The Democratic Deficit


A chara, - Two of your columnists (Eddie Holt, July 21st and Fintan O'Toole, July 24th) have pointed to the urgent need to address the real national question: As the Celtic Tiger begins to weaken and its diet will have to change, what kind of society do we really want?

Do we want to continue developing an externally-funded "economy" while society fragments, services deteriorate, the quality of life diminishes and the sense of community and common purpose evaporates? It has long been clear that the existing political-legal-business control system is incapable of devising imaginative, inspiring, motivating solutions to the many problems that are staring us in the face. Our "Jim-will-fix-it", clientelist political system, together with our hopelessly centralised form of government, simply do not engage the interest, enthusiasm or involvement of ordinary citizens. As the tribunals demonstrate week after dreary week, the system essentially favours the entrenched interests of big business, builders, bankers and barristers.

And politicians still complain that people are becoming cynical and apathetic. How could it be otherwise? After the rejection of the Nice Treaty, many of our politicians joined the Romani Prodi chorus in admitting the so-called "democratic deficit" in regard to the European Union. But the problem in Ireland is much more fundamental than that: our "democratic" system is seriously in the red at all levels.

At city or county level, we have no local government worthy of the name which would encourage and empower people to participate in civic society. At national level, it hardly matters which party we vote for - almost all parties have now crowded into the comfortable centre and almost any combination of parties can form a government. Next time round, we might even have Sinn FΘin/IRA as members of the club! At the EU level, there is no forum for our MEPs to report back to the electorate and, with some honourable exceptions, we hear nothing from them between one election and the next.

Given this democratic doldrums, it just doesn't make sense to go out and vote every few years. Voting doesn't clear the litter, protect the environment, shorten hospital waiting-lists, convict tax evaders and perjurers, house the homeless, tackle the drugs-and-alcohol crisis, care for the elderly or teach all school-leavers to read and write. What our republic needs at this time is a civic convention, not just to talk about the European Union but to address the needs of our own society and articulate a vision for the future. Probably the only way in which such a convention could be credibly organised would be to extend the role of the presidency and set up an Office of the President. This office would have a mandate to consult the people in a serious way at local, regional and national levels. In addition to the established "social partners", it would engage the churches, voluntary organisations, immigrant groups, the academic and arts communities and all interested, civic-minded people. It would seek to articulate a vision for our society as a whole and find solutions to local and national issues which could command the support of the people and engage their energies.

Both Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese have been, in their different ways, inspiring presidents. The time has now come to empower the presidency to inspire and empower the people. - Is mise,

Jerry Crowley, Fontenoy Street, Broadstone, Dublin 7.