It is easier to set up a new party in Iraq than it is in Ireland


RENEWING THE REPUBLICThe system of funding for political parties suits the status quo and ensures a stifling incumbency, writes DESMOND O'MALLEY

WRITING EARLIER in this series, Prof Kenneth Benoit pointed out that if the underlying problem is a dysfunctional political culture, then changing the rules won’t automatically solve the problem, as the Italians discovered to their disappointment. We should bear this in mind and examine our political culture, and how it has changed over the years, before we prescribe too many remedies that may well be ineffective.

Political culture is a two-way street – that of the elector as well as that of the elected. Most commentaries tend to concentrate on those elected and their behaviour, without considering the standards and attitudes of those who approach the ballot box. The people and the parties who can win support are a pretty accurate expression of the current political culture in a particular constituency or region.

If therefore a purely parochial ward-healer makes the grade with ease every time, it sends a message to other candidates about what is required and, equally importantly, what is not required. One of the inevitable results of democracy is that it will reflect parochial prejudices and personal demands more often than national needs. This tends to be clearest in competitive multiseat constituencies.

The political culture of an area can of course also be judged by the record and personal qualities of a candidate who is acceptable to an electorate.

In Kerry North, Martin Ferris, who had served a longish term of imprisonment for attempting to illegally import a large quantity of arms and explosives into this country, was elected and re-elected to the Dáil.

The electorate were well aware also of his continuous efforts to secure the release of his close colleagues who had been convicted of shooting dead Garda Jerry McCabe as they tried, as self-styled Irish Republicans, to rob the pension money being delivered to Adare Post Office.

Some certainly would see Ferris’s successful candidacy as part of a dysfunctional political culture. In how many western European democracies today would this be emulated?

Recently Fintan O’Toole noted that there is now “no source of stable moral authority”. It is not just the Catholic Church that is no longer looked up to or respected. Up to the 1970s, there was a political culture that demanded respect and whose standards percolated downwards and were largely observed. All our government leaders of the first 50 years or so had a relatively austere approach to public life. They saw this as their duty and they derived their authority from it.

Then things began to change.

Looking back, it is hard to believe that Éamon de Valera and Bertie Ahern both led the same party. They were as chalk and cheese, both personally and politically. Could one ever imagine the rather frugal and reserved de Valera being the personal beneficiary of a whip-around among a group of wealthy Manchester-based soccer fans?

Therefore we can conclude that the political culture has changed quite drastically in certain respects and not necessarily for the better. A change of personnel may be just as important at times as a change in the rules. One may not work without the other.

Our situation is now so serious, and confidence has fallen so alarmingly, that an obvious remedy which must be considered is a new party or parties. The ability and the opportunity to form new parties is an integral and vital part of any genuinely democratic system. There is, however, a serious obstacle in the path of anyone who undertakes this course of action and wants to remain within the rules. This arises under the heading of funding.

Political funding is now almost entirely public. Private funding is very constrained. Public funding is quite generous, so existing parties have no complaints. They are happy. The snag is that public funding is based on votes and seats won at the last general election. So if you did not fight the last general election, you get nothing. If you get nothing, you can’t fight the next election, unless you have some source of mysterious, unaccountable foreign finance or other even dodgier sources of funds.

The system has been devised to favour the status quo. It discriminates in favour of what I consider a somewhat stifling incumbency. It is an indefensible manipulation of public funds to support a status quo that has not inspired any great confidence that it can remedy the ills that now beset our economy and our public administration.

Truth is that it is probably easier today to start a new political party in Iraq than it is in Ireland.

Starting a new party in 1985 was difficult enough but we succeeded. The crisis the country faces in 2010 is much worse than in 1985, but tragically it is even more difficult to respond now than it was then. The set of electoral funding rules adopted in the last five or 10 years should be quickly amended to allow fresh blood and ideas offer some hope.

While the consensus of the political establishment of late was against allowing new parties, it saw no problem with new quangos.

One of the legacies of the Ahern era, along with the proliferation of speculators and property developers, was the forest of new quangos that sprang up every year. There is scarcely a cause, worthy or unworthy, that does not have an unaccountable but expensive quango to promote it. They are all part of a status quo that resists change. It may cost some money to close them down but it is vital to start.

What is hardest to stomach these days is the truly staggering fallout from the banks. In the past we used to worry that our children might be adversely affected by some decision that was made. Now it is our grandchildren who I think will be picking up the pieces. It seems so cruelly unfair to them.

I can recall an executive director of a large bank, just over two years ago, telling an audience that Irish banks were not exposed to subprime borrowers, who were then the problem in the US. There would be no problem here, we were assured.

Should we believe them now?

Misleading investors is a serious offence in other countries. It should matter here too. The reckless lending of depositors’ money, and other funds, to a small golden circle of greedy pals has done more harm to this country than the economic war of the 1930s. Those lenders and those borrowers used to lecture us if we ever expressed a doubt.

This week, Paddy Power, a bookmaker, was worth significantly more than AIB, Ireland’s largest bank. This week, the Irish State proposes to spend more bailing out Anglo Irish Bank alone than the United Nations estimates it would cost to rebuild Haiti.

One ray of hope is beginning to gleam perhaps. Some good may be starting to appear from all this gloom. New and effective heads have been recruited to the Central Bank and to the Financial Regulator. Hopefully the calibre of the Irish public service will slowly start to improve and will get back to its standard of a generation ago. That is needed.

Desmond O’Malley was the founding leader of the Progressive Democrats from 1985 to 1993. He was expelled from Fianna Fáil in 1985, at the insistence of the then leader Charles Haughey for “conduct unbecoming” for refusing to vote against a Fine Gael-Labour government liberalisation of the sale of contraceptives. Addressing a packed Dáil, he said: “There is a choice of a kind that can only be answered by saying that I stand by the Republic.”

His subsequent expulsion from Fianna Fáil was carried by 73 votes to nine after which he set up the PDs. He held several ministries, both while in Fianna Fáil and in Fianna Fáil-led coalition with the PDs

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