Eamon Ryan: The Need For Three Political Reforms

This is the speech the former Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources Eamon Ryan has given/is to give to the MacGill Summer School in Glenties today:

There is no doubt we need to transform our politics. We need to reform the Dáil. The need for Seanad reform is even greater but if we are to be honest those changes will count for nothing if we don’t have the will to make three more fundamental reforms – The real questions are:

Have we the will to change the way we vote?

Has central government the will to give power back to the local?

Have we the will to change the permanent government?

It is a time of crisis and a time for some honesty in Irish politics. We need honesty not just in identifying corruption where it may exist but honesty in what we as politicians promise our people and honesty in what we as people expect from our politicians.

In the 19th Century we lived under a remote power which tried to kill off revolt with kindness. At the same time we began winning back real power by setting up the first mass democratic movements using a ward based political system, which we worked better than anyone else.

Under our own rule those traditions came together to create the localised, clientist political system we have today. You could not call it corrupt because the Irish people have democratically voted for it every time. We may know that the promises don’t add up but we still vote for our local man or women in the hope that we will draw the long straw and at least get our bit of the pie. But if we are honest we would admit that this way of voting no longer works well, if it ever did. It is one of the reasons we are in the crisis we are in.

Fianna Fail has been the most successful Irish political broker of all. Through its history it has real social and economic achievements as well as the very public failings that come with being so long in power. But no amount of school building grants or funds for a football pitch or medical cards, or housing allocations or planning permissions could make up for the loss of confidence that people felt about the parties in government when our economic crisis came. The irony is that this crisis was in part caused by the way spending was ramped up in advance of the last two elections to pay for the very patronage that we ourselves voted for.

Fine Gael and Labour have shown that they have the same electoral instinct. What were Enda Kenny or Eamon Gilmore thinking when they promised so much over the last year knowing that everything that was promised could never be delivered. As any child would have known all they had to do was wait for the votes to come in. But a child does not have the pragmatic attitude that a politician learns over time. The lesson learnt and handed down that the surest way to reach that quota is to tap into the large constituency who still want someone to tell them what they want to hear or to deliver them something they think the state would not otherwise provide.

I am not sure that changing the electoral system will change this underlying culture. Sinn Fein and the DUP have adopted the very same political model regardless of whether they are elected first past the post or on a PR system.

If our aim is to change the way in which people approach their vote then we need to create a different relationship between the voter and the political system. The solution to our democratic ills lie with greater democracy not less. We need to strengthen the public involvement and not just reform the existing system. Bringing people closer to the decision making process is the best way of giving people a better understanding of what resources we have and how we develop them and deploy them.

‘We The Citizens’ initiative has been hugely beneficial in showing one way in which a model of further public participation can work. I know that the Government may be looking at using such a model when it comes to considering some constitutional reforms but I think we need to go further and facilitate such participative models in everyday local planning and decision making.

There is one immediate example where such an approach could work. We are starting to build a renewable energy system that has the potential to give this country the greatest economic lift since the early 1960’s and which will provide energy security for generations to come. The greatest obstacle to the project comes from a lack of certainty in the planning and development of the gird and other infrastructure that we will need. Rather than bringing the public in towards the end of the planning process we could bring a sample of people from relevant communities to debate the various technical options and the costs and benefits from different development approaches.

Such a process of engagement would complement rather than replace the existing local Government and Planning process. Such a system could agree the community benefits that would accrue if development is to occur. Such a system would give investors far greater certainty within the planning process and thus bring down the overall cost of the project. Such a system could be introduced by the Government in no time at all and at very little cost.

Such a system could work on a regional, county and district level which relates to the second major structural reform I believe we need to deliver.

One of the projects we were working on in Government which came close to fruition was a white paper on local government reform. It had many facets but three initiatives in particular I saw as radical, sensible and urgently necessary.

One of the key ideas was to introduce new regional democratic structures. The final plan was not signed off by Government but a lot of consideration went into how it would work. We came to the conclusion that five regional areas would work best, encompassing the South West, South East, Connacht/Donegal, the East and Dublin. There was to be a transfer of real powers both up from the constituent county councils and down from national government. The new authorities would be the centres for the strategic development of environmental services and transport and planning in their area. They would have sufficient scale to develop their own expertise and sufficient local connections to know what was happening on the ground.

The election of a Mayor of Dublin would be a first step in the selection of democratic heads for these new bodies. The office would have been up and running this Autumn. It would have had real powers and responsibilities. The inter-agency and inter-county rivalry that has been the bane of proper regional planning would come to an end as the buck would stop at a single political desk.

In tandem with the move to a regional structure our cabinet working group agreed on the need for the development of a new district tier which would replace the existing town council structure. This new tier would be the centre point for the delivery of many local government services which in my own mind should extend to include local education and policing.

A third key component was a proposal to introduce the election of full time Cathaoirligh to lead each of our existing county councils for a five year term. Again the office would have real powers and corresponding real responsibilities. The current system where county managers are sometimes democratically accountable to no-one would come to an end.

It was recognized that this transformation of our local government would take several electoral cycles to be fully delivered. The strengthening of both the regional and district tiers would no doubt see a diminution of the role of existing county councils. However, it was remarkable in the consultation and discussions that took place to consider the proposals how little opposition there was. There was a common understanding that our current local government system is not working and needs to be changed.

The reform agenda of this new government should be measured on whether they have the will to do something significant on local government.. Their dominant political hold in the current council chambers should not stop them doing the right thing. If we are to get more Dáil time then there would be no better use of it than starting the printing presses running on local Government reform legislation.

The last and perhaps most difficult change is the reform of our public service, our Permanent Government if you like. We were fortunate at the foundation of our state to have to have a civil service that had high standards of probity. This came at the price of an accompanying conservative streak which I hope will not now be a block to the reforms that everyone inside and outside the system knows are needed.

We need to change. Not just to deliver the efficiencies from the Croke Park deal but also to inspire the many good people across the system who must be frustrated at the glacial time it takes to move people around, to recognise excellence and to punish neglect.

I wish Martin Fraser the very best of luck on his appointment yesterday as Secretary General to the Government and would humbly offer the following advice.

Firstly, if he is to develop a new cadre of young officials who are to be given the freedom to take risks and to innovate which is what we need to do, then he should bring together the officials from both local and central government into the same programme for training and development.

Secondly, we should allow our civil servants speak to the media. The myth that it is the Minister alone who is the body corporate for the department and speaks for everything can be left behind.

Thirdly, there should never again be a significant policy or project decision taken in the gap between the calling of an election and the formation of a new Government.

Fourthly, we need more specialists as well as generalists.

Fifthly we should reconsider the recommendation of the review group on the Department of Finance that the sectoral policy division should remain there. With our resources being limited I would deploy the expertise we have there and in Forfás into the line departments where they are needed. We could then avoid the on-going scenario on critical economic development issues where we have three different policy positions within the public service. When you have such a split there is always the risk that people prefer to see nothing happen if their own thing can’t happen.

More than anything else we need to make sure that what Joe Lee called the ‘paralysing hand of finance’ does not take too much hold as we manage our budget position. We need to be innovative at the same time that we manage our money. Austerity for austerity sake is not going to work.

We need to appoint a new Chief Technical Officer to manage the use of digital technologies across the public service. We need to use cloud computing and we need to get our internet regulations right. We need to make our public data as freely available as possible so that the private sector can use it to provide online services we can all benefit from.

Finally, we need the permanent government to understand that the green and digital economy is the economy of the future.

I am convinced that all three of the broad changes I have outlined above can be achieved and that they can play a central role in our recovery from our current difficulties.

I remember as a young child when I had climbed too high up a tree and when the wind blew up, being terrified as the branches started to sway and the way down was no longer as easy as had been the way up. As a country we have been similarly climbing down from a dangerous position over the last four years. You can criticise the political system for the steps we have taken on the way down. Some argued we should jump but at a certain height you are worried what the fall would do.

Whatever about the political point scoring that the current government engaged against my own party when they were in opposition, I wish them well as they continue to work our way down. I sense that we are at last coming closer to the bottom. We will reach firm ground soon either via a jump or a series of short steps.

I know we are in a scared state but I don’t believe we are a failed state. The centre has held in what was a very difficult time. However, that political centre must now change its shape completely, recognising the flaws in our system and the chance we all have to start anew.

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