The election of 2011 was significant not only for political parties but for the fact that it represented the unmistakable voice of the people. They expressed their anger and disappointment at the state of politics, the economy and the government. The make-up of the new government and the large majority it commands was the inevitable outcome.
The people voted for radical change. We can all agree that much. But there is something which far too many commentators miss: The radical change people voted for was not about exchanging one lot for another, it was about changing the way politics and government is done in this country.
More than any other idea, reform goes to the heart of what people want from every one of the TDs they elected – irrespective of what their labels are.
The economic crisis which our country is in but will get through has at its core a series of systemic failures. Systemic failures involve all parties, but parties in government have a particular role and my party has quite rightly been held accountable. We lost a historic number of seats and are a now a completely changed party.
But I want to make something very clear, each of our representatives carries a democratic mandate and we are determined to use that mandate.
This is a unique moment. There is an unambiguous demand for far-reaching reform of both the institutions of the state and the interaction between the state and its citizens. It is a moment for a concentrated programme of re-evaluation, engagement and action.
It is also a moment which can be quickly squandered.
The words of Edmund Burke are very appropriate: “It cannot be too often repeated, to innovate is not to reform.”
The number of issues involved is huge, and far too wide to be addressed in a short summer school contribution. I also don’t want to contribute to the crowded library of statements on why reform is needed. Instead I’m going to limit myself to two specific areas for reform: parliamentary reform and constitutional reform. I also want to briefly go from the specific to the general in relation to our engagement with the idea of Europe, where I would like to pose a general question rather than suggest answers.
As I’ve said in the past, any parliament which doesn’t discuss the financial system until it collapses is a failed parliament. There can be no reform without changing the fundamental architecture of how the Oireachtas works and the independent powers it exercises.
I want to be constructive today and my primary purpose here is to set out positive proposals. However, there is no way of avoiding talking about the negative side of what’s been done in the last four months.
The rhetoric of reform is now embedded in nearly every government press release. Ministerial speeches are full of praise for reforms both planned and implemented. This has been accepted uncritically because of the natural goodwill which new governments benefit from.
The harsh reality of what has been done is quite different. If things keep going as they are, not only will there be no real reform there will be very significant steps backwards.
Government will be less accountable, parliament will be more irrelevant and reform will be the most devalued word in Irish politics.
Let me give a few examples.
In relation to Dáil committees, in the name of rationalisation the number of committees has been reduced. On the face of it that’s fine. What has not been mentioned is that most of the supposedly abolished committees still exist; they are now called sub-committees. Increased accountability to committees is being claimed but has actually been reduced. The opposition has been removed from any role as either chair or vice-chair of committees which oversee government departments. Previously opposition parties held posts in committees overseeing six departments – today that number is zero. So when the details of legislation, spending, departmental plans and the operation of state agencies are being discussed by committee the agenda will be more completely in the hands of government than before.
This is certainly change, but it’s not reform.
In the Dáil itself, a promise of more time to review government legislation has been followed by the reality of less time. The use of guillotines to end debate has been significantly increased and is now routinely extended to minor and non-urgent bills. In a very fitting, if ironic, end to the term last week a package of changes hailed by the government as making the Dáil more relevant was pushed through with almost no notice, a brief debate and a complete refusal to allow amendments.
This package of supposed reforms contains only two significant changes in it. Firstly, the Taoiseach will be available for questions for less time and secondly the Dáil will sit on Fridays. The new Friday sitting is less impressive when you realise that it will sit on Fridays only once a month, there will be no government business, no questions, no votes and only 10 out of the 166 members of the Dáil need to be in Leinster House for sittings to take place.
This is change, but no one can call it reform.
Dáil changes so far add up to a significant strengthening of government’s control of the parliamentary agenda and a reduction in the likelihood of ministers being held to account. In relation to budget decisions and the peace process, there is evidence for anyone who cares to see it of the lack of real reform allied to a huge government majority making a bad situation worse.
It was accepted by all parties that we need more informed debates with greater transparency by government before decisions are taken. This was particularly supposed to apply to economic debates. What’s happening is the exact opposite. For the first time in a decade, a major tax change was pushed through without any background documents being circulated. A €1.8 million pension levy was imposed but there was a blanket refusal to publish the background studies which routinely accompany all budget measures. A month after the levy was pushed through the Dáil we final got the documents but we had to use the Freedom of Information Act.
For a Dáil elected to be more engaged with economic issues and a government committed to greater scrutiny of all budget matters, this behaviour shows many things but reform is not one of them.
The peace process is one of the greatest achievements of modern Irish politics. All previous governments were very careful to have a consensus in the Dáil on sensitive matters to do with the process. From this came the establishment of the Smithwick Tribunal which is a vital confidence-building measure to show unionists that we do not tolerate even a suspicion of collusion between officers of the State and the IRA.
In spite of this, a bill to limit the Tribunal was published and pushed through the Oireachtas with no consultation and a refusal to supply any background material. It was subsequently revealed that very serious information was withheld from the Oireachtas. It cannot be argued that the Oireachtas had no right to know that the Tribunal was warning that a major witness might withdraw if the terms were altered.
When caught out the government’s response was to use its overwhelming majority to both shut-down and shout-down debate.
The moment for real parliamentary reform is fast being lost. If things carry on as they are, in five years time reform will amount to there being six fewer TDs, with a slightly longer working week and subject to even greater government control than in the past.
There are a series of things which can be implemented quickly and should focus on the core issues of economics and accountability.
When the last major Central Bank Act went through the Oireachtas the main topic of debate was how to force banks to be less restrictive in giving out credit. The debate amongst industry and academic experts had no impact and a major opportunity was missed. The only way that we can give financial reform the consideration it requires is to have a panel of part and full-time experts available to all Deputies. A dedicated regulatory oversight committee and staff is also required because this role will never get the attention is requires if left to general committees.
The budgetary implications of both legislation and motions are rarely set out in detail for either government or opposition proposals. We could quite quickly adopt the principle that no measure can be voted on without an independent evaluation of its costs. Without having to create an edifice like the Congressional Budget Office, this would have a major impact on the quality of debate and decisions.
Even the deepest commitment to accountability can disappear behind the barrier of an impregnable majority. Therefore we should introduce measures which can oblige a minister to make a statement and be questioned on a topic at the request of a set minority of deputies. This obviously requires limits, but the threat of it would lead to a much greater openness on the scheduling of business.
Finally, the allocation of all positions on committees by use of the d’Hondt system as it is used in the Northern Ireland Assembly would remove key positions from the realm of government patronage and encourage independence.
Key parliamentary reforms require constitutional amendments. There has been all party agreement on the need to take a consensual approach to this and also to have extensive public consultation. Since the 1996 referendum on divorce, the detail of every constitutional amendment has been discussed with the opposition. In many cases, such as the neutrality provisions of the successful Nice and Lisbon proposals, very significant changes were made as a result of opposition suggestions. Public hearings have also been a frequent part of the process. The idea of holding a Constitutional Convention to extend this approach was a common feature in most party manifestos in February.
The early start to the process has not been encouraging.
In spite of a clear commitment to continue the tradition of seeing constitutional referenda as a non-partisan matter, the text for three amendments will be rushed through the Dáil in September with no discussions and no time to evaluate complex issues.
These three amendments are being treated as if they are nothing significant – but is a refusal to consult or debate really a way to begin a process of constitutional reform? Just look at the issues involved.
A destructive and entirely avoidable conflict with the judiciary developed because of the regular leaking and misrepresentation of private conversations and a memorandum. The independence of the judiciary is not a minor matter and government should have no role in deciding the exact amount of a reduction judicial pay. An independent way of doing this could easily be included in the amendment yet no discussion is being allowed. Instead we have had the incredible situation of the Minister for Justice demanding silence from the judiciary and publishing an article calling for a yes vote to an unpublished amendment.
Increasing the effectiveness of Oireachtas Committees is an important objective, and everyone agrees with reversing the Abbylara judgement because it is too restrictive. This said, the issues involved in framing this as a constitutional amendment are very large and involve the fundamental right of an individual to fair procedure. Serious findings against an individual have always been left to the Courts and any change to this has to be carefully considered. This deserves more than the few hours debate it will receive.
Finally in October there will a referendum addressing the issue of whistleblowers. No effort has been made to even begin to discuss the nature and definition of what is involved. Of course there is no referendum on corporate donations. There could be and should be one in October banning once and for all the money from big business in politics.
The current proposal for the constitutional convention is for it to have a tight agenda and timetable. If we want to have substantive constitutional reform it must be allowed to address the fundamental structures of our political system. There are two specific measures which, if implemented, could have a radical and positive impact on Irish politics. Both go to the root of why there is no real separation between the parliament and executive.
Article 17 of Bunreacht na hEireann contains a small measure which is widely unknown. According to its provisions the Dáil can only consider any proposal on taxation or spending if it is signed by the Taoiseach. In practice this means that everyone who is not a minister is constitutionally obliged to merely comment on but cannot initiate or amend proposals concerning the bulk of government business.
This may have made sense in the mediaeval England where it first appeared as a parliamentary rule, but it actively undermines the workings of an effective modern parliament.
The other major change should be to both separate membership of the Dáil and the government and open government up to people other than professional politicians.
The jobs of legislator and minister are not the same. As things stand nearly 20% of the Dáil plays no role in its consideration of legislation. Under the doctrine of collective responsibility they are explicitly forbidden to criticise let alone vote against government proposals. Equally they face direct pressures between their dual role as a local representative and a departmental minister.
I simply don’t agree that the only people qualified to run large and complex departments are those few who can both get elected to the Dáil and be part of the majority. If we want ministers to be able to travel widely promoting trade this is not possible if they have to attend to daily parliamentary business. Other countries manage to have strong democracies while opening up government beyond politicians. We should too.
I think a political system which has a parliament which is more considered in its work and stronger in its relationship with government would represent a major move forward. It would improve public debate and be capable of delivering the more open democracy which the people want.
What I’m less sure about is what we do about the issue of how our engagement with Europe fits within this. I want to raise this because of some comments made yesterday during your session on economics.
I believe more than ever in Seán Lemass’ vision an Ireland strengthened by its deep engagement within a strong European community. In a vast range of issues from the mundane to fundamental Europe matters and will continue to matter. In spite of nearly forty years of membership, we have still not found a way of incorporating Europe in our political culture in a way that recognises this. Ultimately every debate tends to descend into one of polar opposites, with a disturbing tendency for stereotypes to emerge.
We are not alone in this. In truth this is the greatest long-term challenge facing the Union and it impacts on every issue it addresses.
The Union is of a scale and diversity which is unique in world history. The sense of connection which people have with local and national levels has not developed with the Union. All research in recent years here and throughout Europe is that detachment from Europe is increasing.
A major package of reforms to the handling of European proposals in the Oireachtas is being implemented and I think they will address key institutional issues. A much bigger problem is that the quality of our public debate on Europe is declining while the seriousness of the issues is increasing.
You’re not European enough or you’re too European is almost the entire range of comment. What’s missing is a constructive dialogue of the centre.
Yesterday Philip Lane and Colm McCarthy made a number of comments about the role of the Euro in our economic crisis. I haven’t seen their full contributions or those of other speakers, but I strongly agree with the point that we have failed to properly address our relationship with the Euro at any stage in the nearly twenty years that we have been engaged with it. Equally, six crisis summits and a record of causing rather than preventing contagion shows that the current system of economic and financial governance in Europe is badly broken.
The Maastricht referendum debate was mainly about other things. When the Stability and Growth Pact was negotiated, with Ireland holding the Council Presidency, it merited almost no public debate. When we joined the first wave of members there was no real change in how we look at economic issues in national debate.
The failure to introduce major fiscal and financial constraints at the time of joining the Euro at European and domestic level was a profound error. I have no problem acknowledging that. The record shows that this was absent from the debate at the time. At the heart of this was the need to tax people more and spend less on services. This would have required a level of denial which politics has been allergic to and the public intolerant of. Equally a much more aggressive approach to financial regulation was required but nowhere on the agenda.
In reality, the roll-out of new notes and coins in 2002 received dramatically more attention than the act of joining the Euro three years before.
Stronger fiscal coordination is a reasonable development from the crisis, which may not have prevented it but certainly would have lessened its impact. Agreements reached in February and ratified in March provide a good start. The failure to put reform of the ECB on the agenda is the only downside to the package.
The most important thing which is missing is public acceptance of the idea of the idea that we can, and more importantly should, operate within a framework which we don’t fully control. This can’t be addressed by attending meetings, holding forums or having information campaigns – and it goes to the heart of the wider political reform issue.
Parties have to take the lead in finding new ways to engage with the public on Europe – trying to move the debate onto a level where not everything quickly descends to a pro and anti exchange.
An engaged and informed electorate is the only guarantee of real political reform. The public appetite for changing the way the way we do politics in this country is very real.
If the programme of reform continues as it has begun the word reform will be reduce to the level of Orwellian newspeak.
This is a moment of opportunity which cannot be lost. The agenda mustn’t be about hyping minor changes but leaving every fundamental division of power in place.