Changing the Culture Will Take Political Will and Visionary Leadership


Catherine Murphy TD, Independent deputy for Kildare North


There appears to be a courageous gene within our general culture, yet when it comes to politics, as a people we are hugely passive, we seem to articulate the need for radical change but vote for conservative entities to deliver it.   There is a lack of choice not just in ideologies, but also in how politics is practised.  To use a cliché, you can’t separate the political from the organisational.

In recent weeks we have heard the term, rule with both the heart and the head used.   There is no doubt that good decision making can occur at both levels.   However, when it comes to politics, it does require a balance between both emotional and intellectual decision making if we are to get balanced outcomes that take a short medium and long term view. Too much emotional politics which, in effect, is reactive rather than proactive, has led to a tendency of short termism.  Emotional politics can be a window, however, for wider citizen engagement which often leads to longer term action.

We might not, for example, like how much tribunals of enquiry cost or how long they take to arrive at a conclusion but they were set up following heightened citizen engagement expressed mainly through anger.  Their findings will, however, have a lasting impacts in areas such as planning; ethics in politics etc.

Emotions change much more quickly than ideas;  it’s a critically important window with people gaining a better understanding of  institutional failure through practical examples.

Recent examples were the withdrawal of discretionary medical cards.  The same is true of the housing and homeliness crisis; it took the exposing of individual hard cases,  where people saw the impact on fellow citizens, in cases  where there was a medical need,  or where families found it necessary to sleep in cars or temporary hotel accommodation,  in order  to gain some public understanding which resulted in outrage and then change.

The problem is that many of these things could be anticipated and avoided if we had a more proactive rather than a reactive system  – if the more dynamic political side of our policy making was functioning and if we had institutions that were citizen friendly.

Political engagement

About 2% of the population are members of political parties.  That is low by international standards.  Those of us who canvass at election time can often say with some certainty ‘that’s a FF or a FG house’.

The membership base of both those parties will probably make up the majority of the 2% of those who are “active” in politics.

Some of that political activity is, however, passive between elections,  in the case of FF a lot of its membership are involved in  community activism,  in organisations such as the GAA which is understandable given its origins, residents’ groups, chambers of commerce etc.  However, members can be called on for the Ard Fheis, elections etc.

If we are to examine the intertwining of our political and administrative institutions, I think you have to look at the internal culture of the political parties.  The political party that has been most dominant is Fianna Fáil who have been in power for a total of over 60 years.

The Fianna Fáil “family” is more about followers then a party of equal members.   Loyalty plays a big part in the party’s culture and loyalty is rewarded whenever possible.

There are more rewards available when the party is in power; this approach has, up to recent years, contributed to what became a ‘crony culture’; it applied to all parties when they were in power.

Fianna Fáil saw itself as of the people.  With many of its members embedded in community life that is not surprising.  It is a pragmatic party and, as such, hovers around the political centre.  It generally follows rather than leads change; because it is primarily a populist party it is particularly prone to short term thinking.  It is seen as a slightly anti-establishment, which is some achievement given the length of time it has been in power.

Part of the reason for this comes from outsourcing; for example education and health to religious orders or institutions; who were then trusted to deliver the services, but, of course, accountability was also outsourced.  The HSE was designed to be at one remove demonstrating the same trend.

Another part of the anti-establishment tag I expect comes from the anti-treaty history of the party.  Fianna Fáil’s membership is drawn from a wide spectrum of society.   They have been prone to seeing the civil service as an extension of themselves. They ceded the policy-making role to the civil service.  Many in senior ranks up to relatively recently were appointed by them, so much so that it muddied the lines between the political and administrative.

While Fine Gael draws its membership from a narrower base; it is quite paternal in its practice of politics; it has often found itself in power in difficult times and out of power after one term.

There are many similarities between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael particularly on economic matters.  Both parties see loyalty as essential; and loyalty is the route to reward whether that reward takes the form of nomination to a state board, promotion through the ranks, access to a ministerial portfolio and so on.

Loyalty in politics is often a conservative value; it’s used as a means of self-preservation.  Citizens are now seeing loyalty, in that context, as misplaced.



Instead of building functioning institutions that have been designed with the citizen at the centre where taxation is seen as a function of social solidarity we instead operate a clientelist system for those who cannot navigate or access public services which they have paid for and should be entitled to.

TDs act as middlemen or women – instead of fixing the system we are on a never ending merry-go-round of fixing problems.   This individualises issues between the politician and the citizen.

The clientelist system maintains politics at an emotional level, where there is an expectation of a vote in return for a favour.  It dilutes the possibility of social solidarity; it makes citizens dependent rather than independent.   It may be really good for Joe Duffy’s listenership but it’s no way to design and deliver services to the citizens of a republic.   A simplified and more transparent approach may produce better public engagement, which should include creating a relationship between what we pay for and what we get.

Take the Universal Social Charge: who knows what it is collected for other than that the state is short of money.  Or the property tax; the current focus around property tax  is almost exclusively  about how it can be reduced,  rather than what services it is paying for, and how services were funded prior to its introduction.  It is not generated or collected locally, which is where the democratic process should see a friction between the political choices offered and where political engagement should take place.

In terms of our Institutions, we have to accept we are not  good at institution building; our health, education, legal and local government systems were inherited and then tweaked rather than over time being redesigned and radically reformed where needed.  To add to that, we have a tendency to outsource service delivery.  Not only was the function or service outsourced but accountability and responsibility were also outsourced.  The lack of clarity for citizens in accessing services is more complicated, as a consequence fragmented and compromised, often leading to poorer outcomes and hence we are back on the  clientelist merry go round.

We are of course capable of reforming our institutions but that won’t happen unless the political will is there.  That will take vision and leadership. I think the late Peter Mair put it well when he said “a political world which has ceded much of its control to other organizations and groups, and which has become autonomous and self contained, rarely connecting in any meaningful sense to a life outside itself.”


Culture at citizen level – is it changing!

We are governed by a type of paternal conservatism which is the opposite of what should occur in a Republic.  The lack of transparency has been used in a deliberate way to avoid confrontation. It often comes back to bite, and can cost more in the end.  People are presented with a fait accompli which they often feel aggrieved about.  It leaves them feeling powerless.

There is also a fear that transparency is not something that can be controlled, that it will bring about confrontation; what is not recognised is that friction or conflict can produce positive outcomes because it helps to clarify choices.

Fear and insecurity are used to manage expectations.  An example was the response to economist, Morgan Kelly, when he warned about the bubble that was inflating  the property market.  The political response was to dismiss him and advise him that he needed to stop talking down the economy.  Our political leaders and their chosen experts knew better and kept reassuring people that we were in for a soft landing.   Political leadership was after all about telling people what they wanted to hear.  When the crash happened there was bound to be a reaction.

While huge numbers of citizens did not take to the streets they did exact a political revenge on those who got it so wrong, but they did so through the ballot box.  That was repeated in the most recent Local and European Elections, principally because many citizens felt duped by political promises at the 2011 General Election and what has transpired since.

There is no doubt that anger partly drives that response; which is understandable.  It would however be a mistake to view this response as a short term emotional reaction solely rooted in revenge.  I believe it is a stored up determination, it is very deliberate, and it is also intended to be creative. Anyone who canvassed during the recent Local and European elections will have an inkling of why 28% of people voted “Independent”.

Political parties are seen by some as clubs – they have two agendas, the internal one being hidden but dominant.  Those voting “Independent” continuously expressed the view that they want black to be black and white to be white.

  • They have had it with spin;
  • They have had it with the control of back benchers through sanctions imposed by the whip system; they see intelligent people who were capable of independent thought and action within the parties effectively being muzzled.
  • They want those elected to be the servants of the people and not the servants of the party.

Political parties need to respond to that message in a meaningful way.   It is also true to say that citizens have become more confident and competent in analysing complex matters.  They have seen so many so called experts get it so badly wrong, which has resulted in increasing numbers of people trusting their own judgement.

They also see an unequal outcome with households, for example, with unsustainable debt still in the mire, which contrasts with many developers who are returning to building free of debt.  Moral hazard it appears is just for the little people, which is a powerful message about elites in society.

They see little change in bank personnel and many of the so called experts stopped to say “whoops, I got that wrong” before moving on.

There is also a new freedom in how people are prepared to vote; they will make judgements in what they believe will be in their own best interest.   I believe it is essential that this is turned into collective interest rather than individual interest.   What amazed me during the recent local elections was the degree to which “expert commentators” are ignored.

There was almost snobbery in how the “Independent” vote was analysed by some commentators following those elections.  It was seen as a problem rather than an opportunity for a more equal relationship between citizens and those who represent them.

It was possible for the same commentators to be rational about those who had chosen to vote Sinn Féin, because it came in the form of a political party, yet still offered a more radical agenda and was a vehicle for both revenge and creativity.

The same people who analysed the problem posed by Independents failed to consider the organisational obstacles posed by Sinn Féin, who are organised on an all-island basis.   How would that work  if they were in power in both jurisdictions at the same time; would a campaigning party be compatible with government; or how would a party where members have an equal role in decision making work if that party found itself in  government?

The point I am trying to make is that Sinn Féin, like any party, bring their own challenges but they do come in the neat package of being a political party unlike Independents. There is an acceptance at citizen level that radical reform will not come from the conservative political establishment.

So we have to ask has the political centre shifted.  Will that produce greater political diversity and just as importantly will it change how politics is practised?

Dáil Reform and the Whip System and new Entities

The dominant culture in the parliament is one of control; the Government has the power and everyone else-opposition, government backbenchers, the Senate all have influence to a greater or lesser degree – with a whip system heavily applied.

The constitution provides for a separation of powers but everything from the selection of committee chairpersons to the timetable of the Dáil is totally controlled by the Government.    It is however, difficult to see how new entities will successfully emerge partly because of how politics is funded.

The relationship between political parties and the corporate sector, with the construction sector dominant, has been costly on so many levels. A more restrictive donation regime has been introduced.

In recent years, significant transfers towards the cost of running politics and political parties come from the exchequer.  However, the way funding is provided favours the status quo.  Electoral Act funding is allocated on the basis of the first preference vote at the preceding general election;   while funding like the parliamentary activities allowance, formally known as the leaders allowance, is paid in respect of every member of the Dáil except the Ceann Comhairle; it is paid to the party leader in most cases but individually to Independents who were Independents at the 2011 General Election.

When a party member loses the whip, the party leader retains the allowance which limits the parliamentary activity of the member who loses the whip.

If the parliamentary activities allowance was paid directly to the member it would rebalance the power in favour of the individual member.  This would result in a greater respect for the mandate and help to change the culture.

It is interesting to note that nowhere in the constitution is there any reference to political parties;   it is the individual mandate that is recognised with the right to form associations which is accepted as meaning political parties.

Leadership and Accountability

  • The definition of good leadership is about making the right decisions
  • The definition of good management is about carrying out the tasks that make those decisions happen.

They are separate spheres and need to be treated as such.  While it is possible to have popular leaders, that is easier in times of plenty.  We perhaps need to define what leadership is; it was once described to be as all about delivering loss.

If leadership is about delivering loss it can only be done by grounding it in values like equality, solidarity and fairness.  Otherwise, those who are subject to unpopular decisions will not find acceptance in the decisions made.

We also need to define or redefine words like accountability.   In some cases trust was taken to mean “Responsibility and Accountability” when functions and responsibility were outsourced.

There is a tendency to see those complaining as a nuisance with the default button pressed and the establishment almost always taking the side of the institution.   Trust is not a substitute for accountability.

We have also developed a culture where accountability equates to blame which is seen as negative, we need to spell out what it should mean. Transparency and accountability are also seen as problem creators rather than essential in a functioning society. There has been a tendency to give as little information as possible and hope people won’t notice until it’s too late when they can do nothing about it.  Consultation involves time and energy and it costs up front but over time it delivers returns.

The provision of information in a digestible format in a timely way is essential.  Citizen engagement should be made easy and processes simplified, to provide for that.  There are some good initiatives underway and we need to see more of them.  Open Data and the Open Partnership Group is a good example which I warmly welcome.

I think it is fair to conclude that many of our institutional failings are rooted in our political culture or cultures.   There is a huge reform agenda.  If we are to change that culture it will take political will and some visionary leadership.

In summary:

Some obvious changes are:

  1. The need for greater separation between government and the civil service where the lines of responsibility and accountability are clearly defined.
  2. We need to stop outsourcing responsibility.
  3. We need greater citizen engagement in politics and to be more open to new ways of practising politics and greater transparency is essential.
  4. We need to design our public services with the citizen at the centre where it is possible for citizens to navigate their way easily – reducing the need for clientelism.
  5. We need to redefine what words like leadership and accountability mean, we also need to define what being a citizen of a republic is.
  6. We need greater political diversity, with impediments to the emergence of new political entities relaxed.


Book Tickets 2021