One of the great missed opportunities of modern Irish history was our decision in 1922, and again in 1937, to effectively copy the British parliamentary system. It’s hardly surprising that we did, given it was the system we were most familiar with, and indeed needed a robust system of government immediately.
The problem is that the parliamentary system does not reflect how we operate as a culture. We are not given to frank and open discussion of public issues. We are prone to being obsessed with our social standing in the eyes of our peers, with “What will the neighbors think?” being arguably the most powerful ideology in the country. A consensus is the arrived at that permits face saving as a new idea is introduced and eventually meets a threshold of social respectability. It’s how we went from a country that banned condoms and The Life of Brian to being the first country on Earth to legalize same sex marriage in a popular national plebiscite.
What if we designed a political system with a specific purpose to confront those aspects of the Irish psyche, and to force results? Below is a set of principles and institutions, whilst not exhaustive, would be a beginning of a debate.
1. There shall be a Dail Eireann of no more than 60 members, elected by a single closed party list system published three weeks before polling. The list shall be selected in an open and transparent way by vote of the party members in a manner prescribed by law. A party must get at least 5% of the national vote to win seats. Surplus seats shall be distributed proportionally among the parties that pass the threshold. The assembly shall have a fixed term of seven years. Vacancies shall be filled from the party list in the order submitted.
Individual members of the Dail may introduce a private members bill anonymously with an explanatory note. The house shall debate and vote on all such bills.
Individual members may introduce an individual spending bill allocating new funding for a specific purpose. The bill must include a specific revenue mechanism to provide new funding for the bill, and the new funding mechanism must begin to collect funding for 18 months before the funds in the bill may be spent. Only funds raised by the mechanism in the bill may be spent. Any new taxation created by the bill shall be named after the bill’s primary proposer.
The Dail may amend the constitution by a two thirds majority, a simple majority in the Seanad and the consent of the president. The president may refer the proposed change to a referendum. The signatures of a majority of chieftains may also refer the proposed changes to a referendum.
2. Dail Eireann shall elect a Taoiseach to a single non-renewable seven year term. The Taoiseach shall appoint a cabinet. Any citizen over the age of 18 shall be eligible to be a member of the cabinet. Members of the cabinet may not hold any other public office. The entire cabinet must be approved by the Dail.
3. There shall be an office in each county of Chieftain. The Chieftain shall be directly elected by the single transferable vote for a five year term, and shall act as the political leader of the county council and also as a local ombudsman. The chieftain shall set any local taxes created by the Dail, and also draft the budget of the council, but must balance revenue and expenditure. All taxes and spending shall come with the signature of the chieftain. A full time county council shall hold the chieftain to account, and may remove the chieftain by two thirds vote. This will trigger a new election of both the council and the chieftain. The council shall be elected by STV and party list in a single county wide constituency. The chieftain may not seek another elected office whilst in office.
4. There shall be a senate of 50 members elected on vocational lines, with all citizens over 18 eligible to vote. An additional ten members shall be chosen at random from the population to serve two year non-renewable terms as senators. Vacancies shall be filled in a matter prescribed by law. Chieftains shall have a right to sit and speak in the Seanad, but not vote.
5. The president shall be elected to a seven year term which shall begin half way through the Dail’s seven year term. The president may dissolve the Dail without the consent of the Taoiseach once per presidential term.