Aodhán Ó Ríordáin TD, Labour Party deputy for Dublin North-Central


I am genuinely delighted and honoured to be asked here to the MacGill Summer School to address you on the topic of ‘Governance of the Republic’ under the broad theme of ‘Looking to 2016 – How Stands the Republic?’

What I hope to do is to expand on our understanding of the term ‘Republic’, to offer my analysis of how institutionally we continue to fail to live up to the ideals of a modern Republic, and to address some of the themes outlined in the preamble to this discussion, such as participation, cronyism and clientelism, reform of local government and the challenge of deepening our democracy.

I will also give some insight into the view from the backbenches.

Our view of a Republic, of what its values should be, has expanded over time. For our parents and grandparents, the Republic they fought for possibly meant a very different thing. Both sides of my family were heavily involved in that period of our history which will be much commented on for the next number of years during this decade of commemorations.

My grandfather fought in the War of Independence and the Civil War on the Republican side, was imprisoned, endured hunger strikes and, at one point, even escaped from prison – for a week.  My grand-uncle fought in the 1916 Rising as a teenager in the Four Courts under Edward Daly, and in the War of Independence, and was involved in the burning of the Customs House.

I am sure that the Republic they fought for and believed in was a much simpler uncomplicated concept – complete separation from Britain and the removal of the Crown from Ireland.  How ironic then that my grandfather spent his working life as a border customs officer marshalling the very border he tried to overthrow as a young revolutionary. How ironic also that my grand-uncle’s two children had to emigrate to the former colonial master to find employment in the 1950s.

A clear question emerges – did the Republic they fought for live up to their expectations?

If you look at the 1916 Proclamation of the Republic, one thing for a schoolteacher like me is obvious, that there were quite a number of printing errors. Even in the spelling of the word Republic. It is a little known fact that the C in the word Republic as proclaimed is actually an O with a slice taken out of it. We have always had difficulty with that word.

What did the Republic proclaim?  Yes, famously, to cherish all the children of the nation equally, but also other ideals.  Despite the fact that women were not afforded the franchise to vote until the Representation of the People Act 1918, Irishmen and Irishwomen were given equal billing at the start of the proclamation. It continues: ‘The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all the children of the nation equally’

It aspires to establish: ‘a permanent National Government, representative of the whole people of Ireland and elected by the suffrages of all her men and women.’

So, the Republic envisioned by the signatories was one based on the principle of equality, of equal franchise, of respect for minorities, of religious and civil liberty.

But once a certain level of freedom was achieved, the post-colonial hang-up kicked in when searching for a new master, and the Catholic Church was only too willing to step up to the plate.

But what relevance does that have for my generation, born after the revolutionary generation had all left political life?  Almost a century later we are still determined as individuals and as a collective to keep our people separated. This uncomfortable truth is borne out in a number of public policy areas, most notably health, education and housing.

The uncomfortable reality is that we have a segregated education system – segregated with a small ‘s’ – but segregated nonetheless. We do not have a state education system; rather we have a state-funded system.  We have allowed a situation to evolve where the determining ethos governing the vast bulk of our state-funded schools is a religious one.  We have out-sourced education to patron bodies who continue to have huge influence over the manner in which our children are educated.

We are comfortable with children of different religions being taught in different schools and allowing those same schools to legally discriminate against children based on their religion in enrolment policies, and in the employment of those who they feel might undermine their ethos.

Rather than a Republican ideal of being educated together, education and schooling remains one of the most socially divisive elements in Irish society.

Educationalists frequently point to Finland as the custodians of as close to an ideal education system as can exist in the OECD – high literacy rates, extremely valued teaching profession, progressive educational thought put into practice.

However as Robin Alexander of the Cambridge Primary Review has said – if you want Finnish educational standards, you would have to import their ethos of equality. On a recent trip to the Finnish parliament I was told by the Conservative MP who chairs the Education Committee that the central plank of their education strategy is equality – a value shared across the political divide.

We view things differently in this Republic.  A dangerous dynamic has arisen in a number of our second level schools where some are disproportionately populated with students with particular educational needs or from diverse cultural, linguistic and ethnic backgrounds, while other schools manipulate their enrolment policies to ensure they remain as white and as middle class as possible.

We are moving to change this with legislation, not without opposition.  We frequently expect education to be on the frontline to solve our social ills, yet we will not challenge the social ill that lies deep within our system.

It is hardly controversial to say that in Ireland we also believe that healthcare can be bought and sold, that those with means are entitled to quicker and better treatment than poorer people.

Our national obsession with home ownership has meant that we have little sympathy with those who remain on local authority housing lists.  Home-owners have defended their investments from the potential construction of local social housing units as if the most important thing in a Republic is to maintain our house prices.  We conveniently forget that many of us can trace our recent family past to a council house somewhere.

Even when a progressive move was made in the mid-2000s to ensure all future developments had 20% of social or affordable housing, it was heavily watered down under pressure from the building industry. Their needs remained paramount over those who needed housing.  Institutionally through the very layers of public policy that should be bringing us together, we do our utmost to ensure that we can to keep ourselves as separate from each other as possible.

Our democratic institutions reflect those very people who are empowered by separation and segregation – I have said many times that Ireland is a country that has always been ruled by people like me:  the Dáil remains 87% male, overwhelmingly white, Catholic, middle-class, heterosexual, able-bodied and from the settled community. Is it any wonder that historically the vast bulk of legislation and budgetary measures have disproportionately appeased those who also fit into that demographic?

Tragically the effects of inequality are long-lasting and deeply erosive to an individual and to a community. Young people will seek empowerment through destructive means. Why would you want to plead acceptance from a society that holds you in distain, when a parallel underground economy offers you the trappings of wealth, glamour, respect and danger?

Despite this, public representatives will still engage in political posturing, pandering to those who are strong, blaming those who are weak.  How much political capital can someone gain by supposedly ‘telling it as it is’ by targeting their criticisms at social welfare recipients, single parents, members of the Travelling or immigrant communities?

Richer people vote and older people vote. Poorer people and younger people don’t vote in the same numbers. Politicians know this.

Is that the reason why we only this year will end the practise of slopping out in our prisons?

That the provision of detox beds for our 10,000 or so heroin addicts is hopelessly inadequate?

That 25% of young mothers in certain districts suffer from maternal depression?

That 30% of children in disadvantaged areas leave primary school with basic reading problems?

That NALA estimate that 23% of Irish adults are functionally illiterate?

Why does the scandal of direct provision centres persist?

No-where is this poverty of political prioritisation more obvious than in the area of pre-school education.  Generally our spend on education as a percentage of GNP is quite favourable and compares well with other OECD countries at 8%.

However, early childhood education accounts for approximately 1.57% of overall education spending. This value is over nine times lower than Hungary, where approximately 14.41% of education spending is allocated towards early childhood programmes. The United Kingdom allocates over three times as much of the pool of education spending towards early childhood.

This is despite the fact that every international study compiled anywhere, by anybody worth listening to, has pointed to the long-term economic return from such investment.

The Hart & Risley Report from 1995 showed that a 3-year old in a welfare dependant family has only one-third of the vocabulary of a 3-year old from a professional family. Early childhood education could empower that child to greatness. But do we care?

Education is the key to equality. We have neglected the needs of poorer children, we have ignored the research that pinpoints best practice, and historically we have not invested where it matters.  Is this because there is no political advantage?

Is it any wonder, therefore, that many communities have little faith in politics?  We must deal with the reality of this disconnection within Irish society.  A quick glance at the turn-out figures in the last number of elections tells a sorry tale. The General Election of February 2011, a mere three months after the arrival of the IMF, had a turnout of 70%. The best turn-out in the last 20 years was 76.5% in 1997 – yet still a quarter of those eligible to vote stayed at home. The 2002 election turnout was 62.6% turnout, the 2007 election a 67% turnout. In a democracy where the PR system gives added weight to every vote, every vote counts. Those statistics show something that is deficient in our Republic.

At the recent Constitutional Convention discussion relating to electoral reform, I advocated that the notion of compulsory voting, based on the Belgian or Australian models be investigated.  The dynamic of compulsory voting is a fascinating one, and stems from a social-inclusion perspective.  Political activism adds the same weight to the rich as to the poor, the young and the old, the powerful and the weak.  If that was the case in Ireland, I’m quite sure that politics and politicians would not pander to the type of lowest-common denominator discourse we have heard too often in the past.

Government must be the force that underpins the vision for the Republic that we have inherited.  Politics is the art of that vision.  We should not ever concede ground to the notion that economic theory should mirror the law of the jungle.  We must all contribute to social services that benefit us all.  One of the greatest challenges, particularly for the politics of the left, is to illustrate the connectivity between a transparent and progressive taxation system and the provision of excellent social infrastructure.

Politics in the Celtic Tiger era of vulgarity was damaged by those who pursued an aggressively individualistic agenda, who undermined the very notion of society, community and nationhood that the Republic is supposed to inspire.

Cronyism and clientelism will inevitably follow from a society with poorly funded public infrastructure, with politicians concentrating on advancing the causes of individual constituents for electoral benefit, rather than advocating for a robust and sustainable system that all citizens could had faith in.

Put simply, it suits some politicians to have long housing lists, because their clinics are full, and they get the allure of having the inside track on housing allocation.

Where would the local representative be without the proverbial pot-hole to fill in?

This is a failure of political ideology rather than a failure of a political system in my view.  Not enough of what we discuss in Ireland is based on ideology – the two largest parties in the history of the state have been conservative parties of the centre right. So discussing the conflict between the market and the state has been side-lined by more tribal type of political discourse.

We cannot blame the political system for having within it, disgraced or discredited individuals that the people have returned to office time and time again.

We have a responsibility as a society to challenge the corrosive nature of the post-colonial hang-up that demands of certain communities to be beholden to a modern-day ‘benevolent landlord’ type figure.

Allegiance to those who have clearly broken the law because of local loyalties or adherence to a persecution complex is not in keeping with the Republican vision of inter-dependence and community.  It is to our eternal shame that there is a direct correlation between an adverse tribunal finding against a politician, and their success in national elections.  Paradoxically, it is almost as if we feel we are not worth any better – that the best of a bad lot will do for us, that ‘they are all at it.’

Well we are not all at it!

And this Republic deserves better than such low standards and low expectations.

The negative impact of the dynamic of the multi-seat democracy and its associated intra-party rivalry must be re-assessed.  We cannot be a loose alignment of parishes jostling with each other for resources. We must be a nation, and to take the responsibility of living in that nation seriously.  In the past, we have defined our Republicanism in terms of what we are not, and not of what we are. We need to maximise the relationship between our citizens, our rights, our responsibilities and our aspirations.

I believe that the reform of local government offers us a huge opportunity to separate the local from the national in political terms. This is where the real battle lies where political reform is concerned. That essential connectivity between the local taxation that residents pay, the representation that they receive and the public services that accrue is one that has not been a feature of public discourse at a local level and has a disempowering effect on local democracy.

The new property tax and the potential for councils to raise or lower the rate by 15%  offers election hopefuls the chance to campaign on an ideological basis – to argue for property tax-cuts over local services, or vice versa.

The wrestling of power from the non-elected management to the elected councillors will also help ensure that ideological arguments and positions are brought to the local community level.

No longer can a councillor claim a local victory when it goes his way, and blame the management when it doesn’t.  The councillor will not be a messenger boy or girl anymore, but will have to make tough expenditure decisions. The potential for a directly-elected major of Dublin is also an exciting development which will change the dynamic of local government also.

So what is the view from the backbenches?

My view is that politics has to move beyond the sound-byte model of political discourse that is media friendly but has no depth.  We must not be afraid of political ideology, but ideology that is rooted in positivity and practicality.  And it should be acknowledged that pursuit of political influence is often a noble endeavour.

The delivery of strong public services, and transparency as to their funding will result in a more mature democracy and can assist in ending the clientelism that has bedevilled the system. Politics should aspire to the highest aims, and not graduate to the lowest denominator. We are worth more than that.

The reform of local government can bring responsibility and political engagement closer to people, and can empower communities to cast their own futures.

The view from this backbencher is that politics is still the vehicle for the noblest of causes, for the greatest of ideals and for the delivery of real and lasting change.

The centralisation of power within the executive is undeniable.  However, there is power for those in my position to introduce legislation, to battle for constructive amendments and to produce committee reports to inform departmental policy.

It has been suggested that the executive rather than being responsible to parliament, merely takes parliament for granted as a result of the strong whip system.  The whip system is a monster purely of the political parties’ making, which is a by-product in my view of our tribal political landscape.   A minister must never change his/her mind lest he/she be accused of incompetence.   A government must never lose a vote lest it be accused of weakness.  And if it does, it must go immediately to the country.

Is that really the kind of parliamentary democracy that lends itself to reflective and inclusive governance?

My belief is that our Republic needs to restate its values and its goals.  It must have a democratic system that is more representative, needs to treat the electorate with respect, needs to assert the importance of the concept of a collective inter-dependent society, and of the role of government and politics as a force for good.

We must demand more of ourselves collectively. Our Republic demands no less.

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