POLITICAL reform is long overdue and becoming more overdue by the day with little or no sign of anything practical being done to implement the grandiose promises made in the Programme for Partnership Government agreed last May. This month sees the third anniversary of the rejection of Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s ill-judged referendum proposal to abolish Seanad Éireann, after which he promised to take steps to reform it, however we still have the same institution which is not fit for purpose in the modern world.
The programme for government says it will implement the recommendations of the Manning Report, as a priority. This report was issued 18 months ago and no political will to implement it was shown by the Taoiseach and the last government to implement it during its lifetime.
It was only after an even bigger ‘wallop’ from the electorate in this year’s general election that Mr Kenny had his hand forced by the Independent Alliance (with Fianna Fáil in the background) to make a proper commitment on Seanad reform.
The main thing that needs to be changed about the Seanad is the manner in which people are elected to it, which is elitist under the present system, but which the Manning Report proposes to make more open by extending the franchise for elections to it to the people of Northern Ireland and to all Irish passport holders living abroad. The primary purpose of the Seanad – before the political parties cynically hijacked it for their own ends – was always meant to be a useful forum for alternative thinking and ideas and as a means of critical oversight of the Dáil and its workings.
‘Reform will require constant pursuit throughout the lifetime of the next parliament,’ according to the programme for government, but we haven’t seen much evidence of this is the first five months. The blame for it cannot all be laid at the door of the government either as the programme declares: ‘The challenge of change will not fall to any one party, nor will it be the responsibility of the government alone. Achieving political and constitutional reform will be the responsibility of every member elected to Dáil Éireann.’
So, who is going to take this on, given the ‘historic opportunity to radically reform Irish politics’ presented by the unprecedented new political landscape? The minority government has been pre-occupied of late with Budget 2017 and with self-preservation, so it would seem an opportune time for Fianna Fáil – as the largest opposition party and with the government beholden to it to stay in power – to drive the agenda on political reform through the recently-established all-party committee on Dáil reform.
If they do it right and win consensus, it would be a win-win situation for them and might help restore some of the trust that people have lost in politicians generally. The agreed aims that must be pursued are ‘greater openness, improved accountability and delivery, and more effective public participation,’ which means the public must be got involved in the process.
There are a lot of changes that can be introduced to streamline the way the Dáil does its business and not have backbenchers serving as mere ‘lobby fodder.’ The establishment of a Budget and Finance Committee is also an important proposal and its members need to be pro-actively involved in the framing of budgets on an ongoing basis.
Time is of the essence, as nobody can tell how long the current minority government will last. Political reform is something that cannot be rushed either and the importance of consensus cannot be emphasised enough.
One only has to look back on erstwhile minister Phil Hogan’s dismantling of local democracy when he abolished 80 town councils nationally, as if on a whim, to save a relatively small few bob. As is the case with the Seanad, the town councils may not have been fully fit for purpose, but had the potential to be reformed.
The central plank of political reform must be to ensure that all public representatives can be held properly accountable to the people who elect them and this must also include the senior civil servants who are the ubiquitous ‘permanent’ government.