Does Ireland need a second Republic? France, the home of all things Republican, has had five of them. When the French feel that the structure of their Republic is no longer suited to a changing world, they change their structure. Looking at the governance challenges facing Ireland, from planning to policing, from local government to national strategy, is it time to consider re-imagining our Republic? Increasing the number of TDs doesn’t feel like reform; it looks like packing an already-packed deck. As we anticipate momentous constitutional challenges, such as a border poll, is it time to get our 26-county Republic in shape for what comes next?
Can we expect a constitution designed for Ireland in the 1930s is still suitable to address the economic and political trials ahead? We are a long way from de Valera’s Ireland.
In 1958, the French Fourth Republic, the version of the Republic that had ruled following the second World War, had run its course. The First Republic was the revolutionary version and, as the country developed and its challenges altered, the French changed their system to adapt to the new realities. The Fourth Republic was based on proportional representation with a ceremonial President, not unlike our own. The country was dogged by various unstable coalitions, none lasting a full term. More importantly, the country was fighting a colonial war in Algeria with over one million French colonists (the so-called “pieds noirs”) urging Paris not to abandon them. The French army declared martial law in Algiers and the civilian government, bickering, appeared paralysed. France needed a saviour. In the wings Charles de Gaulle, France’s wartime leader, waited in retirement for the call from Paris.
When the time came, de Gaulle stepped up. He conceived most of the new Fifth Republic’s constitution, enshrining the new “beefed-up” role of a powerful executive president who could make the big decisions. If ever there was a man who could write himself into the script, it was Charles de Gaulle. The French presidential system, the cornerstone of the Fifth Republic, has its roots in the Napoleonic desire in France to have a “man of destiny” running the show. Napoleon set the standard for French rulers, and his fingerprints are all over the Fifth Republic. (The enduring fascination with Napoleon is not limited to France as we see this week with the release of Ridley Scott’s Hollywood biopic, one of many already produced.)
Democratic countries can adapt. The big man or woman model is rooted in the political culture of France and might not be what we want. Our issue is not whether we need to lurch to a presidential system like France or America, although both systems have merits. Our question for the decades ahead is whether the system of governance we have would be the one we would put in place tomorrow, given a blank sheet and the opportunity to start again?
This week many citizens wondered how we got to the situation where the Garda were not able to impose authority on the streets of the capital. We heard politicians interrogated by the media, as if they have the power to simply pick up the phone and make things happen. But they don’t. They are hostage to the bureaucracy and layers of management that prevent immediate action on the streets. But is that what we want? Do we want emasculated politicians unable to react on serious issues of national concern? Or do we want executive powers in specific areas to get things done?
Take housing. Citizens look at the housing problem and wonder why the politicians, who know that their futures are dependent on action, can’t roll out rapid home building as a matter of priority. In the old days, we could understand that there might not be funds available to finance social housing, but now there is lots of cash. So what’s the problem? The problem is that no one agency has executive powers to make things happen. We need to build new towns on greenfield sites or, better still, brownfield sites but this takes coordination, requiring various government departments to come together, such as departments of housing, land agencies, financing agencies, transport, education and so on. They also have to work with private sector builders, land owners and banks. This demands planning and someone making decisions that are acted upon.
This week, we saw that thousands of houses are not being built because of delays in the planning system and that “in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown on average applicants are waiting 85 weeks for a decision compared to 81 across the capital as a whole”. This is ridiculous. It demands that someone takes an executive decision and impose a strict time limit so that no one waits for planning permission for more than about 10 weeks. We could then work back from that target and rearrange the process. Logical and easily understood metrics would demand a timely decision taken by someone with power – and consequences if these targets are not met.
Think about local government in Ireland. There can be no properly functioning local government without a properly functioning local tax base, where the revenues can be raised locally, to pay for local initiatives. Without tax-raising responsibilities, local governments become politically infantilised. If you want to see that problem at a larger level just look up the road to Northern Ireland which operated like a mega local council without tax-raising powers. The buck stops nowhere which is why they can squabble over flags as opposed to sitting down to figure out how to run the place. Every year their emasculation becomes more evident as politics is reduced to sectarian begging bowls, awaiting money from London. This might seem remoe for some citizens of the Republic, but demographic change in the North could mean that it becomes our responsibility within a lifetime.
Consider Dublin, which accounts for half the GDP of Ireland. Can it function properly without a directly elected mayor who has tax-raising and executive powers? Someone who wakes up in the morning, knowing that their job depends on making decisions today that improve the city of Dublin for its residents and workers?
The French Fifth Republic centralised power in an executive president on specific matters. An Irish Second Republic might do the opposite, making local government more powerful, bringing decision and democracy closer to the people. The objective is to more efficiently manage society’s challenges, whatever that takes. Looking forward Ireland’s population is growing rapidly, we have underlying social problems and it is a time of plenty. The problem is not money, it is management. Let’s fix the management.
Let’s talk about a new Republic, the Second Republic.