Economic fallout may compel political elite to alter behaviour


OPINION:Irish political culture has survived intact over the generations but this recession and its effects are likely to shake it up, writes JOHN COAKLEY.

ECONOMIC CRISES rightly push economists to the forefront when it comes to seeking to devise solutions.

But the roots of such crises are often political, so it is not surprising that we also find calls for political reform matching demands for corrective action in the economy. Given the speed, intensity and (for most people) the unexpected nature of the economic crisis, the pointing of fingers at Ireland’s political institutions has become a predictable feature of public debate.

Not for the first time, critics have argued the case for institutional reform, suggesting mechanisms for improving the quality of TDs (by changing the electoral system), securing the appointment of higher-calibre decision makers (by reforming recruitment procedures), and paring the country’s political institutions back to a more efficient level (by abolishing the Seanad and reducing the size of the Dáil).

Would reforms of this kind succeed? Perhaps some of them would lead to enhancements in the quality of public policy-making, but it is important to understand the limitations on radical institutional reform.

One of the most significant constraints is the nature of Irish political culture. After generations of familiarity with the operation of Irish-style democracy, Irish people have developed particular expectations of what is possible and appropriate. After decades of experience of office, Irish political leaders have reached similar conclusions regarding the best way of conducting political business.

This set of sometimes explicit but normally unspoken attitudes has a big impact on the prospects for institutional change.

Notwithstanding 37 years’ experience of EU institutions and practices, the pervasive influence of British models continues to extend over both parts of the island of Ireland. Three examples may be given.

First, even though the Dáil is elected by proportional representation (PR), we use an extremely unusual form: the single transferable vote. This is in fact, the British form of PR, dating from the late 19th century, but rejected by the British themselves.

It is used in elections to the lower house of parliament in only one other sovereign state, Malta.

As applied in Ireland, though, it is combined with three quite inappropriate procedures. Small constituencies (none returning more than five members since 1948, compromising the principle of proportionality), byelections to fill casual vacancies (entirely incompatible with PR), and, especially in recent years, unending tinkering with constituency boundaries (of a kind unknown in continental Europe, where constituency size, but not shape, is periodically adjusted to ensure suffrage equality. The boundaries themselves are fixed).

Second, the President of Ireland follows the model of the British queen in responding to the demands of her office: her role is overwhelmingly non-political.

This is arguably incompatible with the mechanism by which she is selected – direct vote of the people, a formidably legitimising process. Unlike her counterparts elsewhere, where presidents commonly exceed their constitutionally defined roles, the Irish President has difficulty in asserting any kind of independent political position, a peculiar position for a directly-elected office holder.

Third, there are two powerful beliefs about the formation of the government that have been inherited from Great Britain. The first is that all ministers must be parliamentarians – a principle unknown in the rest of Europe, where ministers who are not members of parliament are commonly appointed. Indeed, in such countries as France, the Netherlands and Norway, members of parliament must resign their seats to take up ministerial office.

This in no way diminishes the power of parliament. The government continues to be answerable to it, and ministers must attend to account for themselves, even if they are not entitled to vote. The second is the notion that the “best” government is a bare majority one: a single-party cabinet if that is realistic; a “minimum winning coalition” – one which excludes any numerically redundant party – if it is not.

In the UK, the second chamber is commonly used to bring in ministers whom the prime minister wants. In October 2008, for example, Peter Mandelson was given a peerage so that as a member of the House of Lords he could be appointed minister.

In Ireland, the Constitution allows two members of the Seanad to be appointed ministers, but this has happened on only two occasions. In 1957, Eamon de Valera appointed senator Seán Moylan as minister for agriculture. And in 1981 Garret FitzGerald appointed senator James Dooge as foreign minister.

Such are the expectations of members of parliamentary parties (especially when in office) that it is extremely difficult for any taoiseach to “squander” political patronage by failing to give preference to TDs in all such appointments.

The notion that a bare majority government is best is also substantially a cultural artefact, and nonetheless debilitating for that. Leaders of large parties tend to seek alliances with small parties (not with other large parties). Ideally, with those just strong enough to contribute the bare number of votes needed for an overall majority.

This makes grand coalition government (widely resorted to elsewhere in Europe, even outside times of crisis) particularly unappealing to political leaders. It is probably the case, indeed, that the closer parties are to each other ideologically, the more difficult such a coalition would be.

Thus, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael would each feel less attracted to each other than to smaller, ideologically distinct parties. The identity of each would be existentially threatened by an alliance, however much sense it might make from a public policy perspective.

Economic shocks are likely to have unpredictable consequences for cultural values. Irish political culture may well have been a conservative reformulation of British-influenced values, but the urgent demands of new economic realities are likely to shake it up.

The independence of the electorate in refusing to defer uncritically to cues from political leaders has been vividly demonstrated, most recently in the first Lisbon referendum.

The challenge for political leaders in the future will be to ensure that they remain connected to their electorates in circumstances where new, painful adjustments to long-established political practices may be called for.

Prof John Coakley is head of the school of politics and international relations at University College Dublin. This article is derived from a paper he presented yesterday to a conference, in Trinity College, Dublin, exploring whether our political institutions need reform in the light of recent political and economic developments.

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