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).

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  • Mick

    The answer is simple, for both Ireland and the UK.

    Seperate executive and legislature entirely. Have seperate elections for Taoiseach and Dáil (or as the case may be Prime Minister and Commons, or even First Ministers and Assembly) – after all, they are two completely different jobs – so why have one ‘application form’? – then the successful T/PM/FM can ‘pick’ his cabinet from the world of possiblities, instead of the few hundred, or even dozen of his fellow MPs. Leave the MPS with the legislative and scrutiny function.

    Simples.

  • Brian Walker

    Mick, Isn’t it striking that due to the depth of the recession, Ireland and the UK are going through very similar constitutional and political agonising? The entire nation (where it could) went along with living high on the hog. I find it hard to point a systemic flaw in the system to account for the crash. It was a collective failure, perhaps aggravated by the very consensus – the social partnership_- that set the conditions for Irish growth in ther first palce. Consensus became group think. The dearth of talent argument can be overdone. It’s tempting to be cynical, but Ireland’s institutional and economic modernisation has surely been impressive overall during the past 30 years. Much if that achievement will stick. But there’s lots of international high powered expereince available to Irish politics. Dan O’Brien, whose IT piece you highlighted, is himself a good example. Look at all those sleek young folk in Brussels. What’s needed is a stronger public service ethic to reduce clientelism. I suggest three manageable changes.
    1. Wider recruitment from published candidate shortlists before selection into the political parties – and smaller salaries. The rewards are public service now and perhaps better outside jobs later. 2. A directly elected Seanad on a different franchise and electoral cycle, with clearly defined scrutiny powers to put a stronger check on the Dail and the govenment. 3. As in the UK, a long, hard examination of TDs’/MPs’ constituency work. They spend too much time as ineffectual local ombudspeople rather than picking up local intelligence to perform their main role as legislators.

  • Dan Sullivan

    The problem with “a clear demarcation between the duties of the councillor, and those of the national parliamentarian” is that the parliamentarian such as Devins feels that she has to do this work in order to get elected.

    I’ve posted on an alternative system previously which would separate the constituency clientist role from the legislative one.

    http://www.danielsullivan.ie/blog/?p=504

    I would add to that by saying we should abolish the current local authorities and replace them with one for the Greater Dublin Area and 10/12 roughly equally sized local administrative areas.

    We need to break the step in the ladder that says you must be a clientist representative to be a legislator or member of the executive.

  • doctor dolittle

    I think Irish political life might be reaching a tipping point as regards the antics of the Jimmy Devinses of our wee world.
    This weasel writes in the Irish Times of the need to reform a system in which he cynically excels at abusing.

    No serious expert disputes the fact that cancer cases are best treated in dedicated, focused, specialist centres which means your case is dealt with by specialists who deal with little else.

    Stupid Sligo folks who aren’t up to speed with the latest in international oncological best practice but know there’s a lovely man down the road in Sligo, and his family’s lovely, and sure he cured Molly Brennan up the road, and why should we go to Galway, Sligo only lost to them by a point….are “represented” big time by Dr. Devins.

    It’s a pity the prick wouldn’t have an ounce of principle and lead them for a change.

    Yeah, you might lose your seat Dr D, but you won’t have to answer the question that will be put to you shortly by an increasingly-waking-up-and-smelling-the-coffee media…….

    Dr Devins, how many women are you prepared to see die in order that you retain your seat?

  • Mack

    The Spectator – I agree 100%