Time to rip it up and start again

Grassroots - An inside look at local politics – from the pens of the politicians themselves

It’s time to rip it up and start again, nothing else will do for the Ireland we currently find ourselves in. Politically, institutionally, and economically, staying wedded to our current ideologies is no longer an option. They have proven to be either failures or past their sell-by date.

In France, after a traumatic episode in the nation’s history - the Revolution, defeats to Germany in 1870 and 1940, the decline of the empire - the French nation sought to reinvent itself, begin again. It did this most recently in 1958. After the Suez Crises France drew up a new constitution, changed its style of government and became The Fifth French Republic.

Ireland is in crisis and nothing less than a Second Irish Republic is called for. A new constitution, new political and administrative structures, a fresh approach to economics and business, and a more socially centred way of thinking is, Insider believes, necessary to the long term well-being of the State.

Ireland in 2010 is not the same as it was in 1937 when the Constitution was originally drawn up, so it is perhaps time to revisit Bunreacht Na hÉireann. The State needs new values for the 21st century, and the Constitution can be the place to articulate this.

Among the items it would need to consider is the make up of the Dáil and Seanad. The Seanad is unrepresentative, undemocratic, and of no use to ordinary citizens.

Voting is confined to councillors and university graduates. The Seanad can only delay bills, not defeat them. Since the Taoiseach can appoint 11 members, giving the Government a permanent majority, the Seanad ends up being a rubber stamp. All this must go or else the Seanad deserves to be scrapped permanently.

It is often felt that at 166 TDs the Dáil is too large, given the State’s population (Minister Noel Dempsey has sought to propose a reduction in the number of TDs, to perhaps 144 ) while TDs are currently obliged to be constituency workers even though their actual role is to legislate.

Fianna Fáil, during the early part of the last decade, castrated local government in an effort to get incinerators all over Ireland. Poolbeg aside, the passion for nationwide incinerators has evaporated, but councillors have been left with little power or purpose.

Local Government needs to be given back power so councillors can do the job of looking after the city and county while the TDs can get on with legislation and representing the overall needs of their area, rather than parish pump specifics.

There is also merit in discussing the idea of lowering the voting age to 16 to encourage young people to participate in the political process. We should also discuss extending the vote to Irish emigrants (Insider would like to point out to excitable types that we are past the stage where they would vote Sinn Féin - if indeed that was ever likely ).

The tragedy for Ireland is that politicians like it the way it is. TDs can build up power bases and get ‘their men’ onto councils. The Seanad is there to boost the profile of aspiring politicians and no TD will ever vote for a reduction in Dáil seats. With this kind of attitude can we blame anyone for being cynical about politics?

This is because Ireland is infested by the ‘That’ll do’ culture, a lazy contentment with keeping the State ‘ticking over’, just enough to prevent it from falling apart completely, and never truly tapping into the enormous potential out there.

Another problem is that being stranded between Britain and the USA has left us shortsighted when it comes to our own political and social development. There is a mentality in Irish politics that if the British or Americans are doing it, so must we.

How many times in council meetings has Insider seen a council official or councillor propose an idea based on best practice in Canada, New Zealand, Germany, or Sweden, and suggest it as an idea which would work for Galway, only to be met by looks of puzzled incomprehension, followed by rants about what they do in Milwaukee and Chicago and ‘That’s the model we should follow’.

Prof Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh once pointed out that in any former colony, a colonised mentality can remain. Sadly Ireland is an example of this.

Speaking English is not a valid reason to ape what Britain and the US do. Maintaining good relations and trade links with both is important but looking to them as role models is ridiculous. They are not nations with which we can draw a valid comparison.

Britain has 57 million people and still has a role to play (for good and ill ) in world affairs. America is a global superpower of 280 million, whose major cities dwarf our entire nation. We need to look to and learn from nations whose demographics are closer to ours, ie, northern Europe.

Our colonial past has blinded us to the fact that we are a northern European people and have unexplored commanality with our fellow northerners.

The Scandinavians, like us, have small populations and are located on the geographical periphery of Europe. However they have an approach to economics that is both socially minded and pro-business. Their citizens enjoy generous welfare aimed at enhancing individual autonomy, human rights, and economic stability.

They are also judged as good nations in which to do business as they rank high on the Ease Of Doing Business Index. Denmark also scores well in the 2010 Index of Economic Freedom (as do New Zealand and Canada, nations we should also take a look at ).

Ireland scores well on these indexes too, but why can’t we also enjoy the high labour force participation, gender equality, egalitarian and extensive benefit levels, large redistribution, and liberal use of expansionary fiscal policy which the Scandinavians have?

The Nordic model offers fertile ground for Ireland to contemplate and draw lessons from. The model is not perfect (nothing is! ), but those who dismiss it because of that are simply lapsing into the ‘That’ll do’ culture. Yes there are high taxes but unlike Ireland, taxes are well spent and put into good services for citizens.

Objections that the Nordic model does not result in profitable business does not tally with the statistics. Yes, Sweden hit a financial crisis some years ago but it took tough action against delinquent banks, made hard decisions, and pulled itself into recovery. What is Ireland doing?

Insider gets the distinct, and disturbing, impression that Cowen, IBEC, et al, are simply waiting for the current crisis to blow over so that the old unregulated, free market capitalism can start again and that our next boom can be built around a new property boom.

Why else would Brian Lenihan come up with NAMA, a€54 billion gamble with taxpayers money to ensure the developers and banks are looked after and that ordinary people are punished for their incompetence?

Furthermore it may take another five to 10 years before the property market picks up again but we cannot wait that long.

We need to take a dialectical approach, instead of the blinkered black and white myopics that characterise Irish political debate. There is much to admire in the Nordic model and we should look to adapt that to suit Irish needs. Its failings we can learn from and seek to come up with improvements. We do not have to always use the ‘small open economy’ definition of Ireland as an excuse to do nothing.

All this is possible, but will any of the current political, economic, and business class be brave enough to do it?

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