PR system promotes non-decision making and inertia


The voting system inhibits meaningful ideological debate and fortifies the catch-all character of Irish politics, writes ELAINE BYRNE

PROBABLY THE worst thing about writing a book on the history of corruption in Ireland is the permanent sense of deja vu. The political carousel goes round and round rehearsing the same old arguments in the same old ways, repeating themselves into a routine.

A three-step justification programme normalises a mindset, repressed by intellectual paralysis, which rejects those that raise their heads above the lowest lying parapet.

1. The past is a different country. (ie leave it there).

2. We must draw a line in the sand. (ie forget about it).

3. We must stop looking for scapegoats. (ie no-one is responsible).

Every now and again temporary bagpipes full of angry wind are released. This is also known as the Fianna Fáil dual mandate of being in both government and opposition all at the one time. Contradictory political pragmatism.

Membership has been extended by the former Fianna Fáil renegade Joe Behan to ex-minister of state John McGuinness in recent days. We tut-tut to ourselves and retreat into the slipshod comfort that indifference brings. The luxury of moral conformity dismisses inconvenient truths about ourselves. Rip van Winkle is alive and asleep in Ireland. Rip has only one way of replying to all lectures about his irresponsible behaviour “and that, by frequent use, had grown into a habit. He shrugged his shoulders, shook his head, cast up his eyes, but said nothing”.

The recent Irish Timesopinion piece by 20 of Ireland’s leading academic economists, which advocated the rejection of the Government’s National Asset Management Agency (Nama), merited attention as far away as Paul Krugman’s Erin Go Brokecolumn in the New York Times.

In the spring edition of the Dublin Review of Books, Maurice Earls suggests that the science of economics may explain how we blew the boom but if we want to learn from what has happened, we must also work out why we blew it.

So where are the opinion pieces by 20 of our leading sociologists and historians? Do our political scientists believe that the single transferable vote proportional representation electoral system (PR-STV) should be abolished? Is there a case for amending the Constitution to allow for single seat constituencies only and retaining the single transferable vote, the method used for byelections? Or should we introduce a list system that provides a means of co-opting into cabinet those with particular expertise? In these challenging financial times should the local authority’s co-option method, which fills casual vacancies, be used for Dáil byelections?

Do multi-seat constituencies produce a politics preoccupied with local electoral survival and not national policy? Appropriate then that former taoiseach Bertie Ahern launches All Politics is Localby Liam Weeks and Aodh Quinlivan from the University of Cork tomorrow night.

PR-STV emphasises clientelistic relationships cemented on constituency casework and a political culture which promotes localism and faction fighting between candidates from the same party.

This in turn inhibits meaningful national ideological debate and fortifies the catch-all character of Irish politics.

The dominance of localism has reinforced the delegation of political decisions to extra-parliamentary State institutions such as the courts, State agencies, social partnership, tribunals, the European Union and the increased use of referendums. Complex and controversial decisions are sidestepped, thus avoiding unnecessary confrontation.

Promotion to the ministerial ranks is often determined by geographical considerations to produce a national government inherently compromised by regional lobbyists.

Geographical meritocracy has now trickled down to the appointment by party headquarters staff of local election candidates rather than their election by party members at convention.

Increasingly, democracy has become too troublesome.

The Lisbon Referendum campaign altered the traditional dynamics of Irish politics because it allowed discussion on policy matters such as immigration, taxation and abortion that are generally avoided in normal political discourse.

A referendum presents the only electoral opportunity to vote against politics. Local, national, European and presidential elections are essentially choices between different politicians.

Those opposing the Lisbon Treaty were not perceived by the public as politicians, at least not in the conventional sense, which may in part account for their extraordinary success.

At Arbour Hill on Sunday, Taoiseach Brian Cowen told the party faithful that “Republicanism at its core means the interests of the nation must take precedence over everything else”.

The historical rhetoric of Easter 1916 republicanism must not be simply used to replace an out-of-date nostalgic nationalism as a means to mythically hang your policy hat on.

“You gotta stand for something or you’ll fall for everything,” that great country and western philosopher Charlie Pride once said. If republicanism is now defined as putting the country first, then our electoral system stands in conflict to that ideal.

The PR-STV system facilitates a perverse electoral logic which abdicates responsibility for robust decision making.

There are no consequences to elections because by their nature they present indecisive choice. The opportunity to vote for everybody, through the ranking of your preferences, means that in reality, you vote for no one.

Our politics and our electoral system are all things to all men. Ireland is confused and paralysed by entrenched contradiction but happy to distract ourselves by the merry-go-round music of dying generations.