Call for radical reform in Ireland – solution or distraction?

In his latest attack on the poor performance of the Republic, the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Dan O’Brien targets the whole political culture. The Irish problem is not just what governments do but what they fail to do. Dan argues for wholesale institutional reform and hankers after a government of experts rather than bungling sometimes venal amateurs. Who I wonder would be his ideal taoiseach or finance minister?

He complements British departmental cross cutting (perhaps over- generously) and pins much of the blame for Ireland’s persistent underperformance on four aspects of the constitutional system. There should be wider separation of the powers between government and the Oirechtas. STV is an inhibitor of strong government. To free them from narrow local interests, ministers should not be TDs. Judges have too much power and there are too many referendums. But distant fields seem greener. And who would referee a wider separation of the powers other than a strong Supreme Court? Different constitutional forms don’t always produce better results. Canada’s weak government seems to be handling the recession quite well. In the US Obama is flat-lining, frustrated by the definitive separation of the powers, even with a Democratic majority in both Houses. Most democracies are in fact parliamentary in which ministers are members. France is the notable major power exception in Europe where ministers are still obliged to answer MPs’ questions. Ironically Gordon Brown once seemed keen on borrowing from this model with his brief foray into appointing “ a government of all the talents” of some outsiders . How stale all that seems now. The fact is, political skills are sui generis and non- politicians seldom seem to have them. None of the above is an argument against reform. But reform has to be pragmatic and well targeted. Politicians of all stripes tend to wary of wholesale constitutional overhauls. They balk at the time and energy required. Short of revolution or near revolution as with de Gaulle in 1958, the drive is seldom there. Ireland had its chances in 1922 and in 1938, with what amounted to two changes of regime. It will be hard to create a third. Many long for a centre left-centre right polarity to create more straighforward political choices. Yet there seems no chance of the parties cramping their populist style to let that happen. And in the rest of the world, the choice is usually as blurred as it is in Ireland, whatever the political labelling. Perhaps the bitter shocks of the economic crisis and the rash of corruption tribunals which accompanied Ireland’s first serious brush with prosperity will be enough to change behaviour. Otherwise, if you had a go at one big political reform, what would it be and what would it deliver?

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London

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