of democracy itself.

A theme running through most of the criticism was a contempt for almost all elected representatives and thus for the electorate itself. If our TDs can be dismissed as “poltroons” then the voters who elect them are clearly no better or are, at best, in the grip of “false consciousness”.

There is a clear frustration among some intellectuals that in the face of the recent economic and financial storm the Irish electorate chose to stick with the old reliables, Fine Gael, the Labour Party and even Fianna Fáil rather than embracing some new form of politics.

‘Elections belong to the people’
In response it is worth quoting one of the most inspirational political leaders of the past 200 years, Abraham Lincoln, who remarked: “Elections belong to the people. It’s their decision. If they decide to turn their back on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters.”

At present the Irish electorate is still sitting on the blisters of the boom years which arose as a direct result of its weakness for populist politicians and their easy solutions. Hopefully, voters will have drawn some lessons from the experience but, ultimately, the choice is theirs.

One way of trying to minimise the danger of a return to irresponsibility would be a genuine programme of political reform. Despite all the promises made in opposition, the performance of the Coalition on this issue has to date been deeply disappointing.

Most of the issues referred to the constitutional convention are not central to a real reform agenda. And some of them, such as the reduction in the voting age, look like trivial publicity stunts.

The dilemma facing any government is that genuine reform will inevitably involve a diminution of its own power and make the decision-making process messier and more protracted. Given the range of serious problems facing the country, the temptation is to postpone reform while ploughing ahead with the task of getting the economy back in order.

However, failure to really reform the Dáil so that all TDs can participate in decision-making will simply foster the dominance of the clientelist-type politics that has got the country into a mess in the first place.

A really hard look at the electoral system and an open debate about the pros and cons of multiseat proportional representation is also required. The public would be wary about changing the system, as discussion at the constitutional convention showed. But a robust debate on the issue could focus minds on what people really expect of their politicians.

Informed debate about the kind of reforms required in the public service and the legal system – to make them more responsive to a changing society – would be more helpful than the simplistic denigration of these institutions that feature in much of current commentary.

The bottom line is that since its foundation, the State, far from having failed, has actually proved enormously resilient. We are one of the oldest continuous democracies in the world and, while that has a lot to do with geography, the commitment of ordinary people to basic decent values should not be underestimated.

In recent decades the State has withstood two potential threats that could have overwhelmed it. The first was the terrorist campaign of the IRA which attempted to harness national pride for an evil purpose. The vast majority of the Irish people and their politicians showed great maturity in turning their backs on emotional appeals to instinctive nationalism.

More recently, the financial crisis that marked the end of the boom could have led to a destructive cycle of protest and economic collapse that would have set the State back decades. Many of the most prominent critics of Irish society urged precisely that kind of response.

Sovereign debt default
However, the electorate and the political system resisted the temptation to go down the road of sovereign debt default – and the negative consequences that would inevitably have ensued.

The result is that the State has gradually pulled itself out of the mire. When viewed on an international scale Ireland is not doing too badly. The most recent United Nations human development index, which measures a range of economic and social indicators, rates Ireland as seventh out of 186 countries in the world.

Far from being a failed State we are a highly successful modern country with a standard of living that would be envied by most people on the planet. That doesn’t mean there are grounds from complacency. The close shave with disaster exposed the need for serious self-analysis, but that is very different from the kind of destructive criticism that displays contempt for democracy itself.

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