How inertia became the iron law of Irish politics


Rotten and corrupt government is not the sole cause of Ireland’s repeated economic and political failures. Something else is at play, writes DAN O'BRIEN

IRELAND’S ECONOMY has already contracted more than any other developed country. Even on optimistic assumptions, employment and output will not return to 2007 levels until 2016.

This is the third decade of chronic relative underperformance that Ireland has suffered in 60 years. While the rest of the continent enjoyed rising prosperity in the 1980s, Ireland was mired in slump. In the 1950s, the contrast in performance was greater still.

This record is unique. What explains it?

Rotten and corrupt government is the obvious but wrong answer. Genuinely bad government produces consistent economic underperformance, as countries from Burma to Greece to Zimbabwe show. The spectacular advances of the Celtic Tiger years, many of which were real, could not have taken place if the kind of predatory government that those countries endure had existed in Ireland.

What explains Ireland’s slump-slump-soar-slump record is not bad government, but a governance vacuum; it is not what government gets wrong, but what successive governments have neglected to do. This is to be seen in each of the three periods of chronic economic underperformance suffered since the middle of the 20th century.

After the second World War, the Atlantic democracies took the difficult decision to abandon 1930s protectionism. Uniquely, Ireland did not. It took 10 years of misery for government to act.

Again, in the 1980s, what marked Ireland out from most of its peers was its inability to take action, this time in dealing with its budgetary woes.

The current crisis is deeper in Ireland than elsewhere for the same reasons: inaction during the good years on modernising the management of the public finances; inaction on reining in the rogue bank; and inaction on dealing with the steady and sustained erosion of competitiveness. These failures to act have deepened, respectively, the fiscal, banking and jobs crises beyond those of peer countries.

But it is not only on economic issues that inertia rules. It is in evidence across the spectrum: on the teaching of the Irish language; on energy policy; on planning issues; on a range of foreign policy matters; and much else besides.

On public sector reform, near laboratory conditions exist to see Irish political inertia in action. In 1922, when Ireland and Britain went their separate ways, their administrative structures were identical. Today they are chalk and cheese.

In Britain, inter-departmental strategy units exist so that the cross-cutting aspects of policymaking are not ignored. Fast-track recruitment streams ensure adequate in-house expertise is available. The cabinet office has numerous delivery units to implement policy effectively and counteract the innate caution of civil servants.

British administrative structures have their problems, but they have evolved. In Ireland, change has been glacially slow. Kildare Street and its environs today look more like Whitehall in the middle of the last century. Government departments are silo-ised, rigid, frequently ineffective and more often than not lacking in appropriate human resources. The reason for the absence of reform is not that Irish public sector unions are stronger or cleverer than their counterparts elsewhere, but that the political class has been unwilling to push reform.

To see why inertia is an iron law in Irish politics, one must look first to the country’s 1930s-designed political architecture. Four aspects of the Constitution are near-unique or very unusual. Together they create a chronic anti-change bias.

The first is the voting system. It is used by only one other country in the world and none of the dozens of new democracies to emerge in recent decades has chosen to adopt it. Its hyper-competitiveness and the local focus produces elected representatives who are under-qualified, over-stretched and not incentivised to act as agents of change.

Compounding this problem is the second aspect of the 1937 Constitution that generates inertia: the very unusual insistence that ministers are members of the Oireachtas. As most democracies believe that separating powers is a cornerstone of good governance, their parliamentarians are usually barred from simultaneously holding ministerial office, either by law or by convention.

The benefits of this separation are obvious. It means that ministers devote themselves fully to their ministries – emphatically not the case in Ireland where most ministers spend as much time on near-permanent re-election campaigns in their constituencies as they do formulating and executing policy.

Separating those who sit in parliament from those who sit around the cabinet table also allows prime ministers to recruit beyond a necessarily tiny pool of professional politicians.

In most democracies, people with no links to politics, but with real expertise, management skills and records of achievement are made ministers. Their primary function is to get things done, not get themselves re-elected. In Ireland, appointing non-TDs to ministerial office is looked down upon as “undemocratic” by many. Anyone who believes Ireland’s way is more democratic should observe how politics works in the country’s closest comparable peers where ministers are never MPs: Austria, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland. Delusions of Irish democratic superiority would quickly be dispelled.

The third source of institutional inertia is the power of the judicial branch of government vis-a-vis other branches. In Ireland judges wield as much power as in any country in the world. This is in stark contrast to many other democracies, where a belief in the supremacy of parliament means judges have no powers to strike down legislation.

Since the 1960s, Irish judges have become much more active in questioning laws, and they have not always exercised their powers wisely, as judgments on issues from Ireland’s involvement in the EU, to nursing home charges, to statutory rape laws attest.

Checks on the power of the executive and legislature are vital to protect liberty, but the rise of judicial activism has knocked the balance of powers out of kilter.

The fourth source of inertia is the requirement that any changes to the Constitution be put to referendum.

Apart from Ireland and Switzerland, all other democracies use various forms of a parliamentary super majority because the anti-change bias in referendums creates extreme constitutional rigidity (Switzerland, for instance, was the last democracy to give women the vote and the last to join the UN precisely for this reason).

These four aspects of the Constitution explain much of Ireland’s political paralysis. Inaction had fewer costs in the 1930s when Ireland was an unusually isolated and slow changing European country.

Now it is unusually open and dependent on the wider world. And as that world changes rapidly, it is increasingly clear that inactivity and passivity of government are inconsistent with prosperity and stability. Proactive government is more necessary than ever to recognise opportunities, foresee threats and act so that the former can be taken advantage of and the latter contained.

To create the constitutional structures conducive to proactive government would not involve radical change. On the contrary, it would require deradicalising the 1937 Constitution so that its provisions are more like those of other democracies.

Dan O’Brien is a senior editor at the Economist Intelligence Unit. The issues raised in this article are explored in greater depth in his book Ireland, Europe and the World: Writings on a New Century