Why there is still so little accountability in Ireland


OPINION:Tribal loyalty rooted in fealty to party has much to do with the lack of accountability

POLITICAL ACCOUNTABILITY is weak in Ireland compared to the rest of democratic Europe; ministerial resignations happen once in a blue moon and mandarins and public sector bosses have little to fear if things go wrong on their watch.

When high office holders resign after erring or messing up, they are rarely shoved, but jump in their own good time and usually with golden parachutes attached.

Despite the comparatively low price to be paid for misdeeds and mistakes by those who wield power, its use and abuse for personal gain is less frequent and less serious than in some other peer countries, such as those of southern Europe, where individuals have good reason to fear the state and its agents.

Charles Haughey at his rapaciousness worst never came near matching Silvio Berlusconi’s abuse of power and unrelenting undermining of Italy’s democratic infrastructure. Civil servants do not routinely siphon tens of millions of euro from public budgets, as happens in Greece.

Why are the structures and culture of accountability so weak in Ireland and why is there not more abuse of office for personal gain given the low risk of being held to account?

The answer to the second question lies in the strength of another pillar of democratic governance – the rule of law. Its operation and observance over the history of this State has been an effective restraining influence on bad government.

Successive administrations have been respectful, even excessively deferential on occasion towards the judiciary. In no other democracy does one hear politicians speak so frequently of the views and opinions of the government’s legal adviser (in our case, the attorney general).

Strong rule of law has done exactly what it is supposed to do – help protect individuals and groups from abuses of political power.

Individuals have wide scope to challenge government planning decisions so their property rights are protected. The courts compensate generously those who suffer negligence or misconduct. The protection afforded minorities, particularly in the early decades of the State when the championing of diversity was not internationally fashionable, was exemplary by the standards of the time. Protestants, Travellers and Jews enjoyed political, civil, religious and economic liberties when in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s many other European states took those rights from their minorities and sometimes their lives.

Two things explain the effective functioning of the rule of law: English history and the Irish Constitution.

After a week that saw Anglo-Irish relations reach (much delayed) full normalisation, it is an appropriate moment to acknowledge one of the more positive legacies of centuries of political integration with our neighbour.

Most historians believe that the rule of law first operated meaningfully in England, before anywhere where else in the world, when Queen Elizabeth’s distant predecessors had their powers circumscribed. The belief and practice of subjecting the exercise of political power to law expanded over centuries. As Ireland was part of the same polity, the importance of the rule of law penetrated here also. Wariness of an over-weaning state was evident from the earliest days of independence. The politicians who took power in the 1920s were classic 19th century limited-state liberals. This was reflected in, among other things, the leaving of the provision of most health and education services to civil society entities.

Respect for the rule of law is also attributable to the design of the State’s constitutional architecture. The judiciary was given unusually strong powers. It can, for instance, shoot down legislation before and after enactment. In few democracies is parliament’s will subject to such wide-ranging judicial review.

But strong rule of law with weak accountability is an unusual mix. In most democracies accountability is closely linked with respect for the rule of law.

In the world’s largest democracy, India, the exercise of political power is weakly governed by law and politicians can get away with – in some cases literally – murder. One-third of MPs in the federal parliament are under indictment for a range of criminal offences, some of them very serious, with only a limited prospect that they will be tried, never mind convicted.

By contrast, in the world’s second largest democracy, the United States, the rule of law has been a cornerstone of its functioning since that republic was founded.

Politicians who are caught doing wrong often go to jail – by one count in the last decade 50 former mayors were behind bars for abuse of office. Dominique Strauss-Kahn is only the latest high flyer to find that even the most powerful cannot act with impunity.

This brings us back to the first question: why is accountability so weak in Ireland? Again, a combination of history and institutional design may offer the best reason.

In a new book, The Origins of Political Order, American academic and thinker Francis Fukuyama notes that Ireland remained a clan-based society until much more recently than most of western Europe. Such societies prize tribal loyalty above impersonal forms of allegiance to concepts and values, such as political ideology and notions of effective government.

This might explain why voters have been so loyal to the ideologically indistinct Civil War parties. The weak link between paying taxes and demanding accountability may be another example. In most countries taxpayers’ movements make it their business to highlight government waste. No such organisation has existed here. During the boom, when so much money was being so obviously wasted, this writer had a pet question for politicians: do voters raise the matter of the squandering of their taxes on the doorstep?

They answer was always no.

The second reason for weak accountability is to be found in the Constitution. The Oireachtas is an unusually weak parliament because the Constitution collapses the executive and legislative branches of government into each other. This is a recipe for a cowed assembly and such a parliament can never be a strong and assertive enforcer of accountability.

The relationship between institutions and culture, and the outcomes their interplay produces, is complex to say the least. But almost everyone who has thought hard about the subject agrees that a more independent and powerful Oireachtas, with greater separation from the executive, would ensure greater accountability in public life.

This should happen at the forthcoming constitutional review and should be symbolised by the Oireachtas decamping from Leinster House, which is physically attached to the Government Buildings complex. There is a purpose-built parliament building on College Green where it could conduct its business with an appropriate degree of separation from government.

Dan O’Brien is Economics Editor. His review of Francis Fukuyama’s book will appear in next Saturday’s Irish Times.