Devins on beefing up Ireland’s democratic institutions…

One of Fianna Fail’s Sligo/Leitrim Two, Jimmy Devins has an opinion piece in this weekend’s Irish Times. There are indications of just how deeply (or rather how shallow) the fissure with the party goes. For instance, his complains about the way the Dail functions is that government does not listen to it’s own backbenchers (as opposed to ‘listen’ in general). And his carp that “all members of the Dáil should be able to have an input, in a constructive way, to helping us out of the current difficulties” comes direct from Cowan’s little book of gripes about the Opposition. His suggestions on Seanad reform stop short of a fully elected house under universal sufferage and would keep the Taoiseach’s ability to maintain its ‘wholly captive status’. Nevertheless, there are some handy suggestions to break the tendency towards parish rather than national interest in the Republic’s national legislature.By far his best (and cutest) suggestion is to beef up the powers of local politicians and lay down a clear demarcation between the duties of the councillor, and those of the national parliamentarian:

Any analysis of the work of a TD would show that a considerable proportion of it is related to dealings with local authorities (eg planning, housing, roads, water and sewerage issues) and local concerns. These are the bread and butter matters dealt with in the TD’s local office. Although it can be argued that most of this work falls within the remit of local representatives and county councillors, in the real world of Irish politics it would be foolhardy for any TD to ignore this work on behalf of the electorate.

On a national level, TDs have a duty to introduce legislation and discuss issues that affect the country. Some would argue that the national parliament should only concern itself with national issues but that is to ignore the realities of political life in Ireland.

A strengthening of the powers of local politicians and a clearer demarcation in the role of national and local politicians in relation to their functions and areas of responsibility might address some of the overlap and duplication which occurs.

In this context, it would make some sense to reduce the overall number of TDs (I’m less convinced by the cost cutting aspect as a real democratic benefit). But perhaps beefing up the lower rungs of government raises much tougher questions about the necessity of the Seanad into sharper relief than ever than Mr Devins is prepared to admit…

The other appealing aspect lies in the possibility of getting external expertise into the Cabinet:

In Ireland, all of our cabinet members are selected from the Oireachtas, the vast majority coming from the Dáil. There are certain portfolios (at both senior and junior level) which would benefit from having a person with expert knowledge of the sector in the position, and this would also result in a reduction in the plethora of special advisers and consultants who cost the exchequer so dearly.

Many European countries operate a variation of a list system which allows people with specific expertise in different areas to be members of government without having to directly contest elections. Some variant of this list system is surely worthy of consideration.

Or, as in the UK’s bicameral system co-option from the Seanad? Both these suggestions hit at Ireland’s core problem in its parliamentary system: the lack of core competence at the heart of government (and opposition). Given the vested interests (both overseas and domestic) Irish politicians have to combat, the emphasis should be on strengthening the capacity of the state’s lawmakers to make good law and hold government to account (rather than bogging it down in pointless demands for consensus).

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty