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Crippled Irish Political System Requires Total Revamp

eire“Democracy must be something more than two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner,”

-James Bovard, Lost Rights: The Destruction of American Liberty.

It has been stated and stressed many times over the course of the past few years, in various ways and with various examples to illustrate the point: Ireland’s political system is a frustrating failure. Our politicians are almost universally reviled as people who will say anything to get elected, promptly forgetting about such promises when the votes are tallied and their place in government has been cemented for another few years. If the people are accused of apathy then it’s hard to blame them. At this stage the whole process is a farce, a joke, to the point where much of the electorate feels alienated and simply doesn’t bother joining in anymore. Why, they ask, when elections feel like a sham – merely replacing the people sitting in Dáil Éireann rather than the policies they enact. How many thought they were getting away from cronyism and the political policies saddling the majority with the mistakes of the minority when Fine Gael was last elected to government? And how many simply sighed when they finally realised it was really Fianna Fáil in a different guise sitting in Leinster House spinning the same tired old yarn?

The problem in Irish politics is immense. A certain type of person is drawn to the political arena, and join that personality with the power given to our politicians by us and combined with the troubling influence of vested interests and the frankly excessive salaries our elected representatives ‘earn’, it makes for an explosive recipe. The faults within the Irish system are many. Take, for example, the excessive salaries, the absurd ministerial pensions, the perks and outrageous expenses allowed. But even more deadly is the division of power to a small cabal within the elected government – an Taoiseach and his merry gang in his cabinet, who, apparently, have both the desire and the authority to run roughshod over the democratic process if the mess regarding the recent legislation involving Anglo and the promissory notes translation into a commitment to paying the country’s debts set in stone is anything to go by; time wasn’t given for a TD to bring a case before the Supreme Court as citizens (bizarrely) had no right to do so, neither was there any significant time given over to either digesting the facts or debating whether or not such legislation should be passed, and against the wishes of thousands of protesting people who elected these representatives on the basis that they promised not to do that which they have now done anyway. Irish people should be worried, and rightly so, that such power exists for so few.

The current parties occupying the landscape are a major part of the problem; take for example the whip system ensuring each member toes the line if what they believe is against the party’s stance, or election campaigns where each group tries to outdo the other in their attempts to secure a vote rather than working together to solve the mess we find ourselves in, scoring cheap points that are ultimately meaningless. For years the major parties issuing from our earliest years as a nation seem to survive because people have fallen into a sheer habit of voting for one or the other, have grown up with family members voting a certain way and simply toe the line or parrot inherited beliefs, or due to a dearth of any significant options or alternatives. Their continued presence of late certainly isn’t due to any wonderful vision for the country they might have. Fianna Fáil’s list of shortcomings is staggering and doesn’t need to be repeated for the umpteenth time but needless to say their wonderful vision for Ireland was a house whose foundations were built on sand, to paraphrase the biblical parable. Fine Gael, in the meantime, are growing day by day into their predecessor’s mantle while Labour have shown that even the previously high and mighty will root around in the dirt if it means sharing a piece of the pie. As for Sinn Féin, there is hope for the future there with some bright individuals who seem to really want to make a difference and not just join the gravy train. But their history is against them and to a degree they are still tainted by their republican past. The party is carrying too much baggage, and with members such as Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness still on board  the way forward is murky and unclear and universal popularity will be out of reach.

Clearly something rotten is festering around Leinster House and beyond. It’s tempting to argue for the abolition of political parties which would seemingly end the factionalist fighting on the political stage. But if that were the case then there would simply be 160-odd individuals with no cohesive plan or national strategy. Some would argue instead that the case for a new political party or two in power is tangible – out with the old and in with the new. A poll carried out in the Irish Independent late last year certainly showed considerable support for the creation of such a party. You can see why – a new organisation free of the partisan and charged history attached to most of those we have flitting around the political landscape today, free to build its own legacy – it’s a nice idea. So who could we look to instead? Over the last year or so, there have been rumblings and formations, parties such Fis Nua, for example, emerging in the wake of growing disillusionment with the mess the coalition is making of handling the economic crisis. And their vision is positive, and a welcome change to the traditional and homogenous Civil War groupings, calling for a change in the population of Dáil Éireann and the way in which business is done.

Now many of these new parties have moves towards political reform laid out in their manifestos – Fis Nua advocates reducing the number of TDs, doubling the sitting time of the Dáil, banning corporate donations to political parties and scrapping the party whip system, among many other admirable reformatory proposals. But at the end of the day, a new party, however pure and untainted their vision may be, will still be populated by humans and the myriad of weaknesses that entails. How do you ensure only idealistic politicians are elected by the people? How do you ensure vested interests don’t hold the reins? How do you test a politician to see if they seek a seat in the Dáil for the salary and the perks rather than representing the people who elected them? The solution to these problems is also a major stumbling block today – active citizen participation or the lack thereof. Voter apathy is a real problem and getting people involved in the political process is essential if any change is going to come about. Elections and referenda have seen often piteously small turnouts in recent years, so there’s little surprise that the same faces reappear each time. When people see the same politicians with the same ideals and the same broken promises consistently getting into power, the disheartening feeling is that nothing will ever change, and that getting out there and making your voice heard is simply a waste of time and energy, because no one will listen where and when it matters. Getting the people involved is of real importance – a politically informed and engaged populace is one which is hard to ignore, and with an engaged populace holding their politicians accountable for their actions, real change is on the cards. Until this happens then Fine Gael, Labour and Fianna Fáil will continue to dominate the political scene in this country and rest assured they won’t change a system which benefits their ideals so much. So how can this be achieved?

Direct democracy has been touted in several countries around the globe as the way forward, and has been advanced as a solution here in Ireland by Direct Democracy Ireland who recently achieved party status. Essentially it removes some substantial power from the politicians and places it squarely at the feet of the population – Ireland originally had this in the constitution though it was transferred to government by way of allowing for referendums. Direct democracy does have its flaws – for example, citizens are not always experts on matters of concern to the whole country, the majority may not always be right yet a law can be passed anyway, meaning the minority in the right are overstepped, while with a large number of voices clamouring to get their views heard, getting something done can take a long amount of time. So instead, what about a system which merges the two strands of political thought into one; representational democracy with a flavour of direct democracy to keep elected representatives on their toes, allowing for a party system but one which could be kept in check and focused on fighting the country’s threats rather than one another and just as importantly, free from the taint of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Sinn Féin and bankers and builders. Politicians could still be elected to the Dáil though with the threat hanging over their heads that if enough voters feel they aren’t doing what they were elected for, they face a recall, finally ending the decades–long tradition in Irish politics of promising the earth, moon and stars and promptly forgetting these promises once elected; politicians would be far more likely to do what the populace want them to do if they knew their positions were on the line. And why not introduce people’s proposals allowing initiatives with enough signatures within a proposed amount of time to be put to a national vote? This way people’s frustrations with politicians can be addressed, while real issues can also be dealt with, by the people. This particular flavour of politics has had its successes in Switzerland which has recently become known as a political tourism destination for its particular brand of direct democracy. Popular votes in Switzerland can be called in response to legislation already passed by the government should the organisers collect enough support in the allotted time and, if successful, the legislation is put to a nationwide vote. Similarly, any Swiss citizen or organisation can put forward proposals to amend the constitution, again after collecting enough support within a greater time period. If so, the cabinet is obliged to discuss the proposal and agree on both a united position and a message to put to the parliament which then discusses the initiative and recommends its passing or rejection to the people and the Swiss cantons (member states of the federal state of Switzerland), who then vote on the proposal. The fact that it’s hard to imagine such a system ever being introduced in Ireland shows how badly our country needs the shake up its arrival would bring.

At present we participate in referenda when the government deem it necessary and at a time when they choose, and if the public doesn’t give the answer they seek, then it is back to the polls once more until we get it right. We elect our representatives only once every five years and have to put up with their betrayal for that length of time until the next elections swings around, with the same limited choices. It’s time to put some power back into the hands of the people and then perhaps then a more complete democracy in which elected representatives actually fulfill their promises to the electorate may begin to lift its head. The hardest part is figuring out where to start; whether motivating the people or finding the right politicians who will make the systemic changes required – one is dependent on the other. Kinks will need to be worked out and there’s no doubt the establishment and their supporters would fight tooth and nail to both find holes in any such suggestions and to prevent any such move from happening. But the people don’t serve the government; it’s the other way around. And it’s about time they remembered that.

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