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?

  • kensei

    Separated Executive and legislature? Yes please. FTP concentrates power in larger parties and therefore reduces debate, so STV should be kept. The court suggestion is somewhat nuts, and the only reason that there are too many referendums is that there are too many EU treaties. Senate reform should be on the list too.

    Anywho, it’s somewhat early to write Obama off; he remains popular and it’s still probably odds on somekind of health care reform will get through. Dems are likely to take a hit, but they nearly always do a new President’s first mid term. Plus the economy probably won’t have picked up enough by next year, but could well have done by 2012.

  • kevin barry

    Unfortunately, as we’ve seen with the debate over the re-classification of drugs in the UK, political expediency often trumps honest expert advice.

    It’s an interesting piece, but the point on referendums and changes to the constitution I would disagree with. As we have seen around Europe with the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty (btw, I am a supporter of the treaty), unfortunately, we cannot trust politicians to put some sensitive matters to the public vote or to do what the public actually wants as the elite ‘knows what’s best for everyone’.

    Perhaps this is why the 1937 Constitution made it a prerequisite that any change be made by way of public vote

    On a slight tangent, perhaps the real reason the Swiss took so long in giving women suffrage and also joining the UN is because they are a nation of sexist isolationists?

  • borderline

    O’Brien’s mostly right IMO.

    The most successful countries are going to be the ones who most resemble successful corporations, with a social arm of course.

    The problem the ROI has is that the politicians are not of sufficient calibre to successfully manage their Departments. Basically they are ex-teachers from large local families who are elected by people with whom they have a personal relationship. The depts they manage exist to in order to exist.

    But the best performing companies in the globe operate in Ireland. There are thousands of managers who are world-class. These people will eventually reform the system. Already I detect winds of change, the drink-drive debate reaction was instructive, the parish pump may be starting to run dry.

    Change Management is never easy, particularly of an electorate. But the process is underway.

  • Dave

    “But the best performing companies in the globe operate in Ireland. There are thousands of managers who are world-class. These people will eventually reform the system. Already I detect winds of change, the drink-drive debate reaction was instructive, the parish pump may be starting to run dry.”

    Hardly, since the public consistently support a lower limit, with a recent AA survey showing 64% of the public in favour of the proposal to harmonise the Irish limit with the majority of other EU regions where the limit is 0.5 mg per ml.

    Elites will only support the reform what it is the interest of the particular elite to reform, so they don’t operate according to a national agenda. I seem to recall one of ‘world-class’ managers of foreign corporations in Ireland (Intel) spending large amounts of money campaigning for a Yes-vote to the Lisbon Treaty in Ireland with the dire warning that voting No would mean job losses in Ireland. Less than two weeks after the dupes voted for the Treaty on the promise of retaining jobs, Intel announced that it was cutting 300 jobs in Ireland. Class.

  • eric

    Scrap STV whether the executive is separated from the legislature or not. About three quarters of the TDs elected to Dail Eireann are elected on the basis of being a good county councillor – not a legislator.

    A bit part of why the political class fell asleep at the wheel was that they were to quote O’Brien:

    “The first is the voting system. It is used by only one other country in the world and none of the dozens of new democracies to emerge in recent decades has chosen to adopt it. Its hyper-competitiveness and the local focus produces elected representatives who are under-qualified, over-stretched and not incentivised to act as agents of change.”

    Very well put Dan!

  • borderline

    Yes Dave the public support a higher limit. Always have. But who are their leaders? Jackie Healy-Rae and Mattie McGrath. So it’s good night on that one.

    As for the “elite” acting in their own interest, spare us the the faux-Marxism analysis please.
    We’re talking 75k a year fellas in negative equity here.

    And the Intel remark is pathetic. If ye’d voted No those jobs wouldn’t have gone I suppose. All these countries trying to join the EU are mad. They should be trying to create employment by getting out or staying out.