Look what happens when we refuse to modernise


OPINION:Governments abdicated their responsibilities for decades by refusing to question the structures they inherited, writes TONY KINSELLA

READING THE Ryan report and witnessing the incandescent and inspiring statements of the victims leaves one with a revolting numbness. A numbness which is a human response to cruelties as unimaginable as they are real.

Cruelties which were made possible by a total abdication of political responsibility. As our European and local elections take place this week, we are faced with the stark challenge of finding a response to this most political of scandals, and to this indictment of our country.

It is a curious fact that former colonies, including those liberated by force of arms, perpetuate colonial structures and practices. Images of Algeria’s gendarmerie or the Kenyan chief justice suffering in his heavy robes and woollen wig under a blazing sun spring to mind. Ireland is no exception.

In the 1920s the UK began to replace its large über-Victorian children’s institutions with smaller units. Yet independent Ireland would maintain the 1908 UK Children’s Act, with its industrial schools and “cruelty men” inspectors, for decades longer.

Throughout the 19th century British administrations in Ireland were assiduous in their wooing of the Roman Catholic church. Church control of education and childcare was a central element of this approach.

Independent Ireland would not only maintain this colonial legacy; it reinforced it. The detritus of the toxic “being-Irish-was-to-be-Catholic-was-to-be-Irish” identity combination now threatens to bury church and State actors alike.

There was no question of the State challenging the church, nor really of the church intimidating the elected leadership. It was not so much the legendary fear of a “belt of the crozier”, but rather an unquestioning acceptance of Maynooth’s moral pre-eminence.

Dr Noel Browne’s Mother and Child health proposals of the late 1940s were probably the first real clash. John A Costello, the then Fine Gael taoiseach, accepted Browne’s resignation in 1951. The Fianna Fáil opposition had actively supported the Church’s attacks on Browne, although his proposals flowed from their 1947 Health Act.

Successive Irish governments, including the current one, have seen their role more in terms of administering the structures they inherited rather than seriously questioning, never mind reforming, them.

This abdication is most apparent in the social sphere and in the very structures of Irish governance.

The changing attitudes of Irish people have obliged the State, dragging the 1937 Constitution like a ball-and-chain, to reluctantly modernise.

Our local elections will be for authorities virtually identical, in their structures and boundaries, to the pre-independence ones. The only major change has been a gradual transfer of their already limited powers to central Government and appointed officials.

The need for international and transnational institutions is obvious in our globalised world. Less obvious, but equally vital, is the need for solid local governance structures with real, if carefully defined, autonomy. The one cannot function correctly without the other.

We are also to elect our 13 members of the European Parliament, a unique institution that reflects the diverse loyalties and preferences of nearly 500 million Europeans.

Its two largest political groups account for almost 500 of its 785 members. The centre-right European Peoples’ Party (Fine Gael) is the largest group with 284, followed by the Party of European Socialists (Labour) on 215. The Liberals (including Marian Harkin), where Fianna Fáil has now found a distinctly odd home, come in third with 104 members.

There has never been an overall majority in the European Parliament, so every majority on every vote has to be negotiated. This makes it the most European of parliaments, a place where legislation is reviewed and amended in committees, and which has no room or role for “ya-boo” plenary exchanges.

Real political power in the EU is vested in its 27 national governments, for it is they who set the budgetary envelope and decide on what powers they wish to pool. European governments prefer to disguise this reality, blaming “Brussels” for unpopular decisions they have taken, while painting “good news” as hard-won national victories.

Although the parliament does have real and growing powers, its primary leverage comes from its watchdog role and its ability to amend or nudge European legislation in one direction or another.

This presents Irish electors with a simple basic choice. If they feel that European legislation needs to be nudged in a more deregulatory free market direction, they should vote for either of our two centre-right, and slightly confessional, parties. Should their preference be for a nudge in a more social and secular direction, then they should opt for their Labour candidates.

That simple choice is, of course, complicated by other factors like personal loyalties, and national issues such as a wish to reward, or punish, our governing parties.

Almost all our international institutions, from the United Nations Security Council to the European Space Agency, depend on indirect democratic mandates. Voters elect a party leader as taoiseach who then appoints ministers. Ministers then represent their country in international bodies, a doubly-diluted mandate.

Our first international bodies date back less than 200 years to the Congress of Vienna in 1815.

So you could argue that we are only just emerging from the apprenticeship stage. The world’s first-ever direct transnational election was in 1979 when we elected the European Parliament, so we are only just out of nappies there.

We are probably a long way from directly electing the European Commission, or the UN Security Council, but a strong argument can be made for greater use of transnational elections in the future.

The only ones we currently have are those for the European Parliament, and they offer us the option of sending a clear message about where our priorities lie.

The horrific findings of the Ryan Commission warn us of the dangers of abdicating our political responsibilities.