Stephen Donnelly TD, Independent member of the Dáil for Wicklow and East Carlow


The Irish political system has operated as a duopoly from day one although, unlike similar countries like the US and the UK, Irish voters don’t see much difference between the choices.

The failure of the establishment parties is so deep that for the first time in the history of the State, the cartel is under threat. But, for it to matter who is in power, the political system must modernise how it works. How it works served Ireland well for many years, with great gains in equality, health, education and prosperity seen in the latter half of the 20th century. But while the rest of the developed world evolved its working practices, Ireland’s political system and institutions did not. These two worlds collided in the 21st Century with drastic consequences for Ireland, including a collapsed economy and lagging education and healthcare systems.

But even with everything that’s happened, with all the promises, and with all the public demand, the political system in Ireland has failed yet again to modernise, leaving us vulnerable once more. This is because the political parties themselves have failed to modernise, and so we see their working practices reflected in those of the wider political system, which reflect those of wider institutional Ireland.

A political party that is designed to work in a more modern way is not only possible, it would be a catalyst for much-needed change, and should be well rewarded by the electorate.

“Has the political landscape changed utterly?”

The political landscape hasn’t changed yet, though for the first time since the foundation of the State it could.

However, while we obsess over the struggle between the parties, there’s another struggle taking place – over how the business of politics is conducted. This struggle isn’t between parties, but between different types of politicians – those who want things to stay more or less as they are, and those who want to modernise.

The outcome of this struggle is just as important for the future of the country as the one between the parties. How parliament works is reflected right across the public sector. And right now, neither parliament nor large swathes of the public sector are fit for purpose. Over the past decade or so we’ve seen the dire consequences of that. Right now it’s unclear how this struggle is going to play out. But if we’re to equip Ireland to prosper in the coming years, we need to modernise the public sector and THAT will only happen if we modernise parliament…and THAT will only happen if we modernise political parties.

The Political Landscape We Can All See

When people talk about changes in Ireland’s ‘political landscape’, what they’re typically referring to is the number of seats each party might get, and what combination of parties will be in power. Here’s what that’s looked like since 1922.

We see a classic duopoly, with either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael/Labour governments in place most of the time. Towards the end, there’s a bit of disruption to that with the PDs and the Greens, but the electorate put an end to that as we know. This is a similar pattern to political cartels we see in other democracies, like the UK and the US, with one important difference – the Irish voter doesn’t really differentiate between Fianna Fáil governments and Fine Gael/Labour governments.

Since being elected in 2011, I’ve had a lot of conversations with people about politics, and have spoken with a lot of people who identify themselves as either staunch Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael voters. I’ve asked many of them to identify a single policy difference between the two parties, and less than one in ten could.

The People Think They’re All The Same

For those who prefer data to anecdotes, here’s the science. A 2011 paper by Dr. Liam Weeks shows what percentage of voters think that it doesn’t matter what party is in government. Ireland tops the league by a mile, with three times more Irish voters thinking there’s no difference between the parties than in most comparable countries.

It’s also interesting to note that this data was compiled between 2001 and 2004, so it’s not reflecting recent events in Ireland. I bet if we re-ran the survey now, the figure it Ireland would be far, far higher. So it’s probably fair to say that for many Irish voters, we haven’t even had a political duopoly – more a monopoly masquerading as choice….

How the cartel has looked for ever.

This is how the political landscape looks to many Irish voters. A Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael/Labour cartel in the middle, surrounded by a few noisy challengers.

And this is why people are so interested in the political landscape – because even with all the advantages of incumbency, and all the barriers they put in place, the Establishment Parties messed things up so spectacularly for Ireland that, for the first time in the history of the State, the cartel is under threat….

What the landscape looks like, at least temporarily.

Everyone’s doing the numbers of what combination of these groups might give a coalition at least 80 seats in the 32nd Dáil.

Maybe Sinn Féin will become a main political force, maybe Labour will sink beneath the waves, maybe one or more new parties will form a beach-head and grow, maybe existing parties will merge, maybe the Independents will become a consistent presence – or maybe the cartel will succeed in protecting itself, and re-establish its dominance.

To some degree, what combination of these groups is in power will only really matter if they can begin to do the work of politics differently and, in so doing, be a catalyst for modernisation across the public sector. Which brings us to the second question: Are we seeing the emergence of a new kind of politics, or will it be business as usual after the next General Election?

Business As Usual in Irish Politics and Public Sector.

The note that came with today’s topic characterises ‘Business as usual’ as cronyism, clientelism and appeals to the electorate’s short-term interests.

I’d like to characterise it a bit differently. There’s no ‘right’ set of words to use, but the ones I think most useful in describing how politics works are Command and Control, Generalist, Silo’d and Protectionist.

This served Ireland pretty well for a long time – in the latter decades of the 20th century, Ireland made great jumps forward. Life expectancy today is about 10 years more than it was in 1975. Women make up over half of the workforce now, compared to just a quarter in the 70s. Between 1970 & 2000, emigration fell from 17,000 a year to just 2,000. For the same periods, the number of people in full time higher education rose from 26,000 to over 130,000.

How the rest of the developed world changed how it works.

The problem for Ireland is that the rest of the world moved on. In the 1930s, the British started putting people with knowledge of what they were managing in charge – so engineers started running engineering plants. In the 70s, Japanese car manufacturers started empowering their employees. So, for example, engineers could make improvements to their own areas of work. They trained them in and rewarded them for innovation. The result was dominance of the global auto market.

Since then, workers have become more specialised and used to working with other disciplines and organisations. At the same time, organisations moved from a protectionist culture, where errors and failure were hidden, to places where failure was seen as part of the process, and workers became more accountable for their efforts. Some of the most recent thinking is on creating ‘healthy’ cultures, which evidence shows are required to sustain high performance over the longer term.

Today, Irish politics still operates according to practices that have been changing in other parts of the world since the 1920s. We could ask, ‘So what?’ Why does it matter that politics is still done in this outdated way? The answer is, because parliament sets the rules and the tone for the rest of the public sector. And so this outdated working model is not only still prevalent in Dáil and Seanad Éireann, it is prevalent in large swathes of the public sector.

And we all know what happened – the two cultures met up with a bang in 1999, when Ireland joined the euro. Our institutions were utterly incapable of handling the inflow of foreign capital, and the foreign institutions behind it. This tsunami of cash crashed through our banks, our Central Bank, our Department of Finance, our cabinet and our parliament. At the same time, our political system was incapable of stopping the tax cuts and spending hikes that made the boom boomier. And Irish institutions were failing in other areas too

While there have been some impressive successes in healthcare, Ireland now spends more per capital than any country other than the US, when you adjust for our young population – and for that, we are not getting the second best healthcare. Between 2000 and 2010, Ireland suffered the biggest fall in educational standards in the developed world, measured for 15-year-olds. This was while the spend per student was increasing substantially.

All of these failures – in banking, in national budgeting, in health and in education, have been perpetuated by a political system that hasn’t modernised. All of this was meant to change after the 2011 election, but it hasn’t.

One senior civil servant I spoke with recently on the topic reflected that Fine Gael and Labour have managed to out-Fianna Fáil Fianna Fáil, whatever that means. Clearly the voting public aren’t impressed either. Public trust in Government was as low at the start of this year for Fine Gael and Labour as it was for Fianna Fáil before the last election – and that’s really saying something.

Last year the Edelman Trust Baromter showed that Ireland ranked sixth from the bottom in terms of public trust in government. This year, we ranked third from the bottom, out-trusting only Russia and Poland. And of course this translated recently into votes. So you’ve got to ask yourself, if not for the good of the country, then even in the interests of self-preservation; why are we still not seeing a more modern way of doing politics emerging?

The answer lies in how the political parties are run. I don’t have much insight into how Sinn Féin is run, but I’ve got a pretty good idea of what the prevalent cultures are in Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour – and they’re far closer to 1920 than 2014. Which is the challenge – the Oireachtas can’t modernise, because it is controlled by parties which haven’t modernised.

Examples of how it is, and how it could be.

After three years in the Dáil, I’ve lived through hundreds of episodes of this culture, but let’s just take a few. The first is Eoghan Murphy, of Fine Gael, who spoke at MacGill last year of life as a backbencher. Eoghan has a degree in Arts from UCD and a Master’s in International Relations from King’s College, London, and left a successful international career to return to Ireland to serve his country.

But he got himself into fierce trouble last year. It’s been cited in the media as a key reason he didn’t get promoted recently. His crime – to get together with a bunch of bankbench TDs, to talk about policy. Now imagine a political party that not only allowed such skulduggery, but insisted on it. Imagine a party that, when promoting people, considered the quality of their policy ideas. Last week the Finance Committee met with various groups to discuss their budget submissions. On Monday we met with TASC, IBEC and the Chamber. Not one government TD showed up. Why? Because they don’t get to influence the budget, so hearing what think-tanks and the business community have to say isn’t relevant.

Now imagine a political party whose members of the Finance Committee were expected to input to the upcoming budget, and were considered for promotion based on it. Also last week, two backbenchers were promoted to Minister and Minister of State with responsibility for the Gaeltacht. Much play was made of the fact that neither of them speak Irish – it even made its way into Leader’s Questions.

But there wasn’t much discussion regarding the relevant skills of the other Ministers and Ministers of State to their respective portfolios. The Taoiseach admitted that some promotions were based on appeasing voters geographically. Imagine a political party that recruited and then promoted people with relevant experience for given portfolios! Imagine a political party that invested in the on-going education and professional development of its TDs and Senators. Imagine a political party that planned ahead, matching backbench TDs with sitting Ministers.

Last year a bunch of TDs were kicked out of Fine Gael for daring to vote against the government on the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill. I’m told that this wouldn’t happen in any other western democracy. I know it would be unheard of in the UK or the United States. Imagine a political party that applied the whip where necessary, but then went crazy and allowed its elected members think for themselves from time to time!

Summary – Need parties to drive modern working practices from within

Let’s finish up by looking at the political landscape once more. There are politicians in all of these groups who want to modernise Irish politics, and there are those who don’t. For now, the latter group is calling the shots, and it’s business as usual. The theme for this year’s MacGill Summer School is: ‘Without Fundamental Reform of Our Politics and Institutions Can We Meet The Challenges Ahead?’ The answer to that question is very simply ‘No’.

And so we must modernise. The first step is to update how the parties themselves work, and to ensure that any new parties are built in this new way. If that can be done, then the Oireachtas will inevitably modernise. And that will set the tone for everything else. And as for the political landscape – the Irish political system may be stuck in the past, but the Irish people have moved on. If an existing party, or a new one, demonstrates that it is doing things differently, it might be well rewarded on election day.


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