Jane Suiter over on www.politicalreform.ie makes this very vaild point about what we need to change in our political system to make it work better. Given that there is a consensus of sorts being arrived at that our political system has failed us, we need now to consider what sort of changes would make our political system more responsive to modern needs? I can think of four that would radically change how politics would work in Ireland:
1. A National Constituency. One of the greatest obstacles to rational national policy making is the geographical obsession in Irish politics. This is understandable, as we are a people with strong local community ties. The problem is that it is now a hindrance in that no candidate sees any votes in pursuing national issues. If we had, say, 90 TDs elected in constituencies, and 30 elected in a single national constituency, we would at least allow for some candidates to get elected on a non-geographical basis. You would still have the Candidate For The West, etc, but some of the national TDs would be issue or vocational based. The argument in favour of single-seat constituencies has a lot going for it too, when coupled with an open list PR system.
2. Separate the Executive. The obsession with getting a cabinet minister “for the area” indicates a fascinating part of the Irish psyche: Things would be better if only we had someone who could cheat other areas out of things and give them to us. What’s fascinating about the idea is its irrationality. We have 43 constituencies and 15 cabinet ministers, which means that we’d have a much greater chance of not getting a cabinet minister than getting one, and you would think that would inform our desire for an even-handed system, yet the Irish seem incapable of grasping that. TDs and Senators should be banned from being ministers. Brian Lenihan gets his mandate to be a minister from the Dail, not the voters of Castleknock. It would force the Dail to act as a seperate legislature, and increase the pool of available ministers to the whole country (and abroad) and not just the Dail. TDs would be vehemently opposed to it, but so what? They don’t own the system, we do.
3. Elected Mayors. We have over 1000 elected (and paid) officials in the country, yet almost none have the direct power to do things for their electors. Instead, they have the power to lobby for things, which leads to huge amounts of money being spent on letters to people who do have power, and then letters to electors telling them a letter has been sent to a person with power. Not only is it an expensive and wasteful paper chase, it has inflicted considerable damage on the Irish understanding of democracy. We elect a 1000 councillors who spend most of their time telling their voters that the county manager is an unelected dictator and there is nothing they the voter can do about it. It creates a culture of victimhood and entitlement, voters do not see the connection between the decisions they make at election time, and the outcome from the political system. Outside Dublin in particular a whole culture has developed where “Dublin” bullies the nation, or at least is perceived as such.
We should slash the number of councillors in half, and pay the rest properly. On top of that, we should elect Mayors on five year terms in every county, with the power to raise a local charge and direct the county manager. It is the one thing that would really transform Irish politics, taking a chunk of TDs who do not want to be national legislators and letting them do what they really want to do. It would create a sense of local responsibility and empowerment, and create a layer of genuine political power seperate from the cabinet. Political activists always say that if we did such a thing we would end up with a swathe of local GAA players and celebrities. Good. If, two years in, the people of Carlow find they have elected an idiot as mayor, they’ll put more thought into it next time. Shielding the voters from their own irresponsibility is not doing them any favours.
Finally, as part of points one and two, we really should consider term limits on TDs and ministers. Politics works on the basis of competing platforms, yet most of the next generation of politicians seem to be emerging from an identikit political class who want to make a lifetime career out of politics. Are we really served well by people who regard non-vouched expenses and huge non-contributory pensions as normal? What is wrong with people coming from real life, serving a few terms, and then returning to Earth?