Dr Niamh Hardiman, School of Politics and International Relations UCD, author of “Crisis in Irish Governance”


The need for political reform is a recurring theme in the MacGill Summer School, and indeed in general public debate in Ireland. Everybody agrees that it is a good thing. Everybody agrees that it is important. Everybody agrees that it is urgent.  So why do we end up discussing it, year in, year out? Why does so very little seem to happen in the meantime?

Some twenty years ago, Albert O. Hirschman wrote about ‘the rhetoric of reaction’.¹   He set out the arguments that conservatives use to show why, although progressive ideas might seem superficially attractive, nothing can or should be done about them. There are three main lines of attack:

  • Change would be futile – it wouldn’t make any difference.
  • It might produce perverse effects, exactly the opposite to those intended.
  • It would be full of hidden jeopardy – there would be too many unanticipated bad consequences.

These rhetorical gambits are familiar. But I don’t think these are the main problems in Irish political discourse. It seems to me that the political reform agenda has acquired a kind of totemic importance. In the light of all the dreadful things that have happened, you can’t really be against reform.

I think there are two kinds of problem here. The first is that the rhetoric of reform stays at the level of rhetoric. The problem is not that people are unwilling to say the right thing, but that they’re unwilling to do anything about it.  The second is that there are, in fact, real obstacles to be tackled in bringing about change of any significance. It’s usually easier to do nothing than to do something, so if you would like to take on something, it’s as well to anticipate what kind of obstacles might crop up.

1. Talking the talk, as long as it’s only talk

The rhetoric of reform all too often stays at the level of rhetoric.  What form does this take? We might hypothesize a few different ways this might play out in government statements and actions.

a. Insincerity

The first possibility is straightforward insincerity. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that politicians might make promises that they think will go down well, while having not the slightest intention of doing anything about it. Of course I have no intention of accusing our own political representatives of behaving in such a disreputable manner. And in any case, there is a danger that, if you do this too often, people might actually notice, and you will get found out. This would leave the government exposed to being kicked out and letting the other lot in, bristling with new brooms and good intentions. Only for the cycle to start all over again.

b. Procrastination

Another possibility is that government may make some concessions to the need for reform, accepting that it is important and urgent, but proposing that we need to have more information before any change can be undertaken. We have to have an inquiry, then a report. This is a classic strategy of procrastination: ‘Lord, make us virtuous, but not just yet’. That is, announce a commitment to change, but very gradual change. If you’re lucky, the inquiry will go on beyond your term of office. But in any case, the normal thing to do is to delay publication until the issue has gone off the boil, then quietly shelve the report. How often has this happened?

c. Refusing to prioritize

The next thing that might stop talk of reform from turning into action is the problem of prioritizing. We agree there has to be reform, and we’ve identified all these areas in which reform is needed – but what to tackle first? There are so many pressing issues. One possibility is to opt for changes that are easy and eye-catching, and hope they buy you some electoral credit. It is simplest to postpone the changes that are difficult but perhaps more important.

d. Diffusing responsibility

The final gambit for avoiding the need to do anything very much is to suggest that no-one is really responsible for things having gone wrong, so it isn’t really possible to work out what has to be put right.  ‘The system is to blame’, as usual. If you can diffuse responsibility and make it impersonal and anonymous, you don’t have to work out what it is about the way institutions function, or about the work patterns that have developed inside those institutions, that has gone wrong.

2. Walking the walk – or not

These are examples of various kinds of bad faith, of a very recognizable kind. But once a government really does commit itself to undertaking political reform in earnest, a whole new set of problems start to appear.

a.  Institutional inertia

The first is institutional inertia. This is not just a matter of Sir Humphrey warning the hapless minister of all the reasons why change is difficult or undesirable or, worst of all, ‘brave’.  Rather, we should remember that it can be very difficult indeed to alter the established work routines in any organization. Disrupting existing ways of doing things is uncomfortable and often unpleasant. You have to try to bring people with you. But you may also have to force the pace if you really want to get anywhere. The easiest course of action is to add a layer that looks like reform without really altering existing practices.

In the book I’ve just edited, ² we’ve found many examples of political reform that looks like this. Senior public service personnel were put on better pay scales and reward packages – but on a model of bankers’ bonuses rather than real performance incentives. Moreover, piling on the appearance of change in this way is exactly what gave us the HSE.

b. Policy path-dependence

Reforming policy can be difficult because policy commitments tend to be highly ‘path dependent’ – once you commit to carrying out a particular policy, it becomes very difficult to change course. All the incentives point toward continuing along the same course.

 In our book, we have analysed a number of examples of the persistence of policy legacies in just this way. For example, we know our healthcare system is highly inequitable and that it discriminates in favour of people with private insurance. We know too that most people don’t think this is fair or proper. But once health provision has gone so far down this road, it becomes more difficult to change to a system of universal entitlement. Tax reliefs over many years provided incentives for people to take out private insurance. Hospitals rely on insurance money. And since about half the population has private health insurance, there are lots of vested interests in the current policy set-up, even though no-one would design it this way.

It is of course possible to bring about reforming policy change. But the political effort required to throw the system on to a different track of development is likely to be considerable. It’s as well to know this in advance.

c. Resisting responsibility

One of the recurring themes in debates about political reform is the need for greater personal accountability at all levels of Irish public life. Ministers never resign on matters of principle. When things go horribly wrong in public administration, when vast sums of money are wasted, when people suffer because the service they should have been able to use was not looking after them, the common response is for everyone to back away from the problem. Maybe someone will get a token rap on the knuckles. But they may well get an enhanced pension package at the same time.

Yet enforcing personal accountability is quite difficult in practice. The long-term aim is to change a whole civic culture and political discourse. In the short to medium term, it involves changing many things about work practices, reporting, and scrutiny. But this also means changing the nature of the work bargain for the individuals who work in the system right now. There are always plenty of groups who find life more comfortable under a system that diffuses responsibility and holds back from making anyone accountable for their actions. Real change may well mean someone in authority having to take unpleasant decisions to make someone else answerable, and to push the issue through to the bitter end. A government undertaking reform in this area needs to be clear-sighted, single-minded, determined, and consistent.

d. Motivating change to the balance of power

Finally, we come to what is perhaps the most difficult facet of bringing about political reform, and that is the need to change the balance of power between our political institutions themselves.

The legislature – the Oireachtas – has very few powers to hold the government to account, to ask hard questions, to get satisfactory answers. This is why we have turned to solutions such as holding Tribunals of Inquiry, and introducing new rules about ethics in public office, and so on. But the papers in our book argue that these are second-best solutions, patches to a constitutional arrangement that accords enormous power to the government of the day.

Time and again in our book, we found examples of an over-powerful political executive. The drastic errors of economic policy during the 2000s are now glaringly obvious. The government could act as it wished on very short-term considerations. It could make decisions that favoured insider groups such as property developers and bankers. It could ignore the dangers of not having good enough regulation. We can only imagine how different things might have been if we had had serious and informed parliamentary debates about policy options, with properly costed estimations about alternative courses of action, like the German or Scandinavian parliaments.

But we must also ask ourselves what the incentives might be for governments, once in power, to engage in serious constitutional reform of this sort? For what is involved is a voluntary surrender of the power to act freely and without trammel. Is this like asking the proverbial turkeys to vote for Christmas?

One possible answer is that government might voluntarily bind itself in the short term, in order to achieve some better outcome in the longer term. But is this a reasonable expectation? The quality of governance is a real and long-term public interest consideration. But the first imperative for all governments is to seek re-election, and election time always comes up too soon. Is dedicating itself to real reform going to be a winning strategy? It is not clear that governments could really reap the electoral rewards they would like from making the legislature more powerful and more effective. We are used to seeing a commitment to fundamental reform turning into something more like the line of least resistance.

And yet in some areas, we have seen important institutional and policy innovation.  We now have a fully functioning fiscal council to provide government with informed analysis about the fiscal sustainability of its policies. We have seen the introduction of multi-annual budgeting, and a more serious approach to evaluating public spending than in any other period of economic downturn.

However, on reflection, the areas in which most change has taken place are those which are most exposed to external scrutiny or which are formally mandated by external policy obligations. Our fiscal council has powers that are no stronger than they need to be, consistent with our international commitments to have such a body.  The tough scrutiny now applied to public expenditure and public sector employment numbers takes place under the watchful eye of our international lenders. The political will to bring about change is certainly there. But the external enforcement is what gives it real effect.

There are many other areas in which reform commitments continue to drag along at a barely visible pace. Changes are undoubtedly being implemented under the Croke Park agreement on public sector pay and flexibility of work practices. But the three-monthly reports required by the Troika provide a much stronger incentive to deliver on specific targets. The danger is that the momentum to keep up the reform effort is driven most effectively by external pressure.

It is fairly early days yet in the lifetime of the present government, and undoubtedly too soon to make an assessment of its reforming credentials. But it seems to me that the obstacles to achieving real reform still remain substantial. And so the temptation must be strong to fall back upon that old standby, the rhetoric of reform. Prepare to continue discussing these issues at the MacGill Summer School in 2013.


¹  The Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy. Albert O. Hirschman. Cambridge MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

²  Irish Governance In Crisis, edited by Niamh Hardiman. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012.



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