If Ireland is to prevent itself sleep walking into another crisis in twenty years' time we must radically reform the political system to a design that puts Ireland first

 

We need wide-ranging changes to our electoral system and to our system of governance, including how appointments to Cabinet are made, the relationship between the Cabinet and the Dáil and how the Dáil itself operates if we are to learn from the past

THE IRISH political system is broken and needs to be fixed. There is a crisis of competence in government, the Dáil fails to fulfil its most basic functions, the Seanad is irrelevant, and the electoral system encourages TDs to behave like county councillors, while county councillors themselves have little control over local decisions. All this happens in an administrative culture obsessed with secrecy. Taken together they have delivered poor government which is unimaginative and beholden to short term electoral considerations. If Ireland is to prevent itself sleep walking into another crisis in 20 years’ time, we must radically reform the political system to a design that puts Ireland first. This plan proposes an integrated reform of the political system ranging from measures to tackle the workings and functioning of government, both national and local, to radically overhauling the electoral system.

The overarching goal of this document is to frame a series of reforms which would underpin a more effective and efficient political system in Ireland. Crucially, reform must begin at the centre of the political system, in the government and Oireachtas. A reformed Oireachtas will be empowered and a trickle effect will occur through the entire system. This will permeate the manner in which the Government conducts its business and create a context for local government reform and an examination of the electoral system. This will be accompanied by an overarching change in the pervasive culture of secrecy at the heart of politics in Ireland. The fundamental goal of these reform proposals is that a political and economic crisis of the magnitude of 2008 should never happen again.

The basic problem at the centre of politics in Ireland is an opaque approach to conducting business. Citizens and groups have extraordinary access, by international standards, to members of parliament and the Government, yet there is a culture of secrecy. This infuses policy development, decision making, inputs, outputs and outcomes of the system.

THE OIREACHTAS AND GOVERNMENT

One of the main features of the Irish political system is the dominance of the Dáil by the government. In all parliamentary systems, there is some degree of fusion of the legislature and the executive but in few systems is this as complete as in Ireland. This results in a system where there are no real checks and balances on the Cabinet. Ministers make decisions that are not transparent and for which there is little immediate accountability.

The recommendations here will ensure that government policies are open to more scrutiny in advance of becoming law, while government will be made more accountable for its actions and the opposition will be enabled to do a better job.

In order to reduce the dominance of the executive the following is proposed:

* Ministers should not be constituency representatives. They should work full time on their portfolio and not depend on support in their constituencies for promotion. To facilitate this, any nominated minister who is a TD will have to resign his or her seat. Rather than have messy by-elections at the start of term, each can nominate substitutes (these should be put on the ballot paper and so be available to voters).

* We should allow non parliamentarians become ministers. This would separate the positions of parliamentarian from those of ministers. The skills involved in being a TD and a minister are quite distinct but the current system restricts who can become a minister to a limited number of people with a specific background. This damages the operation of Cabinet as a forum for uncovering flaws in proposals because all ministers tend to have a similar background and training and are all frankly focused on re-election. It will therefore enable taoisigh to choose from a far wider talent pool when constructing their Cabinet. However, in order to maintain the link with voters, a rule that a majority of the Cabinet should have been elected as TDs, and the Taoiseach, Tánaiste and Minister for Finance should be as now required to be elected TDs.

The size of the Cabinet might be reduced to about 10. Groups larger than this do not work cohesively as decision making bodies. To assist these ministers, there can be a larger number of Ministers of State, who would also be required to resign their seats if they were TDs but there would be no requirement that any of them have been elected. It is a requirement of the system that initiatives come from ministers and to enable the government to be active in a larger number of areas simultaneously, it is important that there are political leaders to drive policy forward.

In general, there are three roles for parliamentarians: to provide a constituency link; to make policy; and to legislate. Irish TDs only have a significant role in the first category. In order to rebalance this and encourage TDs to behave as national legislators, the following is proposed:

* The Ceann Comhairle should be elected by secret ballot. By electing the Ceann Comhairle in this way, where a small number of TDs could nominate a candidate, the Dáil could be choosing someone who could protect its interests. The Ceann Comhairle would owe more loyalty to the members than the government and if it were combined with other changes in the Standing Orders should make for a Dáil that is less deferential to the government.

* Revise Dáil rules to weaken government control of the agenda and make debates more relevant. This would include the complete revision of Dáil Standing Orders and restrictions on the use of the guillotine to allow the opposition more control of the agenda and give government less opportunity to guillotine items. Guillotining should only be possible with the agreement of two-thirds of the Dáil. This would mean that it is reserved for genuinely important emergencies where government can convince the opposition of its merits.

* Strengthen the committee system in a number of ways to make it more relevant to policy making and government oversight. It should be given greater relevance by moving the committee stage up in the legislative process. If the committee input came at the pre-legislative stage it is more likely that ministers would accept reasonable suggestions from committees. This would give parliamentarians a more decisive role in preparation and drafting of bills. Committee chairmanships should be elected by the Dáil or the committee itself so that those leading a committee are more likely to have a genuine interest in the area.

* A referendum should be held to establish the right of the Dáil to inquire into certain matters. The Dáil as the sovereign of the people must be allowed to hold all public bodies and officers to account for their actions, regardless of whether it could impugn their good name or make findings of fact. The right to inquire must be accompanied by a right to compel witnesses.

* Use Dáil committees to vet and approve senior public appointments, an area where there is virtually no check on government. Though most executive posts are subject to specific rules, appointments to senior executive and non-executive positions in many Irish agencies are made without any proper oversight. Senior judicial appointments, particularly at Supreme Court level, should also be subject to scrutiny.

* Abolish the Seanad. The reform goals above are to enhance the roles, structures and procedures of Dáil Éireann. In time, a strong and effective first chamber will emerge . . . The under-performance of Seanad Éireann and, failure to enact many previous reform plans have brought the entire parliamentary system into disrepute . . . The growing distrust of Irish political institutions makes it difficult to persuade the public on the merits of reforming the second chamber.

* Establish an Office of the Opposition to level the playing field between government and opposition. A civil service office will be established to support, in policy terms, the main opposition parties. Each opposition spokesperson would have three to five civil servants at their disposal and the leader could have five to seven.

By giving over the use of some civil servants to opposition spokespeople they will ensure that there are greater resources at the disposal of the opposition. As well as evening up the gap in skills and knowledge between government and opposition, it will mean opposition will have some experience managing a small section and the leader of the opposition will have his/her skills honed in managing an organisation which has to oversee the work of a large number of individuals. At a time when policy issues are increasingly complex and sometimes highly technical the opportunity to manage such a department and draw on civil service expertise would increase the professionalism of the opposition enabling it present itself as a credible alternative government.

It will mean that when a new government takes office, it spends less time finding its way around the system and will arrive with a more or less workable policy agenda and a greater familiarity of the civil service system. By having an Office for the Opposition one increases the effectiveness of the opposition to oppose without ceding it the right to block. So there can be some checks and balances on government activity without the destabilising effect that a veto might have on the government – perhaps leading to deadlock.

The setting up of a Forward Planning Unit, attached to the Department of the Taoiseach, to think beyond electoral cycles. The unit should be staffed independently of normal civil service recruitment and should primarily include policy experts. The unit should be given responsibility for delivering evaluation of the long-term costs and outcomes of each piece of legislation before it goes before the Cabinet . . . The unit will not be able to mandate change. Its primary focus will be to future proof policy making. It will allow TDs to make decisions in a more informed environment and will constrain the ability of ministers to make ill-judged short term-policy decisions with long term practical consequences.

THE ELECTORAL SYSTEM

The electoral system of PR-STV is widely blamed for the localist and clientelist focus of many Irish TDs. There is little evidence that changing to a mixed member system as advanced by many reformers will make much difference. Alternative reforms could include:

* Keep PR-STV but create non-geographic constituencies; and

* Create an Electoral Commission

RENEW LOCAL GOVERNMENT

Irish political culture is particularly centralised and local authorities have little power and less fiscal control. If national legislators are to be focused on national work and policy, it is imperative that local authorities are reorganised and empowered ensuring that constituents have real representation at a local level. Proposals to achieve this include:

* Reorganise local government on a regional basis;

* Directly elect mayors in metropolitan areas and regions with strong decision making powers and expanded functions;

* Extend the use of town councils; and

* Introduce a local property tax and water charges to give local government more autonomy

OPEN GOVERNMENT

The Irish state has what can only be described as a fetish for secrecy. Rather than a culture of openness the Irish political and civil service elites operate a presumption of secrecy unless disclosure turns out to be absolutely unavoidable. This secrecy leads almost invariably to sub optimal policy outcomes, while there is increasing evidence that open government and transparency is the key to efficient and effective government. Thus, proposals include:

* Repeal the Official Secrets Act;

* Publish government information on an open data website;

* Reform Freedom of Information to assume a right to access

* Establish a register of lobbyists; and

* Establish a whistleblowers’ charter.

IMPLEMENTATION PLAN

It is essential that each of the proposals outlined above are understood as part of an overall package of reform measures. The next government must commit to addressing the shortcomings in the political system as a matter of urgency. The time frame provided below indicates that all measures could be enacted within three years . . .

Four mechanisms are required to implement the series of proposals; change in parliamentary standing orders, legislative change, budgetary decisions and changes to the constitution by referendum. Reforms are grouped by mechanism of implementation. The implementation plan begins with the reformed election mechanism for the Ceann Comhairle, which could be achieved within a week, to a group of seven changes to Bunreacht na hÉireann, which would each require a referendum. In some instances, a case could be made that a referendum is not needed, it is however, best to copper fasten reforms and prevent future legal challenges.

Changes requiring a referendum need to be put in train very quickly. Each referendum proposal needs to be put to the people within an area group, and not as a single package. A single package might fail because of objections to an issue. Proposals should be grouped by category.

The last group of changes to be implemented relate to open and transparent government. This in no way reflects a prioritisation of reform. In fact, these are among the most critical proposals outlined here . . .

Taken together these will offer the Irish people a new political system . . . These proposals will restore the link between the people and their politicians, strengthening democracy. It will also lead to a more effective and efficient government which makes decisions based on evidence. Policy decisions should be coherent and based on long term integrated planning. National politicians will have a much greater role in legislation and in policy while local concerns will be addressed by a strengthened local political system.


This is an edited extract of Dermot Desmond’s Ireland First: Political Reform – Effective and Efficient Government.The full document, which is more than 11,000 words in length, may be read online on The Irish Timeswebsite at: http://tiny.ly/BmEY

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