IRISH POLITICS IS HARD-WIRED TO THE PREVAILING POPULAR WILL
Gerard Howlin, columnist, founding member of the PD party, former advisor to Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern
The continuing conversation about the need, which I believe in, to reform our institutions, also acts as a continuation by another means of the same rhetoric which our state is founded on. If only we could be free of an alien, unfit apparatus, all will be well. It is the same implicit assumption that someone, something, is to blame, but not ourselves.
But someone else is not to blame, we are. We the people are responsible, because we are sovereign. The narrative that places the primary, even exclusive, blame on politicians or the political system – so called – is inherently about shifting responsibility, rather than accepting it. People in responsibility should, if our institutions were capable, be held to account. Personal responsibility is largely evaded, because in our institutions, responsibility is porous.
Absorbed as systematic failure, it excuses nearly all of any liability. Industrial schools, Magdalen laundries, mother and baby homes, bigger mortgages based on ever higher multiples of wages, a relentless demand for higher wages to fund them and ever greater levels of public spending to sustain the lot, were all founded on popular demand. Each in its own time, and those times are embarrassingly recent, was founded on popular demand. The property bubble was the ultimate expression of an almost demented demand for security and status, in a culture that is extraordinarily insecure. That culture grafted on to a reckless, unchecked explosion of credit, for which there has never been any effective reckoning, led to the catastrophe of our economic collapse. Our flawed institutions mirrored all of that then, and they mirror us now.
The problem with our politics and political institutions is not that they are out of touch. It is that they are hard-wired to the prevailing popular will, to an extent that makes sustaining effective decision-making always difficult, and usually ultimately impossible.
Irish politicians are not an alien class. They are eerily, in their weakness fully representative of us. The serial post-facto self-absolution of public responsibility is hypocrisy. The rowing back already from the central commitment to put the public finances on a sound footing first, the reliance on growth that is anaemic now and which for the future has yet to be realised, to reduce targets for debt reduction is a massive fiscal gamble going forward. It is the Russian roulette we were never going to play again. But it seems we are.
So who is to blame? It is us, or them?
Having enjoyed a misspent youth in politics, it never fails to amaze me how politicians scramble for so long to get elected, get promoted, and then fail to exercise power when it arrives. Tactics become strategy, the chase becomes the ultimate object. Generations of Irish politicians, expertly practised in a system that ultimately fails, are afraid to contemplate changing it. I will propose later what changes we can consider and offer them for your attention in the conviction that we must do something, even at a personal level. As the poet Rilke said; ‘you must change the way you live your life’. The courage of change is the only hope for the future. It is the debt we must re-pay to the past.
The broken promise of the last election that matters most, the unpaid debt we still owe, is the promise of a democratic revolution. We voted in 2011 for the third largest turnover of parliamentary seats in any western democracy since the Second World War. It was change on a scale unseen in Ireland since 1918. There was an assumption in decimating Fianna Fáil that Ireland was signing up for institutional revolution. It never happened and here we are, back to where we started, but different. Different in the sense that what was torn down cannot be replenished. It is irretrievably gone.
A weakness at the heart of Irish politics upon which pivot recurring cycles of popular demand, political promise and eventual retribution, is the multi-seat constituency. The 2011 election was an aberration. The last landslide victory before that was in 1977. The norm of Irish politics, the one I predict we are re-arrived at, is where a handful of votes, in a handful of constituencies change governments. Changing this system, had it been contemplated and it wasn’t, would have been the single most important reform of our politics. Single seat constituencies, based on proportional representation, would have perceptibly reduced the pressures that repeatedly and inevitably lead to short term and wrong decision making. But now that is a “what-if”, and it won’t happen.
What was actioned was a constitutional referendum to strengthen the power of Oireachtas committees. This was to ensure our legislature would more effectively interrogate issues and hold office holders to account. But in an act of hubristic over-reach, the proposal was poisoned and voted down. An opportunity for considered reform that would have enhanced accountability, while respecting the rights of citizens, was squandered.
Similarly lost was a constitutional amendment to abolish the Seanad. Seanad Éireann in its current form is part of our institutional debris. A useful, but strictly limited, platform for alternative views, it has enormous potential to enhance connectivity with a disillusioned electorate. This remains, however, unrealised potential and there are no meaningful signs, from a government disgruntled by its retention, of real reform in the offing. There is a wealth of constructive analysis, however, for a better way forward, not least from Senators Fergal Quinn and Katherine Zappone. Their detailed proposal is for a universal franchise, within the existing constitutional framework. The government in my view has an obligation either to act on those proposals, or to come up with a better but similarly radical alternative.
The lesson of those lost referenda are manifold, but two stand out for me. Firstly the people are not prepared to place politicians in the judgment seat to arbitrate on the reputation of citizens. Secondly, disillusioned as people may be, there is a desire for better politics. As many of us know from a self-examination of conscience, reluctance to face responsibility is not incompatible with an intention to do better in future. The nexus of political power, however, is the Dáil. It is here that our system is weakest, in most need of reform and where immediate steps can if taken if only the will exists. Our parliamentary system is based on government enforcing its power as an executive over the legislature. It simultaneously, in a double sided weakness, fails to enforce effective accountability on the apparatus of state it presides over. By holding the public service in a bear hug, too tight to allow either for real accountability or frank, unfiltered advice the capacity of our public service to realise its potential for responsibility as well as accountability is neutered.
This is a Faustian pact. It derives from a nineteenth century model where ministers could supposedly account for the administration as well as the policies of their departments. In the vastly enlarged and increasingly technocratic reach of the modern state, this is impossible. As events demonstrated, by 2011 the lack of clear demarcation between political responsibility for policy decisions on one hand, and administration and policy advice on the other, had mutated into reputational destruction for all concerned.
What is required is both much more accountability and much more responsibility at every level. The Fiscal Advisory Council is a tentative step in the right direction. Its existence doesn’t oblige the government to take a particular policy line, but its independent advice creates a positive pressure point in the system. It also ensures that a government that exercises its prerogative to ignore that advice can be effectively held to account against a credible benchmark.
Politicians who, when in government, repeatedly fail to reform and strengthen processes of parliamentary and administrative accountability mistakenly think they are protecting themselves and their political prerogative. There is a fundamental connection between the politics that failed then and that continue to under-deliver now. The grasping and insecurity at the heart of our society lives on as a legacy in how we exercise power.
In Ireland, the government of the day is left unchallenged in parliament by the absence of systematic oversight. The continuing almost abject failure of Oireachtas committees to effectively scrutinise the budgets of departments and the policies they are premised on is astonishing. There is a lack of seriousness of purpose that is mirrored by a lack of resources, and is ultimately based on the well founded premise that there is little public interest, let alone political reward. Better off then, shout about Garth Brooks than sweat over a morass of impenetrable estimates that actually do effect the public finances and the quality of public services.
Government is also unchallenged institutionally within by the expert resource who should be giving advice, free from the political pressures that surround every government. A cohabitation of mutual malaise between governments in power and their civil servants is not political; it is institutional. In an oblique exchange of favours, neither side adequately challenges the other, nor fulfills its full potential to serve the country better.
A strengthening of the Dáil and its committees in both resources and powers, a transparent legal framework that both effectively hold senior management to account and obliges and enables them to advise more independently and frankly would be positive pressures, for the development of better policy. In refusing to cut through the fog of who in fact is accountable for what in our system, nobody is really accountable for anything. Breaking that cycle would ultimately strengthen our politics, and our public administration.
Electing the Ceann Comhairle by secret ballot, distributing committee chairs on a D’Hondt system, resourcing committees with expert staff, and making Secretaries- General, and CEO’s of state agencies directly responsible for the administration and budgets of their departments is crucial. The scale of modern public administration is beyond the capacity of politicians to effectively manage. But the management who are trained to fulfill that role do not have the effective legal responsibility.
A Secretary-General who at the start of a fiscal year tells the relevant Dáil committee that their estimate is adequate to deliver on policy, should be held to that. Equally they should be empowered, and effectively enabled, to say differently. The consequences for the exercise of political power are obvious. It would have to be a lot more responsible.
We can’t go on with a system of politics and public administration akin to a dung heap, astride which are cocks who won’t crow.
The suddenness with which ministers and senior officials succumb to Stockholm syndrome in a mutual capture of one by the other is astonishing. Our legislature, our government and our administration are not in any meaningful sense countervailing spheres of influence. Our system has all the inherent tension of snapped knicker elastic. It is effectively a single morass, founded institutionally on inherited mutual convenience, that serves none well.
This matters because institutions do shape culture. The absorbent flaccidness of our institutional architecture, delivering an avoidance of responsibility, rather than its acceptance, is a beacon of sorts. It succeeds as sirens do, in bringing the ship of state onto the rocks. Righting the wrongs in our institutions, redesigning the architecture of our public life, would indeed be of benefit. It is something that is within our power to do; and we should do it. But our reticence in doing something, doing anything, is part of a deeper malaise, a moral one. Ours is a society predicated not on taking responsibility but on placing blame.
Ours is a politics where citizens, as much as politicians, repeatedly fail in their obligations. The serial subcontracting of responsibility to the Catholic Church, the Irish government, the European Union is a fundamentally false premise. We the people elect our politicians who invariably insult our intelligence by gratifying our demands. Having gotten what we want, but appalled by the consequences, we disown and denounce them. Why? The fundamental flaw in Irish politics is its absolute inbuilt requirement for a constant tactical trimming of the sails of public policy, to the prevailing wind of public demand, unchecked by any effective institutional inhibition.
The washing of hands and the shifting of blame, corrosive at the top, comes in our society from the bottom up, as much as from the top down. Our broken system is the cracked mirror through which we see ourselves. It is hardly surprising if we are appalled.