Fintan O’Toole: A five point programme to create a real Irish republic

Can the business of forming a government actually be infused with reminders of what we wanted an independent government for?

It would not be as dramatic as another Rising, but it would make those words on the tattered green flag - Irish Republic - more than a broken dream.

It would not be as dramatic as another Rising, but it would make those words on the tattered green flag - Irish Republic - more than a broken dream.

 

In all probability, we are facing the political equivalent of one of those Depression-era dance marathons. The choreography will be more Lanigan’s Ball than Strictly Come Dancing. But before the final dance-off, we have the strange co-incidence of the commemorations of the Easter Rising. Outside the Leinster House dancehall, there will be evocations of big words – nation, republic, equality. The question is whether these are to be parallel universes – noble thoughts in one dimension, machinations and manoeuverings in the other. Can the business of forming a government actually be infused with reminders of what we wanted an independent government for?

What we saw in the election was the breakdown of an imaginary consensus. The Government parties went into it believing very strongly that there was a broad consensus in Irish society: austerity worked, the crisis is over and it’s all about keeping the show on the road. They were, of course, wrong. But it’s equally true that there is no clear alternative. There are values – fairness, equality, decency – that were strongly endorsed by a large majority of the electorate. But how do we translate those values into things that are achievable in the next five years? I think there are five principles around which a new consensus could emerge. And they could give some meaning to all the talk we’re about to hear of “the republic”.

* The first is progressive budgets. It may seem a rather basic idea that budgets in a republican democracy should redistribute resources from the best-off to the worst-off. But the great failure of the outgoing government is that it didn’t manage to do this even once in five attempts. Every party should sign up, not just to an absolute commitment to progressive budgeting, but to the mechanisms of open budgeting, with independent prior assessment of the social impacts.

* The second is giving absolute priority to fixing what is by far the worst legacy of the austerity years: the near doubling of child poverty. Making children pay for the crisis was morally obnoxious, utterly anti-republican and (given the huge long-term costs of child poverty) fiscally reckless. There are really good, practical, evidence-based ways of eliminating the worst aspects of child poverty in five years. But they need to be implemented consistently and coherently. Again, the whole Dáil needs to commit itself to ensuring that any new government does this.

* The third is real democratic reform. It is heartening that reform of the Dáil itself, including an independent ceann comhairle and an end to the guillotining of legislation – is on the agenda. But democratic reform is much wider. It means mechanisms for genuine accountability at all levels of power. It means the abolition of the unconstitutional Economic Management Council – which, incidentally, gave the same genius advisers who just ran the worst election campaign in the history of the State more influence than members of the Cabinet. Above all, it means a real and radical shift to local democracy. The incentive to do this is that water and property taxes will only be depoliticised when they are funding local services that citizens feel they own and control.

* The fourth is an urgent national housing strategy. It is perfectly possible to fund a large-scale programme of social housing development within the current fiscal parameters. But this is a national emergency and it must be treated as such. There is a need for a powerful public housing agency with the means to wrest control of development away from private developers. If this means a referendum to finally implement the Kenny report of 1974, giving local authorities the power to purchase building land without paying bonanza prices, get it done.

* The fifth is the development of an agreed direction for the health service. It is by now obvious that sick people will continue to experience terrible conditions so long as the health system is incoherent, grossly unequal and dominated by short-term incentives and interests. The outgoing government set a direction and then abandoned it, but it is not unique in its inability to sustain a long-term vision for health. The whole area is crying out for a strategy with cross-party agreement that will not change when the government does. The Dáil should commit itself to a concrete process for establishing this consensus.

These five principles are actually quite modest and I’ve deliberately framed them to be so. But they would actually create a place that looks, in five years time, a hell of a lot more like a republic than what we’ve currently got. And the Dáil could make itself both potent and relevant if all its members used the current hiatus to formally commit themselves to them. Imagine TDs as the people’s representatives actually saying – this is what we want the government to do. And then saying to the party leaders – now go and create a government that has the commitment and the energy and the skill to go and do it. It would not be as dramatic as another Rising, but it would make those words on the tattered green flag – Irish Republic – more than a broken dream.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.