Muslim Community Lobby Ireland is an independent organization established 1st May 2007. Its motto is TO USE THE VOTE RIGHTLY AND TO RAISE THE MUSLIM COMMUNITY AWARNESS WITH THEIR RIGHTS AND TO PROMOTE TOLERANCE AND UNDERSTANDING OF OTHER EXISTING GROUPS. لترشيد استعمال الصوت الانتخابي ولتوعية وتعريف المسلمين بحقوقهم في ايرلندا وان يعيشوا بتفهم للواقع وللجماعات الاخرى الموجودة على الساحة
Wednesday, June 24, 2009
STOCKHOLM SYNDROME is a psychological response by kidnap victims who become sympathetic and loyal to their kidnappers. Hostages bond with the hostage taker as a basic survival strategy. Isolation induces the prisoner to adopt the captor’s mindset.
Is this phenomenon also known as Irish political culture? Are our political institutions trapped by a mindset which is angry but accepts the New York hip-hop philosophy of Run DMC: “It’s like that, and that’s the way it is!”
Trinity College Dublin and the Political Studies Association of Ireland hosted a conference yesterday to ask these questions: Are our Institutions Fit for Purpose? Political Reform in the Republic of Ireland.
The objective of the conference was to provide a forum for Ireland’s leading political scientists, political commentators and interested practitioners to discuss their views on political reform. Jane Suiter, Matt Wall, both PhD scholars at Trinity, and I sat down over a cup of coffee a few weeks ago to organise the conference. By presenting accessible, informed and dispassionate analysis to a wider public, we innocently hope to motivate public participation as part of a process to drive institutional change.
There are no silver bullets or quick fixes but rather a cocktail of experiences which will emerge as part and parcel of a protracted learning process. As Dr Eoin O’Malley and Prof John Coakley have asked on these pages this week, are our institutional failings the consequence of a bankrupt Irish political culture or are they the cause?
Was the focus of the conference misguided? Patterns of behaviour develop over time. Those guilty of impropriety become so accustomed to their wrongdoing that they begin to think of themselves as invincible. According to behaviour theory, collective guilt finds expression in the tolerance of further transgressions which are not corrected because of an absence of strong external pressure.
Whistleblowers are the exception. When ethical lapses occur, they are justified on the premise that such incidents are isolated and rare occurrences. The focus shifts towards the individual transgression at the expense of wider systemic analysis.
As a consequence, reform is reactionary and responds only to crisis. Maybe then it’s easier to blame institutions rather than ourselves, the voting public. We are an inherently contradictory people. We want wideranging Scandinavian public services but are only willing to contribute to a low tax base. A majority of us voted against the Lisbon Treaty but a minority voted for anti-Lisbon MEP candidates. We condemn corruption but condone the activity of local councillors who “deliver” for our area.
As Prof Michael Marsh (TCD) outlined yesterday, the electorate may feign demands for a policy-orientated party system but in reality make consistent choices for personality based representation.
Is it our own fault then? Are we assuming that institutions are self-reforming animals and that politics will voluntarily revolutionise itself? Is it something more fundamental and specific to our culture?
Prof Coakley spoke about the paradox of Irish political culture. Irish Independence signalled the overt rejection of British influence in Ireland, yet we accepted British models of government as our own.
Are our institutions more appropriate to the egalitarian organisation typical of Protestantism, which gave them birth, and less suited to the hierarchical disposition of Catholicism, which inhabits them?
Although geographically in the north of Europe, Ireland shares characteristics with the south. Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Spain have traditionally been distinguished by clannish catch-all parties and entrenched centre-periphery politics. Strong, larger-than-life, boss-like personalities act as indispensable intermediaries to access state resources.
Ireland also shares a Catholic ethos with the south. The Catholic Church places emphasis on the inherent weakness and shortcomings of human beings, their inability to escape sin and the consequent need for the church to be forgiving and protecting. The clergy, as mediators between mankind and God, facilitate, via confession, the possibility to be absolved of guilt.
Anger focused into outrage is necessary for a public opinion to grow into genuine demands for political change. Anger management if you will. But first we must join the dots of causes and consequences.
For this to happen, three crucial factors must coincide. An issue must strike deep into the hearts of an electorate, as the Ryan report, so powerfully demonstrated. Attitudes from diverse perspectives must crystallise and consequently invoke polarisation. Finally, an event must erupt whereby political parties are sharply differentiated in relation to public perception.
Institutional reform cannot make people act in ways that are more moral or more honest.
ASSERTIONS THAT the Houses of the Oireachtas are under performing are not new.
For many of its 90 years, Dáil Éireann has been derided as impotent, puny, weak and akin to a rubber stamp for government, while the most earnest discussions about Seanad Éireann relate to its abolition.
A large part of the explanation for this is laid at the door of the political system, which stands accused of failing to move beyond party or local interests towards non-partisan and detailed engagement in national policy. Others point to the greater role now played by the courts, media, the EU and (as the credit crunch has demonstrated) international organisations such as the IMF in the determination of government policy.
Monday’s conference in Trinity College, Dublin, on the subject of political reform heard how weaknesses in relation to one core function of the Oireachtas – holding government to account – have increasingly serious consequences as the responsibilities of government expand.
Might the need for tribunals of inquiry, failures in public spending controls and weak regulation of key sectors of the economy have been prevented if there was a more robust system of parliamentary oversight? And how can our national parliament fulfil its potential or the role constitutionally envisaged for it?
Popular remedies include electoral reform aimed at producing national legislators (rather than local ambassadors), and limiting the seemingly untrammelled power of the party whips.
While these proposals are not without merit, I would suggest that there are considerable benefits to be reaped by informed reflection about what parliament, or rather members of parliament, can do given the realities of the political environment in which they work.
The most important commodity in parliament is time, and using parliamentary time to best effect is central to the Houses improving their performance. Few members will disagree that many of the elaborate late-Victorian procedures which still govern parliamentary proceedings and debate are of questionable value.
Set-piece use of standing orders to raise matters of local concern or to raise spurious objections might elevate local profiles but do little to address issues of genuine national concern.
Why have a multi-stage legislative process in each House when many of these stages contribute nothing to the quality or content of legislation?
Most modern policy issues are complex and cannot be adequately considered in a question time format that does not allow proper engagement between members of government and opposition.
Notwithstanding better (and long overdue) funding and resourcing for the Oireachtas, growth in the State’s capacity and the fragmentation of the public service has not been matched by an equivalent expansion in the capacity of the parliament to comprehend, the extension of public authority beyond departments and core government offices and agencies.
Of course, the committee system has been of considerable benefit in bridging this gap and increasing the volume of work produced by the Oireachtas.
There is, however, substantial variety in the quality of work and attendance within the various committees, and most committee reports go unheeded. The work of government is increasingly cross-cutting, and greater fluidity is required within parliament to oversee policy developments.
Would not committees provide a more useful forum for ministers or ministers of state to answer parliamentary questions and to engage members on policy choices?
The Seanad has arguably the greatest potential for reform and is in my view an untapped resource.
In Britain the House of Lords has completely reinvented itself by acting as a filter for EU legislation, looking at the range of issues and identifying those in need of detailed examination by the Commons and its committees. It has also produced influential reports for government on key issues of public policy, for example on the accountability of regulators.
In a similar fashion, it may be time to move the Seanad beyond its principally legislative role to meet some of the needs of modern government.
It is no mere nod to classical ideas of representative democracy to assert that our parliament has a central role to play in modern Ireland, and that parliamentary accountability should be strengthened. Ultimate accountability must reside with public institutions, and policy choices made by governments can only be legitimised through exposure to parliamentary scrutiny.
Though exceptional in nature, the recent parliamentary debates over the Ryan report and the authority it provided for subsequent government action demonstrate what can be done when parliament is engaged.
A generation ago government chief whip Barry Desmond expressed his concern that without reform the Dáil would “ossify into a permanent state of preservation”.
For the Oireachtas to be relevant in the 21st Century, meaningful reform of parliamentary procedures and organisation must take place.
Moving beyond party politics, this will serve to narrow the gap between public expectation and parliamentary performance.