“We cannot fix the economy without fixing the political system as well,” is a familiar refrain in Irish political discourse these days. The calamity of the economic collapse and the role of the political and associated systems in bringing it about, or at least in failing to act to prevent it, have focused minds on this matter.
That people want action to remedy a broken political system is understandable but to date there is no coherent strategy emerging. What then can be done and what difference will it make?
Before turning to possible solutions, it is useful to look in some detail at the problem. Insider feels the problem is to be summed up thus; the role of the Irish politician is to put himself about and to extract as big a piece as possible of the national cake for his constituents and supporters.
Think back to the launch of Transport 21 in late 2005 and the proliferation of signs hastily put up around the country by Government TDs claiming to have ‘delivered’ for their area. As an exasperated editor of the Galway Advertiser put it at the time: “Deliver us from the deliverers”!
With a mentality that treats the national purse as something to be plundered for the benefit of your electorate, and the encouragement given to individual politicians engaging in a competition to get as big a share of the cake as possible for their supporters, it is little wonder that the idea of taking a long-term view and of for instance, putting money aside for a rainy day, has never really caught on in Irish politics.
Another way in which this mentality has highlighted itself is in the selection of Cabinet Ministers. This is something that has irked Insider for a number of years. The obsession with ‘geographic balance’ in Cabinet selection and the fact that it ranks alongside - if not above - ability as a criteria for promotion is very damaging.
This mindset is a natural extension of the previous point. Given that so much of Irish politics is a race between individual politicians to get as big a share of the national purse as possible, it follows that voters in a particular area will want to see their local TDs put into a position of influence so that their area can get ‘its share’ of the spoils.
Hence a Taoiseach will feel the need to spread the ministries around the regions in order to avoid conveying the impression that any particular area has been left behind. Insider must say Bertie Ahern was particularly guilty of this approach. While it has generally been a factor to some extent, it has not always been so prevalent in previous administrations.
In the controversial FF minority government of 1987-89 there were five constituencies that at one time or another simultaneously had two representatives at the Cabinet table. This would seem to indicate Charlie Haughey did not put a huge emphasis on the ‘geographical spread’ at that particular time.
Prof Ahern was guilty of obsessing over geography. He also took it a step further by giving preferential treatment to those politicians who managed to bring in an extra seat for the party in their constituencies.
So it went full circle, the message to voters being that if they delivered for FF, then FF would deliver for them with a Ministry for their locality and that Minister would complete the bargain by delivering the goodies for the constituency. A real case of ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’.
Insider feels these are the big factors that need to be addressed. In addition to these we have a proliferation of problems; competition between party colleagues in the same constituency (Frank Fahey and Éamon Ó Cuív in Galway West anyone? ), too much focus on constituency work to the detriment of national issues, and worse still an incredible focus put on menial tasks such as attendance at funerals.
Having identified the problems then what can be done to remedy them?
A range of possible solutions has been put forward but, as Insider noted at the outset, nothing coherent has yet emerged. We have seen some proposals for the replacement of multi-seat constituencies as a means of ending the competition between TDs and candidates of the same party, but others have suggested we should increase the size of constituencies to ensure smaller parties are more proportionately represented.
We have seen some proposals for a list system to elect a certain number of TDs. We have seen proposals for a mechanism to bring a limited number of non-political figures into the Cabinet.
Others have gone further, suggesting there should be a separation between elected politicians and Cabinet Ministers so elected politicians do not serve in Government as is the case in several European countries. Then of course we have the ongoing (never ending! ) debate about the role of the Seanad.
With such a divergence in opinion Insider would like to see this matter debated carefully. In that regard Fine Gael’s proposals for ‘a new politics’ are to be welcomed. What has to be of concern however, is the manner in which their proposals were modified and watered down prior to their publication when some internal dissent emerged within the party.
Insider would also point to the experience of Noel Dempsey who, as Fianna Fáil Environment spokesman in the 1990s, set out some fairly radical proposals for electoral reform and – in spite of emphasising that they were only proposals for debate - quickly became persona non-grata among the political class.
Politicians themselves can be seen as having a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. In this regard it is also worth noting that for instance a mechanism already exists for bringing up to two ‘non-political’ figures into the Cabinet via the Seanad but it has rarely been used; how surprising!
Insider must also make the point that these changes in themselves will not necessarily improve the situation unless there is a change of mindset among the politicians and the electorate. It is instructive to look at the situation north of the border where they do have single seat constituencies for Westminster elections.
While the level of internal party competition has to an extent been reduced by this, it still has not diminished the focus on ‘delivering for the constituency’ as we have seen in the recent past - eg, when the DUP cut a deal with the Labour government on certain votes in return - it is alleged - ‘for certain concessions to Northern Ireland.’
For the time being Insider will conclude by simply expressing the wish that this discussion won’t prove to be a passing fad and that a resumption of the status quo won’t be the order of the day once the worst of the economic crisis passes.
Surely this crisis has had a sufficiently sobering impact on the Irish people and the Irish political class to ensure that isn’t the case?