Too much focus on blaming everyone else


No one can say they weren’t told how bad our economic policy and loose regulation were for our future

I’VE BEEN skipping all the worthy articles promoting constitutional reform. Yes, our system of government could do with some tweaks here and there, but nothing will change the fact that we have a democracy.

In fact, through proportional representation by the single transferable vote in small multi-seat constituencies, our electoral system is the “most” democratic a state could want – if reflecting accurately the will of the people is what you want.

What all these proposals to introduce lists, abolish the Seanad or reduce the number of TDs fail to accommodate is that we arrived here not because of the system of voting, but because of how we voted. We could have a dozen referendums on changing the rules, but it won’t do any good if people don’t change their motives.

For example, some people say that through a list system we could introduce more expertise into government by placing professionals rather than professional politicians on the list. But in the last six months we had a perfect opportunity to bring new talent into government. The Taoiseach had in his gift two appointments to the Seanad. He could easily, and to popular acclaim, have appointed two economists, or big business leaders, or professionals in change management, and hopped them straight into the Cabinet.

Instead, he brought in two county councillors – one from Fianna Fáil and one from the Greens. No offence to county councillors, whom regular readers will know I hold in higher regard than most, but the Government can do without this pair. The appointments displayed a sad lack of leadership from Messrs Cowen and Gormley.

But while they must shoulder blame, so must we. The general complaint of the multi-seat system is that it created the clientelist system. But the clientelist system couldn’t work without clients. TDs can write all the meaningless letters they want, but ultimately, every voter has that choice in the polling booth – do I vote for the person that assisted me personally, or do I vote for the person who will work for the common good?

I think we all know how most people answer that question. If Irish voters have shown any consistency throughout the existence of the State, it’s that they vote for the party who will benefit their pocket, and to hell with such highfalutin objectives as the common good.

Now, if that’s their choice, fair enough. But it does mean that when disasters such as the current one occur, accountability has to reach a little further than demands that Seán FitzPatrick be locked up. He probably won’t be. He might have a problem with shifting the loans to Fingers to conceal them from shareholders, but we can be confident that when it comes to the reckless lending and share dealings of directors, he’ll have cover.

He’ll be able to say the financial regulator involved knew. When we ask the regulator why he allowed wholesale disregard of the few regulations we had, he’ll point the finger at the Department of Finance, who will point it straight on to our “light-touch” political leaders: Bertie Ahern, Charlie McCreevy and Brian Cowen. What happened at Anglo, the AIB and the IFSC were not bizarre breaches of the rules by rogues, but policy.

And who elects the policymakers? There is no one who can say they weren’t told how dangerous our economic policy and loose regulation were for our future. People choose what they want to know and what they didn’t want to know.

We’re often reminded now of Bertie Ahern’s remarks in July 2007 that he didn’t understand why these economists talking down the economy didn’t commit suicide. Do you remember where he said it and what reaction he got? It was the Ictu conference in Bundoran, and not only did he get a great laugh from the audience, but also a round of applause. Seán FitzPatrick didn’t do this to us by himself, and neither did Ahern.

How much applause would Ahern or Cowen have gotten in, say, 2006, if they had banned 100 per cent mortgages? What if they demanded higher standards of stress-testing and proof of savings? Would the young couples in their 20s have agreed that this was wise, or would they have revealed the overdeveloped sense of entitlement that has been our downfall?

People are entitled to shelter, but are they really entitled to buy a house if they can’t afford it? I doubt you’d find many people then, and I’m not sure you’d even find them now, who’d be willing to acknowledge that owning your own home is not a civil right, but the result of careful planning, saving and budgeting. Some observe that there was no real choice, because all party manifestos in 2002 and 2007 competed to outspend each other. That is the case, but it exposes precisely the insistence of the people to have their votes bought rather than won. It also ignores the character issue.

Policies change. Character doesn’t. There’s a lot of talk now about how wonderful Richard Bruton is, but when the people had the chance to make this clearly conservative and cautious economist minister for finance, they turned it down in favour of the delusional assurances of Fianna Fáil. Even if the system was different, the choice would have been the same.

The bitter consequences of our bad choices, and not a new constitution, should be the focus of our reflection.

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