Ireland’s colonial legacy: “A parliament collapsed into a government”

Re-Reading the history of Irish Republicanism through the prism of Martin Frampton’s latest book, Legion of the Rearguard I’m struck mostly by its pervasively inchoate character.

That’s an impression substantiated not just by the strong historical tradition of dissent, but even by apparently random action of that most constitutionalist of Taoisigh, John A Costello who it appears (according to John Bowman) broke Ireland’s link with the Commonwealth on foot of a question from the Canadian press.

Fintan O’Toole is not alone in offering a fierce critique of the current Republic. John Drennan was on rhetorical fire this weekend too, offering the crown, err, leadership to whomsoever was happiest to wield the knife on the bankers.

Dan O’Brien on Saturday View suggested the real problem is not just that the Irish Parliamentary has inherited the Westminister system in which ‘we have a parliament collapsed into a government’.

The problem O’Toole (drawing from his new book, Enough is Enough) identifies more than anything else is passivity/inertia of the country’s parliamentarians i the face of rival power, not least the Supreme Court, which effectively stepped in back in 2002 and told the Oireachtas that it had no explicit, implicit or inherent power to conduct an inquiry which could lead:

‘…to adverse findings of fact and conclusions (including a finding of unlawful killing) as to the personal culpability of an individual not a member of the Oireachtas so as to impugn their good name is ultra vires in that the holding of such an inquiry is not within the inherent powers of the Oireachtas’.

The parliamentarian’s response? Order a tribunal into matters that without further legislation constitutionally they were no longer empowered to investigate, and ignore the problem. He goes on to re-iterate a theme sketched out in last Friday’s paper by John Fitzgerald, the appalling lack of powerful local government in the south.

Fitzgerald sees salvation in a locally elected Mayor (Dublin now has the legal provision for one, though they are now consulting about the detail of what that will mean) who would take on some of the functions currently performed by council Chief Executives:

The last thing we need is governance through an unwieldy elected body that is programmed to avoid hard decisions. The introduction of directly elected mayors without a fundamental reorganisation of the functions and services for which a mayor has direct responsibility will not achieve the required changes.

Chief executive selection through the existing public service recruitment system, while providing transparency, leans towards candidates who are “safe” and away from those who are dynamic. At present, we need more of the latter.

Most communities lay the problems of their local public services at the door of the minister because they cannot find local accountability. At present, every community wants more services because they believe it will be paid for by someone else.

The introduction of a property tax, which has to happen, provides an opportunity to return to local taxation and the accountability that automatically follows. Property taxes should be collected locally and applied to funding local services with a reduction in the central grants that fund a large part of local government spending.

In this way, a locally accountable body has the incentive to deliver services efficiently in the knowledge that resultant savings can improve local services.

On Friday, Fianna Fail rebel John McGuinness will dip his toes in the reform water with his recipe (written with our own occasional contributor Naoise Nunn), The House Always Wins.

There is a desperate scramble both to sort out both the immediate problems and address the bigger issues affecting the country. A second (or third or fourth depending on where you start counting from) Republic may not suffice as a rallying call if the country’s parliamentarians resile to their customary passivity after the current crisis has run it course.

And none will stick if the main political parties, and especially those in opposition, cannot find the political will make the necessary changes…

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