Gregory deal a precursor to destructive localism of politics

 

Although smaller parties in coalition governments have tended to wield influence disproportionate to their size, multi-party governments have generally worked well in Ireland. The 1987-89 minority government is also ad judged to have been a success because of the principal Opposition party's commitment at that time to securing the completion by its successor in office of the economic and financial recovery which it had initiated when in office earlier in the decade.

The governments which in recent decades have proved least able to pursue policies serving the national interest have been two minority governments dependent for survival on support by Independents pursuing local agendas. These were the 1982 minority Fianna Fail government, and, I would judge, the present minority Fianna Fail/PD Government, whose dependence on locally motivated Independents has visibly distorted its resource allocation policies.

It is true that in the more distant past, a number of our governments have owed their election to the support of Independents or small parties, but they nevertheless proved able to operate in the interest of the State as a whole, rather than allowing themselves to become subject to undesirable pressures from those who had helped them into office.

That was true of the Cumann na nGaed heal government of 1927-32 and the Fianna Fail governments of 1932-33, 1937-38, 1943-44 and the Lemass-led Fianna Fail government of 1961-1965. In those cases, strong heads of government were prepared to call an election if at any moment the Independents or smaller parties on whom they relied threatened to blackmail them.

In 1933, 1938 and 1944, de Valera called elections and won overall majorities to free himself from dependence on TDs who did not share his agenda. In 1982, for the first time, post-election horse-trading on the basis of local agendas became a major distorting feature of our electoral system. The deal negotiated by Charles Haughey with Tony Gregory set a pattern which was followed 15 years later by Bertie Ahern.

I have to accept that because of my concern about the possible dangers to the State which could be involved in the emergence of a Haughey government supported by what was then Official Sinn Fein, I attempted to compete for Tony Gregory's support with an offer of an alternative local package for his constituency. In retrospect, even in that exceptional situation, that was a mistake - even though given the unique poverty of the area he represented, Tony Gregory's case for priority to be given to his constituency had considerable objective merit.

Since that time, the destructive localism of Irish politics has intensified. The packages of special measures to benefit four constituencies represented by pro-Government Independents, which were outlined in The Irish Times last week, demonstrate unequivocally the scale of the distortions in public policy priorities which now prevails.

This is not a criticism of the four TDs involved. They all stood on local policy platforms and were elected by voters motivated by local interests: it is scarcely surprising that they then set out to use the leverage of their votes to achieve benefits for their localities. They would no doubt argue that if they had not taken advantage of their post-electoral position, they would have betrayed those who had voted for them.

However, from the point of view of the common good of the State as a whole, the interests of which national parties are elected to serve, the consequences of this Government dependence on Independents have been deplorable. National resources, provided by the taxpayers of the State as a whole, have been deployed in a highly skewed manner without regard to any assessment of where needs are greatest. This is all the more objectionable because in contrast to earlier periods the Government now has available to it the necessary technical capacity to assess objectively economic and social priorities in resource allocation.

The increasingly distorting impact of localism on national government has been equally evident in the disgraceful way in which Ministers have set out to benefit themselves personally by shifting to their own constituencies chunks of the departments temporarily allocated to their care. This is a clear abuse of political power for personal advantage.

Against that disturbing background, one can only be suspicious of the striking contrast between the apparent urgency with which the Government is now pursuing further decentralisation and the extraordinary two-year delay it has proposed for the completion of the national spatial planning project, which is designed to provide a rational basis for this decentralisation process.

The distorting effect of localism on national politics extends to the formation of national governments, because voters have come to expect that Cabinet members will individually abuse their role as collectively responsible trustees of the national interest to enhance their personal vote in their constituency. Outside Dublin, membership of government is no longer seen in national but rather in local terms.

Regardless of the personal capacity of their local deputy belonging to parties in government, voters want to see him or her in cabinet, or at least as a junior minister. There are expectations that such a position will then be used to secure benefits for that constituency at the expense of others.

This reflects the persistence of what is in reality a primitive form of tribalism, which is totally at variance with the concept of the State as it has evolved in Europe over many centuries. In defence of such malpractices, it may be said that some departures from the highest standards of public service at the national level are inevitable in the rough and tumble of democratic politics. For a politician, balancing the duty to do the right - but often unpopular - thing against the danger of thereby reducing the chance of being re-elected and thus being unable to do anything at all, is what makes politics one of the most morally demanding of all careers.

A politician who is unwilling to compromise on some issues with a view to reelection is unlikely to achieve much in what is bound to be a short career, but one who loses sight of the purpose of politics - to serve the public interest - by devoting all his or her energy to re-election would be better occupied pursuing some other career.

We have seen financial abuses creep into some corners of the political system in recent decades. By the time the tribunals have done their job, and perhaps the courts also, I believe we will once again have financially honest politics. I am less sure about other abuses, such as the growing propensity of parties to cave in to ever-more voracious local pressures, and Ministers' willingness to abuse their power increasingly for their own political benefit. Within the political system, I see no sign of any recognition of the dangers these negative trends represent or of any willingness to confront their growth.

At a time when public loss of confidence in party politics is making it likely that Independents and small parties which have no experience of government will play a larger part in the next Dail, this unwillingness to recognise any need to bring under control the erosion of the public interest by local and sectional pressures is dangerous.