Public forum would make Coalition's life a lot easier

 

WHEN “WE The Citizens” took the political temperature of Irish people in the spring and summer of 2011, as well as looking at issues such as the budget deficit and education, we also researched citizens’ wishes on political reform, writes FIACH Mac CONGHAIL

A specially commissioned Ipsos MRBI poll revealed that Irish people seek specific changes in terms of who represents them in politics; there is also a desire for ordinary citizens to play a more prominent role in politics, between elections.

A central theme at our regional meetings in Blanchardstown, Tallaght, Athlone, Cork, Galway, Letterkenny and Kilkenny was citizen empowerment. Irish citizens want the reinstatement of Freedom of Information legislation with teeth and the right to petition the Dáil to have legislation brought forward (the latter of which should hopefully be covered by the new Joint Committee on Investigations, Oversight and Petitions).

There is also a realisation that political citizenship brings duties as well as rights – with many advocating that voting in elections should be made compulsory.

Regarding current Government reform proposals, many people are sympathetic to the proposal that political parties should be made to nominate more women candidates, but, mirroring the discussions at our citizens’ assembly last month, the support is far from universal.

When asked in a separate question whether political funding should be linked to the proportion of female candidates fielded by parties (the proposal that the Government is committed to introducing) only 17 per cent were in favour while 40 per cent were against.

There is widespread support for reducing the number of TDs, another proposal that the Government has already put on the table. There is also clear support for bringing into Government experts from industry or other non-politicians with particular skills – a prominent manifesto proposal by Fianna Fáil before the last election.

The Irish people want greater turnover in politics, favouring the imposition of “term limits”, or caps on the number of years a TD can serve.

It may well be that we want a smaller Dáil, more regular turnover of TDs, more women in politics, and more experts in the Cabinet. However, one prominent proposal by the Government that has not attracted much of a groundswell of support from the Irish people is electoral reform.

The Ipsos MRBI poll shows that people are evenly divided over whether to change our electoral system (47 per cent in favour; 44 per cent against), and just over half (54 per cent) of us feel the ability of TDs to provide a local service is a strength of the political system.

Of course some of these questions were also debated in more detail at our citizens assembly. What we will be interested in is the extent to which our assembly members changed their minds about issues when presented with both objective information and an opportunity to deliberate. That research is ongoing but the results so far are encouraging.

We can say with a high degree of confidence that if the Government decides to establish a structure that allows ordinary citizens to come together to influence and make recommendations on policy, it is likely to ease the passage of many difficult decisions in the months and years ahead.


Senator Fiach Mac Conghail is director of the Abbey Theatre and chair of We The Citizens. The academic team behind the surveys consists of Prof David Farrell of UCD, Dr Jane Suiter of UCC, Dr Eoin O’Malley of DCU and Dr Elaine Byrne of TCD.

Ipsos MRBI conducted the fieldwork for this study among a nationally representative sample of adults aged 18+. In total, 1,242 interviews were conducted.


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