Political reform proposals are emerging thick and fast in the wake of the Irish election to try to ensure that never again will such an existential crisis catch the whole country unawares. For outsiders the process just beginning will provide a new and fascinating test of the relevance of political reform to profound real life concerns and rather than a dry as dust theoretical exercise for elites.
It is a relief to see that the debate so far avoids blue skies constitutional ruminations and focuses instead on practical machinery to strengthen scrutiny and enhance government accountability. The general complaint emerging from the crisis that in a small country like Ireland it was all too easy for a “ golden circle” of politicians, bankers and businessmen to create the self-regarding and mutually reinforcing nexus that led to disaster. A Dail seminar of former TDs last week made a number of suggestions reported in the well regarded Political Reform.ie website to improve Dail scrutiny. Some of these will find their echo in the Westminster experience. They include:
- The establishment of the equivalent of the Office of Budgetary Responsibility
- Greater scrutiny by the Public Accounts Committee
- The restoration of Green and White Papers
- The end of blanket ministerial responsibility for all civil service actions
- The restoration of the Dail’s power to hold public inquiries (recently curtailed by the Supreme Court).
In a separate list of proposals in the Irish Times, a group of political scientists who edit Political Reform ie remark that public demand for political reform was “far less foreseeable” than reform of economic and financial management. They submit five specific proposals:
- The Dail not the government should choose the Speaker
- The Senate should be used more as a for appointing more experienced and able ministers ( this in the teeth of many calls to scrap the nominated Upper House)
- Select Committees should be appointed proportionately and legislation placed before them before reaching the floor of the House
- More power to initiate debate for backbenchers and the curtailment of use of the guillotine (used even more in Leinster House than at Westminster).
These early tranches of reform proposals will by no means be the last.
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