In search of new definition of national interest


The culture of self-interested national interest, as defined by Fianna Fáil, has already thrown €4bn of taxpayers' money at Anglo Irish Bank, writes ELAINE BYRNE

FINE GAEL is a failed political entity when compared to similar political parties in western democracies. It has never held two consecutive terms. It has only possessed power for 19 of its 77-year existence. It has been out of government for a generation. This consistent failure to get elected has generated a fatalistic political mindset numbed by expectations of defeat. The Fine Gael mentality is to constantly look backwards to the foundation of the State to find justifications for its existence.

Although the party flirted with pragmatism, conservatism and liberalism over the years, underlining it all was an obsessive obligation to protect the institutions of the State. Its core value of loyalty to the State, and not the party, articulated as slavishly acting in the national interest, became a ball and chain around any political ambition. When push came to shove, Fianna Fáil could always rely on the polite charity of Fine Gael’s voluntary restraint.

For instance, the much-lauded Tallaght Strategy by Alan Dukes kept Charles Haughey in government from 1987-89, a period characterised by appalling abuses of power, as illustrated by the beef and Moriarty tribunal reports. The prevailing culture of a self-interested national interest, as defined by Fianna Fáil, has already thrown €4 billion of taxpayers’ money at Anglo Irish Bank while a further €6 billion is needed to bail out the developers’ casino. Brian Lenihan still believes that Anglo is “of systemic importance to Ireland.” Anglo’s total loan loss over the past two years, to be announced next week, is anticipated to be €18 billion!

During questioning at Bray Garda station last week, Seán FitzPatrick may have been asked to explain the so-called “green jersey” secret share transactions, where Irish Life Permanent (ILP) deposited €7.5 billion into Anglo in September 2008 in order to give an incorrect picture of Anglo’s balance sheet.

The “national interest” defence surfaced again in the apparent decision by Nama to keep zombie hotels open because developers can’t afford to pay back the generous tax breaks granted to build them in the first place. In the meantime, perfectly viable hotels are progressively put out of business because of their inability to compete with what is essentially an implicit State aid for developers.

But how would Fine Gael define the national interest if in power?

“Political failure lies at the heart of Ireland’s economic collapse,” according to its 99-page “new politics” document launched yesterday which emphasises fiscal responsibility, open government and a reversal of centralised government. The New Dáil proposals marry well with Labour’s policies and seek to shift fundamentally the balance of power from the executive to the legislature. TDs would have a meaningful role in the legislative process with the introduction of a new budget process. The Ceann Comhairle would be elected by secret ballot, as is now the case in the UK.

The much-maligned committee system would have renewed investigative powers with the constitutional repeal of the Abbeylara decision. However, the proposed inclusion of key Dáil committees into the Constitution might render committees inflexible over time.

It is very difficult not to like the eight proposals on holding public bodies to account, some of which the Comptroller and Auditor General touched upon yesterday in his report. A public appointments transparency Bill, the substantial reduction in quangos and an overhaul of Ireland’s corporate governance regime are all accompanied by ancillary research and draft Bills. Fine Gael name-checks Labour in its reforms on a new social partnership model that seeks to empower civil society.

The open government pillar steals many of the Greens’ clothes from last October’s revised programme for government, but it goes further, with four legislative proposals amalgamated into a “super-Bill”.

The financial penalties for accessing Freedom of Information are rowed back; a register of lobbyists based on the ambitious Canadian model is introduced, as is a whistleblowers’ charter. A new electoral commission includes very attractive transparency measures on political funding, including publishing Fine Gael’s annual accounts on its website this year. But why not extend FoI to the Garda Síochána, the Central Bank, the Irish Financial Services Regulatory Authority, the National Treasury Management Agency and Nama?

The super-Bill will capture public attention, but 33 pages for such a complex and dramatic Bill appear a little light.

The final pillar, empowering the citizen, gives long overdue revenue-raising powers to local government, such as charges for local services, including water, and a tax on non-principal residences. The planning process also gets an overhaul, and the Dublin mayoralty is granted more powers.

The civil society measures are imaginative. Irish citizens resident outside Ireland would have the right to vote in Irish presidential elections, and a direct democracy initiative along the lines of the US government website would be pioneered. As envisaged under the first Constitution, a public petition system to the Dáil would be established.

Fine Gael devotes considerable analysis to the abolition of the Seanad. Arguments that the Seanad is a historical anomaly, difficult to reform and contrary to the notion of checks and balances because of its undemocratic premise are mildly convincing. But as outlined in my previous columns, a radically reformed Seanad offers a cathartic possibility to establish a new Republic along the lines of the wildly misunderstood first Senate.

Internal and lengthy dissent within Fine Gael on aspects of the reform proposals, particularly gender quotas and a revised electoral system, is symptomatic of the deep-seated conservatism within the party. Party members decried the lack of proper consultation at the weekend’s ardfheis in Killarney. That is to miss the point entirely.

Although the reform process would be sponsored by Fine Gael if in government, it would be the task of the Citizens’ Assembly, to be established within 100 days of entering office, to develop the reform agenda.

The Fine Gael membership does not have ownership of this process; they are a part of it, like every other Irish citizen. A renewed Republic places its trust in its people rather than in vested interests resigned to the status quo. That is a definition of the national interest I can live with.

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