Irish voters, go gently into political reform

For the first time since the 1880s, electoral reform is a buzz throughout these islands. So far, I’d say,  the case not made in either the UK or the Republic, where in both States it’s more  a matter of a disconnect between the problems and the solutions.  In the UK the perceived problem seems to be a too strong an executive elected by too few votes; in the Republic too strong an executive elected by too many for too long.

With the launch of the AV (alternative vote) campaign for the May 15 referendum in the UK, Channel 4 News’s excellent fact checker points out fallacies on both sides of the argument (although I do believe AV would tend to benefit the Lib Dems). In Ireland, all parties graded in a Reform Scorecard by the website Political Reform are promising the innovation of a Citizen’s Convention to recommend reform proposals free of party interference. But who sets the agenda in the absence of s strong Electoral Commission acting as referee? And who moderates the debate?  In the end, decisions come down to a Dail majority almost certainly meaning the government of the day – unless, like the UK coalition, the  new  Irish coalition parties agree to differ.

Clientelism is diagnosed as the national enemy responsible for diverting attention from the looming national crisis.  Attacks on the present system of PR-STV are prominent, whether to be replaced by Dermot Desmond’s closed list system and ministers as experts appointed from outside parliament , ( a system ominously near a corporate state), or by Micheal Martin’s single member constituencies  elected in effect by AV. But as this wise post in Political Reform ie points out, the debate is replete with red herrings. The case for blaming clientelism on voting by single transferable vote ( STV),  is not made but asserted.  It can powerfully be argued  instead that the problem lies in weak local government without powers of  taxation since the abolition of the rates in the late 1970s. The restoration of local taxes plus enhanced scrutiny powers for a Dail supported by independent watchdogs could greatly improve the political system.

Another potent factor should not be forgotten. We may well be seeing the beginning of a new stage of political evolution in the Republic.  The power of Fianna Fail as the natural party of government will  finally be broken. No longer can any Irish party pose as a movement above party embodying the whole political nation. The present left-right divergence between Fine Gael and Labour may alarm many anxious for a stable new coalition.  But that same divergence could be good for national cohesion and  the long term health of the body politic, provided the parties can in the end conclude an honest and transparent deal for the duration of the next Dail. A fixed parliamentary term is indeed  worth considering for the Republic, as is being enacted in the UK, as an aid to stability.

Voters should not be impressed by an auction of political reforms.  The best that any citizen’s convention could come up with are a few well considered recommendations which command widespread support before anything is voted on by the next Dail, never mind by the people in a referendum. Wholesale reform of the Constitution is unnecessary and would  in any case take forever. The days of  building a new State are behind us.  The best action to win public trust would be none of the above.   It would be to embark on a new era of better government, brought about by the enduring shock of the present crisis.

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