Renewing the Republic


IT WOULD be facile, after one of the bleakest weeks in the history of the State, to look for easy consolation. The scale and long-term consequences of the misgovernment that has led to the present crisis can either numb the mind or drive us into paroxysms of impotent fury. Yet, if there is any gleam of hope, it is that things are so bad that we have no choice but to begin a profound process of national renewal. There are no shortcuts to salvation and no soft choices for change.

The Renewing the Republic series which has run in these pages for the last three weeks has allowed a range of contributors to reflect on what shape that change might take. There is, of course, no consensus on the details, but it is striking that at least four broad themes are common to virtually all the contributors.

The first and most obvious (obvious, that is, to everyone except the Government) is that there is a deep crisis, not just in our economy, but in our democracy. We have to confront what Gary Joyce called “the absence of anything resembling authority, competence or courage coming from the institutions of the State, government or the church”. There is, in Theo Dorgan’s words, “a profound contradiction between what we expect of government, and what government thinks it is there for”. The implications of this perception are radical: there is no great confidence that a mere change of taoiseach from Brian Cowen to Enda Kenny would in itself be an adequate response to our situation.

The second common theme is the need for radical institutional reform. Especially from those who are not veterans of the system, there is a sense of utter disillusion with the nature of the Dáil, or what Declan Kiberd called “160 high-maintenance ward-heelers who open their main shop for business on just 96 days a year”. Our political institutions need to be reshaped both to bring democracy closer to the people through real local government and to create a parliament that actually holds government accountable.

Yet – and this is the third theme – no one seems to believe that institutional reform will work on its own. The political culture has to change. And that is a challenge to the electorate as much as to politicians. Voters set the tone. If, as Des O’Malley puts it, “a purely parochial ward-heeler makes the grade with ease every time, it sends a message to other candidates about what is required and, equally importantly, what is not required.”

Which leads us, finally, to perhaps the most important message from the series: that the process of reform may be as important as its precise content. If the political culture is to be revolutionised, it can only happen from below. Renewal will not be driven from above – it can only come on a wave of civic engagement with the task of constructing a democracy, as if from scratch. The call for a National Citizenship Forum, as suggested by Fiach MacConghail, or a “citizen assembly” as proposed by David Farrell and sketched out by Helena Kennedy, may well offer a concrete way forward. At this stage, given the abject failure of so many forms of authority, we as citizens have to teach ourselves democracy.