Our political system is no longer fit for purpose


OPINION:We have a Dáil with too many members and a system of election that ensures inefficiency, writes GEMMA HUSSEY.

THE CURRENT crisis in Ireland is one of a long list of political failures over decades, though undoubtedly the most serious. Its depth and extent is not fully appreciated, I believe, even by many politicians.

The general population, punch drunk and worried, is beginning to rebel at the low standards of public services, and is staggered at the incompetence and uncertainty which has characterised political reaction to the sudden crash.

As it emerges that Ireland itself added enormously to our own problems, questions are being asked about how and why we got here. Where is the accountability?

There is talk of the need for new ideas, for new and dynamic ways of thinking. So far, with few exceptions, we have not

addressed the elephant in the room – the political system itself. Is it fit for purpose? Is our electoral system, which frames that political establishment, suitable for Ireland of the 21st century?

Stephen Collins writing in this paper said that one of the conclusions which can be drawn from our sorry plight is the need for radical reform of the political system. He is not alone in that opinion.

Political failure has to be laid at the door of Dáil Éireann, where governments are formed, national policies decided, laws made, and where the buck stops.

We have in Ireland an electoral system, multi-seat proportional representation, which almost ensures that a broad range of the best brains and achievers in the country will never see the inside of Leinster House, much less the Cabinet room. At the same time, we have too many Dáil members.

The electoral system imposes a lifestyle on politicians which is directly inimical to good government and is a considerable deterrent to potential participants.

The skills required to massage a constituency seven days and nights a week have nothing to do with running a small European country with an open economy.

Ministers have to spend 20 to 30 hours a week attending local functions, holding clinics, going to funerals – they’ll lose their seats if they don’t.

Is it any wonder that Dáil deputies had to be paid to chair or convene committees – that work distracts from the string-pulling for constituents which is what they’re doing in those Dáil offices.

TDs and ministers are hard-working, mostly upstanding and decent people. They are also canny politicians. But we have to ask ourselves – as I often asked myself during my years in the Oireachtas – if the work they’re doing is either suitable or productive.

Of course it’s not.

Despite computers and secretaries, the work hasn’t changed down the years. Side by side with the massive local work-load of TDs in nursing their constituents is a weak and almost powerless local government structure. While this faulty system – too many TDs doing unnecessary work, and tired distracted Ministers – goes on, we pay our politicians – unbelievably – more than most others in the world.

Our electoral system is almost unique. Most modern democracies of western Europe have some variant of a list system, combined with proportionality. This means that the voter may choose to vote for a party list, which will be written up in the polling booth. Distinguished and/or well-known citizens from a variety of walks of life will have been chosen by their parties to head up their lists. Side by side there are opportunities to vote for individuals too.

Looking at the Scandinavian countries, well-governed stable societies, some features stand out. Swedish ministers are required to live in Stockholm, devote themselves to their government work, but in return are placed at the top of their party list at the next election.

Finland, Norway and Denmark have much smaller legislatures (though all of them have greater populations than Ireland), no second chambers, and strong local government. Byelections don’t feature – the next person on the party’s list will succeed (avoiding the distraction and waste we indulge in in Ireland).

Modern Germany has a strong combination of list and proportionality. There is no shortage of variations to choose from.

There have been calls before now for change in Ireland (apart from Fianna Fáil’s two efforts in the mid-20th century to bring in the inadequate British “first past the post” system).

Party leaders – Garret FitzGerald, Albert Reynolds, Charles Haughey, Des O’Malley, Mary Harney, as well as Noel Dempsey and Micheal D Higgins – are all on record as criticising multi-seat PR as practised in Ireland, and/or calling for radical changes.

A proposal for change appeared in the 1987 Fine Gael election manifesto. Many articles have appeared in this newspaper and serious journals. Alas, most media attention has been confined to the “silly season”. This is no longer a silly season issue. We must face the unpalatable fact that this political system is a luxury we can no longer afford.

Ideally, the impetus for change should come from within the political establishment. Government and TDs of all parties know how faulty the system is. Real leadership would bring party leaders together to begin a campaign for change. I don’t expect that this will happen. So who will begin this constitutional crusade? The politics departments of our universities are an obvious resource, plus civic organisations of all kinds, and the serious political media.

Is there any chance that when Ireland emerges from this dark tunnel we will have a lean and efficient legislature which will be equipped to face future challenges?

This change is crucial. It is not clear to me from where an initiative will come. But I am completely convinced that without such an initiative the outlook for our country is extremely worrying.

Gemma Hussey has a degree in economics and political science. She was a senator, TD, minister for education and member of the Council of State. She wrote two books (Cabinet Diaries and Ireland Today: Anatomy of a Changing State) and directed democracy training in eastern Europe after leaving politics in 1990. She currently chairs the Ireland Romania Cultural Foundation.