Dual strategy needed of quick changes and long-term renewal plan


RENEWING THE REPUBLIC:The Dáil is too large, too dominated by the larger parties, and too male. These can be easily fixed with no need for constitutional reform

WE LIVE in unprecedented times. Our major institutions are failing: the economy is in a mess with all the indicators trending alarmingly in the wrong direction; the political system is in a state of paralysis with the Fianna Fáil/Green Coalition using sticking plaster to hold itself together; the public service is grinding to a halt as the work-to-rule escalates; the Catholic Church leadership is digging itself ever deeper into the mire.

Unprecedented times certainly, but apparently not quite desperate times. We have yet to see the riots witnessed in Greece over their public sector cutbacks or the equivalent of Iceland’s “kitchenware revolution”. This is the conundrum: it is hard to see how the situation could be worse, and yet despite this, as a people we seem prepared to do little more than merely grumble from the sidelines.

With such relative calm from the citizenry, our political leaders could be forgiven for thinking that things can continue as they are, in the hope that with a fair wind we will at some point emerge from our current mess and all will once again be well with the world – all very reminiscent of de Valera’s dream of an Ireland “whose countryside would be bright with cosy homesteads . . . and the laughter of happy maidens.”

Clearly this is wrong. You only have to read one of the books by the so-called Four Angry Men (Fintan O’Toole, Shane Ross, David McWilliams and Pat Leahy) to get a sense of how bad things really are.

Opinion pieces in leading newspapers (notably in this newspaper in recent weeks) and on websites such as irisheconomy.ie, politicalreform.ie, or irelandafternama.ie all point to the need for change, as do countless hundreds of citizens tweeting the length and breadth of the country on a daily basis.

It may only be a matter of time before some event or series of events takes us to a tipping point. All it needs is a catalyst: the escalating public sector work-to-rule bringing the apparatus of State to a grinding halt; a critical mass of bank foreclosures; economic meltdown in Greece putting our perilous economic situation into sharp relief; the emergence of a populist, far-right leader spouting a politics of hate such as Holland’s Geert Wilders or Australia’s Pauline Hanson.

As we lead into the next general election (one that could yet come sooner than expected) there has never been a more important time for political reform to be placed at the top of the agenda: the leaders of our main political parties need to produce coherent, informed and comprehensive proposals for a fundamental overhaul of our political institutions.

A common set of themes that has emerged from this Irish Times“Renewal” debate are, first, that the reforms must be of such an order as to produce a cultural change in Irish politics; second, that the impetus for reform must involve (if not come from) the citizens; and third, that it is time we started to discuss firm proposals rather than grandiose ideas and generalities.

Fine Gael’s New Politicsdocument marks an important step in this regard, notably the proposals for wide-scale political reform and for the establishment of a citizen assembly modelled on best practice in Canada and the Netherlands to consider other options for change, including possible electoral reform, all culminating in a blunderbuss referendum on Constitution Day.

While some details in the Fine Gael proposals might seem ill-conceived (why the need to reduce the President’s term of office?); or too tame (their proposals on how to strengthen local government or on how many quangos to cull barely scratch the surface); and have some significant gaps (they call for better representation of women but provide no practical measures to achieve this), the party should be applauded for at least providing a template for reform. We can only hope the other parties follow suit.

Reform, when it comes, should involve a dual strategy, one focused on proposals for immediate change, and a second on a longer-term process for large-scale overhaul. To demonstrate real intent, a series of changes should first be proposed that could be implemented with immediate effect and with no need for more endless discussion about constitutional reform or requiring referendums, with all the delays and quagmire that this can produce.

Of the world’s 78 democracies (for which comparative data are available):

  • Ireland has one of the largest parliaments proportionate to population size: officially we have the 26th highest ratio of MPs per vote; of countries of equivalent population size we tie with Lithuania in having the most MPs (beating Costa Rica, Croatia, New Zealand, Norway and Uruguay).
  • Ireland is ranked 46th in terms of proportionality, which means we have fewer small parties, thus allowing the larger parties a dominant role.
  • Most damning of all, Ireland lies in joint 54th position (together with Grenada, Jamaica and Slovenia) in terms of the representation of women in parliament.

Put simply, the Dáil is too large, too dominated by the larger parties, and too male. Each of these can be easily fixed without the need for constitutional reform.

We could slim the Dáil to 120 TDs (which would be a bigger cut than the mere 20 proposed by Fine Gael) while still keeping within the constitutional rules regarding proportions of TDs per voter.

We could increase the proportionality of our system by having more than five TDs per constituency (also allowed by the constitution). We could amend the Electoral Act to require registered parties to nominate a minimum proportion of women candidates in their national totals of candidates (certainly a lot more than the miserly 17 per cent fielded in 2007).

In combination, these three changes could have a significant impact on how the Dáil operates. Fewer TDs covering larger areas would be forced to cut back on the degree of constituency service they provide. New parties in the Dáil with new ideas would help to provoke a shift in how parties operate in the political system (it would also help to strengthen the Dáil in relation to the government). More women TDs would help change how the Dáil operates (note to certain Fine Gael TDs: international experience demonstrates this); the party quota rule would also force the parties to think of matters other than geographical bailiwicks when selecting Dáil candidates.

Undoubtedly there are other changes to be made (the Fine Gael document is replete with good examples), but this list serves to illustrate the sorts of proposals that any one of the leaders of our main parties could add to their manifestos in time for the next election – proposals that could be easily and immediately implemented directly after the election.

But real and sustained change will require a more extensive process of engagement with the change agenda. The second stage in the strategy, therefore, is to establish a process of renewal, and crucially one that engages with and involves the citizens. We have already had plenty of constitutional reviews (three alone in the past decade) and erudite reports by influential bodies like the think-tank Tasc (www.tascnet.ie/). The last thing we need is yet another committee of the Great and Good.

In 1981, newly elected taoiseach Garret FitzGerald launched what was then termed a “constitutional crusade” to promote liberalisation and non-sectarianism. His principal focus was on finding a solution to the Northern Ireland problem, and arguably his initiative was an important step on the road to the Good Friday process.

Now is the moment, 30 years later, for one of today’s party leaders to launch a new constitutional crusade, this time addressing root-and-branch reform of our institutions. Clearly, since this review inevitably will end up with a referendum, it is important that the process is in large part driven by the citizens; otherwise it stands little chance of success. There are international precedents, particularly the citizen assembly model used in parts of Canada and in the Netherlands.

The citizen assembly is a bottom-up process of deliberation by citizens who are given substantial leeway to propose binding reforms. The crucial ingredient is that the political elite hand over real decision-making powers to the citizens: it needs an act of political courage to make a manifesto commitment to establish such a process, and then to actually follow through on it. Fine Gael looks set to do the former (with the proposal to establish a citizen assembly in their first 100 days of office); if so, we can only hope they also do the latter.

An initiative like this will not be cheap, but if, ultimately, we are going to produce an Ireland to truly dream of, we need to allow room for real and radical reforms to emerge. It is time our political leaders gave this matter the urgent attention it requires, and to that end it is incumbent on all of us to press them repeatedly and relentlessly to do so.

David Farrell is professor of politics at the school of politics international relations in University College Dublin. He is a specialist in the study of parties, elections, electoral systems and members of parliament. He is founding co-editor of Party Politics and a co-editor of the Oxford University Press series Comparative Politics

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