Clientelism Remains the Dominant Feature of Irish Political Culture


Pat Leahy, Political Editor, Sunday Business Post


In the months after the Bank Guarantee in 2008, the topics of conversation amongst the Irish public changed dramatically.   Contracts for Difference and Credit Default Swaps suddenly littered your average pub conversation as people acquainted themselves with the heroes and villains of the financial world. Politics became familiar once again with finite budgets.  Economists, God help us all, became sexy and sought-after. (This appeared to drive some of them quite over the edge!)

This much is widely known and commented upon.  What is less appreciated is that it started a fairly dramatic increase in public engagement with politics.  People didn’t see the failures of the political system and walk away from it – they became energised and walked towards it.

Audiences for political programmes increased significantly.  All politicians will tell you that daily events were being followed more widely.  And, of course, there was a welcome increase in the numbers willing to purchase modestly promoted books about politics which sought to explain the suddenly changed landscape and how we got there.

More profoundly, the collapse of 2008, 2009 and 2010 led to a society-wide insecurity.  The fundamental expectations people had concerning their careers, their housing and education and their standards of living changed overnight.  In a circumstance where people were questioning their own expectations and beliefs of course they were going to extend this to politics.

The collapse of the largest party of government, the party which represented the failing establishment, was the most obvious sign of this.  We measured it in polls and explained it with personalities.  The fall of Fianna Fáil was the face of the fall of the old political attitudes – but what we all don’t appreciate enough was how much wider the change in political sentiment was.

People understood that what had happened was not just a failure of parties and personalities but a failure of the political system – the way we develop, implement and oversee political decisions.

This much is clear in opinion polls and political research then and since. It was also obvious to anyone who spent anytime knocking on doors with politicians during the 2011 general election campaign.

I think what we have seen since then is not the profound change of the old system, but rather its refurbishment leaving the core elements untouched.  I suggest that in 2011, at a moment of existential danger for the Irish system which had been seen by many of its citizens to fail, the system was saved by the Fine Gael Labour coalition.

It is clear to most of us, I think, that this government is better than the last one: but you cannot seriously argue that it has changed the way we do politics

Partly, I suggest, this is because our political system is an expression of our political culture.  And what we have seen is a demand from people to change the system, without the underlying political culture undergoing any change itself.  The expectations and demands of our electoral system remain largely the same.  I will return to this point later.

One way of realising that is to consider one of the most frequently asserted beliefs of Irish politics: the public demand for change.  But ask yourself how many times it is made clear: change to what?

Seen this way, and considering the results of the recent elections, we may be seeing a rise in ‘protest’ voting at the expense of ‘change’ voting – a large minority voting to make a statement rather than to support a programme.

Because defining what you want to change entails upsetting people, and one of the bedrocks of Irish political culture is to avoid upsetting anyone.  Back to the future.  But let us go back to the midst of the crisis.

The public appetite for system change is something which the extremely effective Fine Gael electoral machine understood.  They saw early on that people needed to be shown that Fine Gael was serious about a word previously largely missing from the Irish political lexicon; “reform”.

There’s no question, for example, that the October 2009 call for the abolition of the Senate was driven by market research saying that Fine Gael had to show it wanted to change the system rather than just get control of it.  It was a dramatic move which in retrospect should have warned people of what was to come.

But if the Senate was irrelevant, if it didn’t perform any useful function that could not be carried out elsewhere, then how could its abolition represent a changing of the system?  Effectively what we saw in that policy, and what has come since, is a renovation of an old structure.  It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

After years of being dismissed as a poor public performer, Enda Kenny marked the 2011 election by crafting one of the most memorable soundbytes of the modern Irish political age.  The day after the election, he announced that Ireland had just seen a “democratic revolution”.  The phrase flashed around the world. You can google it and see what happens.

The phrase’s pungency and potency gave it a powerful engine in the days after the election.  A week later, it framed the opening lines of the programme for government:

“On the 25th of February, a democratic revolution took place in Ireland. Old beliefs, traditions and expectations were blown away.  The stroke of a pen, in thousands of polling stations, created this political whirlwind.  The public demanded change and looked to parties that would deliver the change they sought.”

I don’t know about you, but from where I’m standing three years later, it doesn’t exactly look like St Petersburg in late 1917.  I mean, the place is hardly unrecognisable now, is it?

There have been some reforms under the coalition, to be fair. Some useful if relatively minor changes have been made to the way parliament does its business.  Let me tell you about those, as enunciated by the chief whip on this very matter in the Dáil:

The government has introduced a prelegislative stage for new laws, where a Dáil committee can discuss the general outline of the sponsoring minister’s proposals.

“The prelegislative stage,” he said, “will allow for an unprecedented and extensive engagement by the public in lawmaking.  The relevant committee will be able to consult experts and civic society.”

However, it is entirely voluntary.  A minister doesn’t have to do it and, critically, they don’t have to listen to anything that is said.

If there has been a prelegislative stage, the Chairman or Vice Chairman (both of whom are automatically government backbenchers) has a right equal to that of the Minister and the Opposition spokespersons to speak in the Dáil to outline the committee’s work. (wow)

On First Stage, the proposer of a Private Members’ Bill now has five minutes to outline the purpose of the Bill. (Which means they read out the press release)

“The system of debating Topical Issues has also been improved. A Minister or a Minister of State from the relevant Department replies to each matter raised during Topical Issue debates.  A Deputy can ask to have the matter deferred until a Minister from the relevant Department is available.” (excuse me while I build the barricade)

Changes have also been made to Dáil questions.  An ordinary oral question is now answered only if the deputy tabling the question is in the Chamber when it is reached.  The deputy is given a brief period of 30 seconds to outline the question.  An Opposition spokesperson can no longer nominate questions in the name of other Deputies.  However, he or she can submit five ordinary questions on his or her own behalf.

Some of this may be welcome but to extend the previous metaphor, It’s not exactly putting the Czar up against the wall, now is it?

Constitutional reforms have been proposed, and some accepted by the people. What unites them is a protection of the fundamental structure of our political system.  Cutting judges pay may be good politics, but changing the way the country works it ain’t.

The constitutional convention itself, originally proposed by Labour as having a carte blanche to rewrite the constitution, was given highly limited terms of reference.  It has now completed its work, and none of its proposed changes, not even the hair brained one of giving teenagers the right to vote at 16,  address the structure or operations of our political system,

Local government has been reduced in size, though not empowered.  Corporate donations have been reduced in size.  Soft gender quotas have been introduced.

Brendan Howlin has been a reformer, but he has not been transformational.

I believe him to be more radical than the reality of government has allowed him to be and the ongoing watering down of changes has been unmistakeable.  If you remember back to 2011 you will recall that a new era of professional management in the civil service had supposedly arrived with the external advertising of positions and the appointment of an outsider to run the Department of Finance.  When that same outsider departed this year he was replaced by a consummate insider and no external candidates could apply.

The establishment of an Independent Fiscal Advisory Policy by statute was also signalled as a great departure.   It was supposed to make sure that politicians respected expert advice.  It has now made recommendations for three budgets and these recommendations have been rejected three out of three times.

State Boards were supposed to become more expert and independent – to be opened up to outsiders.   In fact, as the appointments made by departing ministers demonstrate, patronage remains a significant part of such decisions.

So some things have changed in our country in the past three years.   But it is not, I think, possible to seriously make the case that the nature of our political system, the way we conduct our government and public life has been changed in a profound or substantial way.  The essence of our political system, of the way power is structured, remains the same.

Power rests with the government.  Parliament is institutionally weak, timid and dominated by the whip system. Opposition parties and deputies remain primarily interested in how to get a ‘hit’ on the government and, more importantly, get covered by the media.  The civil service is conservative and the quango and semi-state landscape is dominated by powerful agencies each minding their own turf. This is the Irish system.

But political culture is more than the system.  It is a misjudgment, I think, to interpret unhappiness with the system as a change in the political culture.  In fact I think the system has remained intact because the culture has not changed.  It’s all about power

The defining characteristic of the practice of politics in Ireland is the effort to obtain and retain power.  This is how you get a government which does understand the need for change, indeed you could even say it believes it is delivering change, but will only deliver change which protects or enhances its own power.

And there is nothing different in the behaviour of the opposition.

Most days, the primary purpose of questions is to find ways of showing the government to be heartless and out of touch because it has not recognised the need to give extra funding to a group or service.  There is no genuine interest in, for example, submitting comprehensive policies to independent bodies to cost not only the headline costs of individual policies but their full economic and fiscal impact.

Clientelism remains the dominant feature of Irish political culture.   It works at a local level with parties putting more and more pressure on candidates to ‘get to the doorsteps’ on a non-stop basis.  At a national level, the race is to find groups who will be grateful for what you’ve done or propose to do on their behalf.  The national interest remains defined by a succession of interest groups. There is no escaping the fact that this is the case because this is what people are willing to reward.  We want better, more effective national policy.   However there is, as yet, no indication that this will be our priority when deciding who to vote for.

As Peter Mair pointed out,  many people believe that the government and the state is something separate/foreign to them

If you want a definition of how the political culture is largely unchanged all you have to do is to look at the debate on future fiscal policy. We have just been through a situation where we had a dramatic budget deficit which threatened the basic economic foundations of the state.  A drastic programme of tax increases and spending cuts was required to bring it under control.  So you would expect that, now that we are reaching a point of stability, the priority debate would be about basic questions like what size the state should be, what levels of taxation are sustainable and appropriate?

In fact the only debate is how fast we can start spending again and whether we can reduce taxes on ‘ordinary families’ – which in Ireland means nearly everyone.

The reaction to the recent local and European elections has been one of “how fast can we get back to spending” not “have we achieved a lasting stability in the budget?”  But to this it could be said that these same elections involved a major shift in votes to left wing parties and independents.

Yes, that is true.  But, in terms of votes the largest two parties remain Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.   Equally, the last thing you get from the rest of the voters is ideological clarity.   If they came together, the fourth largest party in local government would be called “I’d have stood for Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael but they wouldn’t select me”.  If there is a coherence in May’s results it is the scale of the vote to protest against the system.

In 2011 people were too fast to see it as a realigning election.  As I said here in the past, it was more of a dealigning election. People cut free of past commitments and started a search for a long-term political home.  Most have not found that home yet – because while people want to change the system it is not yet clear they want to change the culture.  Until that day comes, there will be no real change of the way we do politics.


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