How to break the shackles of a failed political system


WHETHER A new government and the next Dáil give the people a reformed and renewed State will depend very much on how politicians perceive the demands of the people in the now short lead-in to the general election. We are at a critical juncture in the political process, writes JOHN ROGERS

Commitments made by politicians on issues of political reform will be of critical importance to what is ultimately delivered by way of reform; a factor in this may be the willingness of some outgoing Dáil members to speak openly of the need for reform and to voice opinion on how it might be designed.

Labour and Fine Gael have shown us what they perceive to be a response to a popular demand for change. They see the Seanad as having failed and want it abolished. Many have pointed out that Seanad reform has been the subject of a dozen official reports.

The truth probably is that none of the political parties wanted real reform of the Seanad because real reform inevitably would mean Seanad electoral reform.

Of course there could not be such reform without the agreement of the Seanad. Senators elected from five panels had and continue to have a captive small electorate who vote on lines of party loyalty and personal interest. What Senator would agree to his party disturbing such a cosy arrangement?

It is not just the Senators who sidelined Seanad electoral reform. The political party leadership and managers had no interest in creating a more democratically accountable Seanad because this would potentially upset the dominance of the Government of the day over the Dáil and Seanad.

So the underlying establishment assumption was that, as with the Dáil, the Seanad would be dominated by party political considerations and the need for stable government.

All of this is obvious to most of us. What we need to keep in mind is that the existing political elite is not going to vote for its own extinction.

You might say “that is so unless they are forced to do so by the electorate”. But although a campaign in the run-in to the election will focus to some extent on reform and although there may be a mandate for reform given to the new Dáil and government, it would be foolish for the electorate to assume that anything will come of it.

For one thing, any significant electoral reform would have to have the support of the Dáil and Seanad. Will candidates in the upcoming Seanad election canvas for votes on the basis that they will vote for their own extinction?

At this stage Labour and Fine Gael have told us that the Seanad would be reformed by its abolition if the people agree to that in a referendum. There is nothing so clearcut on offer in terms of Dáil reform. There has been some talk of Dáil electoral reform but nothing in the way of a concrete proposal from either of the parties likely to form the next government.

The reason for this is obvious. Party leaders are naturally slow to signal the extinction of some of their potential allies in the new Dáil. Any proposal for Dáil electoral reform will be a matter to be considered and decided by the next Dáil and Seanad (if the latter has not been abolished). So Dáil electoral reform will become the subject of personal and party political positioning by TDs and Senators. The likely outcome of this is political gridlock and no Dáil electoral reform.

So the people are political prisoners of a failed political system with occupiers of the seats of power unable, unwilling or refusing to engage in meaningful reform.

What can be done?

In the lead-in to the election, it is vital the electorate assert themselves in an articulate and determined thrust for far-reaching Dáil electoral reform that will break the back of the localism and clientelism that has played a large part in compromising our independence, ruining our economy and bringing the political system into disrepute. To do this, the electorate must coalesce around proposals for electoral reform and demand these be adopted by asking any candidate that seeks their vote for assurance he/she will support it.

Would people support the following:

  • the Dáil to comprise of no more than 150 deputies, and this to be unalterable save by constitutional change;
  • 100 of these deputies to be elected from 20 five-seat constituencies using proportional representation;
  • the remaining 50 deputies to be elected by the entire national electorate by proportional representation from seven panels with seats as follows:

1. future planning, security and social development: eight seats

2. environment and sustainable development: seven seats

3. natural resources and agriculture: seven seats

4. industry, science and technology: seven seats

5. administrative, accountability, labour and business: seven seats

6. education and culture: seven seats

7. EU and international relations: seven seats

As a further measure of reform require that the taoiseach, the minister for finance and at least three other members of our 15-member cabinet should be drawn from this cadre of 50 nationally-elected deputies.

Why this system?

It acknowledges our desire to have locally-elected deputies representing us at national level while at the same time ensuring there is in the Oireachtas a large group of deputies who will be forced to have their eye on the greater national interest at all times.

It significantly magnifies each citizen’s participation in the national electoral process; each elector will have eight ballot papers to mark on election day. The elector will vote for his/her local parliamentary representative and also participate in electing nationally-elected deputies from the seven panels. The panel system would have the effect of focusing informed debate on important national issues.

All the people would participate directly in nominating at least five members of the cabinet. This would make for direct accountability by government to the general population in the electoral process.

This is intended to be a radical far-reaching proposal that goes some way to meet the crises that confront us. Please consider it and convey your views on it to election candidates and to the political parties. Ask – why not?

Remember there will be three elections this year, a Dáil election, a Seanad election and a presidential election. This is our chance, through these elections, to demand real change. Let us demand that we be allowed to emancipate ourselves from a failed political system that has landed us in such an economic and social mess with our independence and sovereignty grossly compromised.

John Rogers SC is a former attorney general and adviser to former Labour Party leader and tánaiste Dick Spring

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