Posted tagged ‘Parliament’

Is the party over?

January 31, 2011

The latest opinion poll figures in Ireland suggest that independent candidates in the forthcoming general election may do very well: they are currently scoring 15 per cent, only one percentage point lower than Fianna Fáil. If this kind of support is maintained on the actual polling day it could, at least in theory, produce a record number of independent TDs (members of the Dáil, i.e. the lower house of parliament). This would create a completely different political composition of the country’s parliament from that of any other state (apart from Canada) of which I am aware. What does this signify, and does it matter?

Historically independent members of parliament are often elected on single-issue platforms, often to do with local services in the constituency. Where a government does not have a clear majority independent parliamentarians can become crucial to sustaining them in power, and often this is achieved through bargaining that involves the provision of resources or facilities for the area or region. A quick study of the parliamentary career of Jackie Healy-Rae in Ireland illustrates this point.

At a time when political parties are not held in very high esteem the electorate may be more willing to experiment with independents, and may even find them a better proposition. But in fact they distort the political system, because for the most part at least they are unpredictable. Taken as a group they do not represent a recognisable political direction, and so they do not help in the maintenance of sustainable and coherent policy-making, which at this point in our economic fortunes is particularly necessary. They also may, in some cases at least, represent the pursuit of pork barrell practices to support one area at the expense of others.

An interesting development in Ireland was the recent attempt to assemble a group of independent candidates (including journalists and commentators David McWilliams and Fintan O’Toole) and allow them to run under one organisational umbrella, to be called ‘Democracy Now’. However, the individuals who would have made up that group have wildly differing views on almost all matters imaginable, ranging from the fairly extreme right to the very radical left. They would have been committed to a common goal of political reform and the renegotiation of the recent Irish bail-out, but it would have been difficult for them to unite around substantive principles even in those contexts. In the event the group has decided not to proceed, and only one of them, Shane Ross, seems determined to stand as an independent.

It is my view that independents representing university seats in the Seanad, Ireland’s upper house, have played a very valuable role. But the game in the Dáil is a different one, and for me at least there is no evidence that independent TDs enhance democracy and progress. I therefore hope that current opinion poll figures turn out to be wrong. In the end, the capacity of citizens to have their political priorities reflected in government will depend on their ability to vote for a manifesto held in common by a group large enough to form an administration. I hope that the political parties are not finished yet.


Parliamentary matters

January 4, 2011

As far back as I can remember, every so often someone pops up in Irish politics and suggests that the Irish parliament’s upper house, Seanad Éireann (the Senate), should be abolished. Back in the 1980s this was suggested by Fianna Fáil grandee Martin O’Donoghue, more recently it was put forward as a new Fine Gael policy (about which the party front bench apparently knew nothing until they heard it on the radio) by party leader Enda Kenny, and now Fianna Fáil and the Labour Party have also proposed abolition. Pretty much everybody, therefore.

Indeed, it has been suggested that we may have this put to us in a referendum on the same day as the coming general election (abolition would require a constitutional amendment). This would create an interesting situation, in the sense that there would be some confusion as to whether a new Seanad could or should be elected if the electorate has just voted to abolish it, but where in the absence of implementing measures such an election may actually be required.

There are arguments that could made made either way as to whether a bi-cameral legislature is necessary or is (or isn’t) a better way of expressing democracy. In a country such as Ireland where, to be frank, the lower house doesn’t exactly exercise an independent voice, the abolition of the second chamber could raise questions. On the other hand, the current composition of the Seanad (with 11 members appointed by the Taoiseach) is weighted towards government support, so perhaps its survival should depend on fundamental reform. An upper house composed of people other than aspiring or rejected politicians could be an interesting proposition, for example.

But whatever position is taken in this, it should be based on proper analysis and consultation. So far it is difficult to see what is driving the proposals for abolition, other than pseudo-populist instincts and the assumption that it would please an angry electorate to get rid of some political institutions. That is not a good basis for decisions on the nature of our parliamentary structures. Doing all this hastily, to coincide with the March election, is not sensible. Democracy deserves a little more attention than that.

So while I could perhaps be persuaded either way, if this turns up on the March ballot paper and we haven’t had a really informed debate nationally, I shall be voting against the proposal.

Do votes matter?

May 11, 2010

Right now in the UK the political parties are having to face serious questions – you could almost say for the first time ever – about how people’s votes in an election should count. It is clear that the Liberal Democrats are going to enter into an arrangement for government only with a party committed to some voting reform, and this won’t be an easy sell when the other parties have managed to get lots and lots of seats on a minority of the vote. As has been seen in news reports, the backwoodsmen (and they seem to be all men) in both the Conservative Party and in Labour are lining up to tell the people that the present system is not only fine but the best there is, and why should it matter if people’s votes don’t count when, after all, the system delivers such nice majorities in parliament. This is the argument that strong government trumps democracy, which seems more appropriate for 1930s dictatorships than a modern liberal state. It will be interesting to see if the Lib Dems can achieve change.

So how should we view all this from Ireland? Are we really much better? Well, we do have proportional representation (ironically first introduced here under British rule), and it takes the form of the single transferable vote. This allows us to have multi-seat constituencies with real fun and games on election night. It gives us the ‘tallymen’ at the count, and hours and hours of counting with unpredictable results. In the end it provides us with a distribution of seats which more closely resembles the distribution of voting preferences, but it doesn’t reflect those preferences precisely. It is possible, and not wholly unusual, for a party to get more seats but less first preference votes than another party. In addition, the STV system has a curious effect on candidates: at an election your main enemy is not a candidate from another party – in fact on the whole you couldn’t care less about them – it’s any other candidate from your own party. If there is a reasonably clearly defined vote for your party, then you must fight your own colleagues to ensure it goes to you rather than to them. And this leads to all kinds of dirty dealing behind the scenes which occasionally comes into full view.

It seems to me that in Ireland too the issue of what is a good voting system should be addressed, and I don’t think we have one right now. Perhaps the best system is the German one, whereby parliament is filled from a combination of directly elected MPs and party representatives on a list, so that each constituency has its political representative but the distribution within parliament as a whole reflects popular preferences.

It is time we all became more politically mature.

Whipping the politicians

March 13, 2010

In the light of our recent experiences, both in Ireland and elsewhere, it has become clear that we need people who are willing to shout at us when we all run berserk. We need people with independence of mind and a degree of courage to pull us back down to earth when we are all threatening to float off into the blue yonder. And of course at other times we need people who will egg us on when we have all lost a sense of purpose or self-confidence. In short, we need public figures who have the will and the ability and the courage to swim against the tide.

But that, at least as far as politicians are concerned, is something we don’t have; or at least so says Emily O’Reilly, the Irish ombudsman. Speaking to the Institute of Public Administration this week, she argued that politicians are controlled by their party whips and are unable to practise independent thinking.

Ireland has, more or less, followed the British model of political organisation, so that there is no significant separation of powers between the legislative and executive arms of government. The government, once it has a secure majority, controls the parliament, and controls it absolutely. And even the opposition closely controls its parliamentarians.

We may feel that on the whole this model has served us well, but it does occasionally occur to me that we should at least consider a US-style of government, in which the parliament is much more independent of government and therefore also more independent-minded. It is not that this model is perfect, but it does tend to throw up more politicians who are willing to pose awkward questions and challenge received wisdoms. As we see from the US political debates, the disadvantage is that legislation is sometimes more difficult to enact, as various shades of opinion have to be accommodated. But still, we should ask why we need parliamentarians who have no function other than to agree with a position put to them by their leaders. Perhaps there is a batter way.

Waving good-bye to the Senate?

October 18, 2009

As I have disclosed here before, I once briefly flirted with a role in politics: in 1987 I was a candidate for a seat in Seanad Éireann. The Seanad, or Senate – for readers from outside Ireland – is Ireland’s second parliamentary chamber, or the upper house of the Irish Parliament, the Oireachtas. The Seanad was established by the 1937 Constitution of Ireland, article 15 of which provides that the National Parliament (Oreachtas) is to consist of the Ptresident of Ireland and ‘a House of Representatives to be called Dáil Éireann and a Senate to be called Seanad Éireann.’ The English language terminology suggests that this model was taken from the United States, but in practice both the composition and role of the two Houses is very different from the apparent US counterparts.

The composition of the Seanad is set out in article 18 of the Constitution. There are 60 members: 11 appointed by the Taoiseach (Prime Minister), 6 elected by graduates of some of the Irish universities (I have covered this previously), with the remainder elected by members of the parliament and of local authorities. The latter group are elected from five ‘panels’, and the candidates under each ‘panel’ are expected to have expert knowledge of the areas covered. The panels are (i) National Language and Culture, Literature, Art, Education; (ii) Agriculture and allied interests, and Fisheries; (iii) Labour, whether organised or unorganised; (iv) Industry and Commerce, including banking, finance, accountancy, engineering and architecture; and (v) Public Administration and social services, including voluntary social activities.

For those familiar with 20th century history, this has an immediate resonance: the idea of the panels draws on the vocational interests concept that was popular with some branches of fascism in the 1930s, particularly in Portugal and Italy. In practice, the ‘panels’ are meaningless, as the candidates are without exception serving politicians, often those who have failed to be elected to the Lower House, Dáil Éireann. Notwithstanding that, and perhaps in particular because of the university representatives (even if the latter are elected on an unacceptable basis, as I have argued), there is a widespread view that the Seanad has carried out a useful role in assessing legislation and providing an alternative forum for parliamentary debate.

However, we are in hard times, and now the Fine Gael party has declared that if it enters government after the next election it will proceed to hold a constitutional referendum on the abolition of the Seanad. I confess I have some doubts as to whether it really would proceed to do this, as the process for getting to a referendum would be complex and probably acrimonious, and it would be costly and take up much parliamentary time. But let us assume that it would proceed with this measure – indeed, the Labour Party may be moving to support it. Fianna Fail, on the other hand, appears to want to support a continuation of the existing system.

There are, I suppose, two questions here. How secure and workable is a democracy that uses only a single parliamentary chamber? It is not at all without precedent, but the Anglo-American version of parliamentary democracy which on the whole we use is built on the premise that there will be two chambers. The second question is whether a reformed second chamber would have more utility and political support.

I confess that I am in general terms a supporter of a bicameral system of parliamentary democracy, but I believe that a debate on the Seanad would be healthy. I also believe that even if we are to retain the Seanad, then a review both of its composition and its terms of reference would be desirable. The purpose of the second chamber should be to offer a forum which is clearly different from the Dáil, but which on the other hand has clear democratic credentials. In that sense, therefore, the Fine Gael initiative is welcome, and I hope that it will lead immediately to a lively debate.