Noel Dempsey, former Fianna Fáil Minister for Environment & Local Govt, for Education & Science, for Communications, Marine & Natural Resources and for Transport


This year about €9m will be eaten up in answering parliamentary questions tabled purely about local constituency and parochial matters.  At any time that is a disgrace. In times of austerity it is a scandal.  Is it going to change any time soon? If you asked the politicians most zealous about public sector reform would they forgo their right to send correspondence to the civil service for the greater good of the country, would they agree?  Not a chance.  Why? Because this would certainly mean they would not get elected next time round.

And the sacrifice would be futile; they would simply be replaced by another politician entirely dependent on PQ and correspondence from constituents to be elected.  In fact the more prodigious the politician is in pursuing these matters, the more likely his/her re-election. This is just one example of the self-perpetuating, inbuilt inertia in the electoral system. There’s no incentive for politicians to change the system that puts them in a job where they don’t really have to do what they’re elected to do.

It’s a responsible and serious job – to shape society for the benefit all its citizens. However, the sad reality is that you don’t actually have to do it, once elected. Instead of doing what they’re supposed to do, the majority of our politicians, once elected, pander to local interests when they’re not feeding the media beast. Feeding the media beast takes up more and more political time. The fear is that without a high media profile, you’re unlikely to be elected next time around.

In our system it’s considered a virtue to concentrate on the local, at the expense of the national.  It is not a virtue.  After all we have been through, surely now is the time for comprehensive reform of all our political institutions – starting, but not ending, with electoral reform.  Wasn’t that what all the political parties promised in the last election?  Weren’t they just responding to the public anger at the time at the failure of the political system to properly regulate and oversee our banking system and our economy?

One would have thought with the commitment from all parties to reform during the course of the last election, we would see significant progress in electoral reform since the election.  Not so.

If anything, it appears the cause of electoral reform is going in the opposite direction. This is underlined by the terms of reference and priority list given by the government to the Constitutional Convention.  It’s so far down the list that it’ll never be reached in the lifetime of the current administration. The government hasn’t kicked it to touch. It’s kicked it out of the park completely.  We have seen some tokenism – like the reduction in the number of TDs. That’ll mean we will end up with 8 fewer TDs in the next Dáil.  If they continue to do what the current 166 do, that will make no worthwhile difference.

It won’t ensure we have members of parliament dedicated to scrutinising the actions of the Executive, the public service, the state and semi state sector. Does anyone really believe that if we had 20 or 30 fewer TDs over the last decade, using our current electoral system, it would have made a whit of difference to where we are today?  The major problem is not the number of TDs, it is what they do – or perhaps more accurately what they do not do.

During the Celtic Tiger years, if our politicians had focused on the task they were elected to do rather than “parish pump politics,” the outcomes could have been substantially different. If our electoral system did not encourage “short termism,” the impact of the global recession could have been less harsh on this country.  If our politicians, whether on the government benches or in opposition, had focused on the real job they were elected to do, then perhaps all the wisdom we now have in hindsight regarding “unsustainable expenditure”, about narrowing the tax base too much, about over reliance on certain taxes, would have been foresight when it could have been useful and things could now be different.  And better.  For example, if politicians had focused on ensuring that regulators did their job, then perhaps we would not be in the chronic crisis we’re now in.

I’m not saying all the effects of global recession could have been avoided but the worst aspects of where we find ourselves now, particularly in the banking sector, could have been mitigated by parliamentarians focused on the job they should have been doing.

But that was then and this is now. We’ve learned our lesson. It could never happen again.  Like hell it can’t!  The last election proved that politicians learned nothing.  They have been elected on the same promises, committed to the same – wrong – activities. Because our electoral system requires parties and candidates to tell the electorate what they want to hear, what happened in the last election was inevitable just as a repeat in the future is inevitable.  The system ensures that the local takes precedence over the national. It ensures that the next election starts the day after this one and that makes it difficult for the wider policy issues, especially not so popular ones, to be even considered.

It’s a classic vicious circle and we should interrupt it, starting at local government level. I’ve always believed that reform of the system must start at local government level. It is why I was so committed to reform of local government with a focus on getting local services delivered locally, with local politicians responsible for them. The abolition of the dual mandate and the introduction of directly elected mayors were also geared to ensuring local responsibility for local services. That was only meant to be a start, a start on the effort to disentangle national politicians from local politics and from the “parish pump”.  I know Minister Phil Hogan has the courage and vision to deliver a greatly reformed local government system that could free up national politicians to do a real job for the country.  I strongly support the current approach to reforming local government especially the administrative amalgamation of local authorities with consequent savings and increased efficiencies.

It should be followed by abolishing the regional authorities and regional assemblies that have no real powers, responsibilities or functions and which are meaningless, powerless and have no relevance in current circumstances.

A proper regional structure should take care of the strategic planning and delivery of all major infrastructure for which local authorities currently have responsibility. Regional and local county politicians should be the ones responsible for delivering the services at local level.  National politicians could then be involved in setting national priorities on the basis of the “common good”.

Parochialism and clientelism have their place and an important one at that in Irish society.

  • But they are bad when they are the basis for electing people to our national Parliament
  • They are bad when they are the predominant focus of our politicians – to the detriment of the national interest.
  • They are bad when a sizeable part of an electorate values politicians for clientelism rather than for honesty, integrity – and paying their taxes.

Of course politicians should be close to their electorates, should know their constituents and their needs very well and should represent their legitimate interests and views. But they should not be a slave to the opinions of their constituents.

As Edmund Burke said, a parliamentary representative “owes you not his industry only but his judgement, and he betrays you instead of serving you if he sacrifices that to your opinion.”  Imagine, for just a moment, how real reform would change things.

Instead of devoting huge portions of time trying to secure the medical card for a constituent, TDs would be able to ensure the system worked fairly and efficiently for everyone.  If the system worked like that, those entitled to a medical card would get it without any political intervention.  Instead of trying to manipulate the system for one constituent the TD would be making sure the system worked for all constituents.

The competition within our system is so great that the “national interest” takes second place to party political point scoring.  Nowhere was this more evident than when the crisis struck. If ever there was a time when party politics and party partisanship should have been set aside it was then.  This didn’t happen and probably couldn’t happen in our system.

The Opposition opposed but once they were in government the real solutions had to be implemented and the rhetoric abandoned. When that happened large portions of the electorate felt betrayed and misled, and the cycle of cynicism was renewed again.  I am not making a petty party political point here –when the shoe was on the other foot Fianna Fáil did the same. The bottom line is that our electoral system does not encourage politicians to show leadership, tell the truth about bad situations, or say “no” to the electorate.  Rather it encourages politicians to minimise serious problems and suggest they have ready answers that involve no real pain or consequences.  That has to change and change radically.

I favour a system generally referred to as the Mixed Member Proportional System which is a combination of direct vote for a specific candidate and a vote for a political party. It is currently used in New Zealand, Germany and Italy. Some of the members are elected directly by constituents while the remainder come from lists nominated by the parties.  The party preference as selected through the “list vote” decides the proportion of seats a party has in parliament. The new system would retain the benefits of the current system while eliminating the worst of its features which I’ve described above. It would, however, be more proportional and more representative.

The directly elected member in a single seat constituency would be able to give an excellent constituency service but to a much smaller electorate allowing the TD  more time to perform his national duties.  The list system would allow parties to select candidates with particular skills and expertise to enhance their talent base at Parliamentary party level.

The list would also allow rules to be put in place which would ensure that the overall system could become much more representative of the general public by stipulating categories of the people which should be included on the list. I believe also that the list system would be more attractive to many of the brightest and best people who are currently reluctant to put themselves through the current system which tends to reward those who concentrate solely on localism.  List system deputies are less likely to be captured by “vested interests” and lobby groups because they will be less susceptible to orchestrated campaigns.

That process to change our system should start immediately.  I’ve seen the Government’s current approach to electoral reform before.  Many of the changes I sought to bring in were buried in processes just like the Constitutional Convention.

We must take it out of the hands of the politicians and the political arena. It will not happen if we don’t.

Garret Fitzgerald proposed change in his 1987 manifesto so it has been in the hands of politicians for 25 years now and has only moved from one committee to another over the years. Now is the time to set up an independent Electoral Commission to handle the process, to inform the debate and to work to a set timetable for a referendum when our citizens can decide whether our system should change.  Such a process would generate real political debate on a non-political party basis.  But it might do something even more important.

It might reduce the poisonous cynicism abroad in the nation towards politics and politicians. Most of the politicians I’ve known, in my own party and in other parties, start with idealism and ideas. They want to do something useful – to make a difference. That’s always how it starts. It’s rarely how it ends.

The toxic cynicism is the most obvious symptom of an illness generated, again and again and again, by an electoral system that sets each politician up for failure.  Enoch Powell famously said that “all political careers….. end in failure”. They shouldn’t.  But, until we radically reform the electoral system, that comment will continue to apply.  Which is sad for politicians, but disastrous for our country.





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