My five point plan for political reform

14 Mar 16

First published in the Sunday Business Post 13 March 2016

These weeks of uncertainty provide an opportunity for clarity. Don’t stop at Dáil reform.

Political reform is not an altruistic exercise. Reform invariably means giving away some power. Abstract, idealistic principles of selflessness tend not to be the primary motive for change which involves losing political control. Rather, it is the pragmatic response to circumstance.

Why else would Fianna Fail agree to the first anti-corruption legislation in the history of the Irish state? The Beef Tribunal had just ended when Brendan Howlin made his Ethics Bill a precondition for Labour in its 1992 coalition negotiations with Albert Reynolds, a central protagonist before the controversial Tribunal.

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The Dáil arithmetic is inconvenient to those still welded to the traditional 2-3 week process of government formation. The unique arithmetic is an opportunity to give away power in order to get into power.

The largest government majority since the foundation of the state did not deliver on its core promise of reform. “An over-powerful executive has turned the Dáil into an observer of the political process rather than a central player and this must be changed,” proclaimed the Fine Gael-Labour Programme for Government. Only a minority government can drive this fundamental reform because it has nothing to lose.

The cross-party subcommittee on Dáil reform will report to the Dáil on April 6th when it will present an interim report. Everything must now be on the table.

My five political reforms are informed by academic training as a political scientist, governance work for the European Commission and membership of the Seanad Working Group on reform.

1. Enact the Constitution

Article 28 states that “The Government shall be responsible to Dáil Éireann.” Not the other way around.

Fianna Fáil’s “21st Century Oireachtas” proposals, to be published shortly, advocate a more independent Dáil. The reforms are straightforward and include an Independent Legal Advisor to the Oireachtas and the establishment of an independent budget review office to evaluate and cost all proposals brought to a vote by either government or opposition.

The Sinn Fein manifesto seeks an end to the guillotine which restricts debate and the reform of standing orders governing speaking rights and ministerial questions. Fianna Fail agrees with Sinn Fein and like all parties are generally in favour of greater investigative powers for the committees.

Fine Gael has charged Eoghan Murphy, who helped salvage the Banking Inquiry report, to write the party’s submission to the Dáil reform subcommittee. Murphy should examine last November’s OECD report on Dáil reform. The “Review of Budget Oversight by Parliament: Ireland” made 16 practical recommendations on specific procedural changes and institutional supports to promote effective parliamentary engagement. None of this is rocket science.

2. Implement the Seanad Reform Report

We reported to the Taoiseach almost a year ago but nothing has happened despite cross-party support for most of our proposals. We recommended that 36 of the 60 Seanad seats be directly elected by the people. This includes the 800,000 holders of Irish passports living overseas and citizens in Northern Ireland. None of our 13 recommendations require constitutional change.

3. Fix the Accountability Deficit

81 per cent of the Irish population thinks corruption is widespread according to an opinion poll published by the European Commission. The perception is not the reality. Ireland is not Kazakhstan, Algeria or Nigeria.

Ireland’s approach to investigating alleged wrongdoing is at the heart of this accountability deficit. There is no one-stop-shop for Irish citizens to make complaints about corruption. The RTE Investigates programme into alleged improper behaviour by local councillors highlighted an absence of enforcement.

Temporary, judicial-led investigations are no substitute for a properly-resourced oversight agency. The IBRC Commission of Investigation failed to complete its work in a timely fashion because of an absence of resources and legislative powers. A public inquiry into Nama’s Project Eagle sale would be a pointless exercise for similar reasons.

All commercially sensitive documents must be released unredacted under FOI after a 5 year period when their sensitivity has lapsed.

4. Innovation

The Criminal Assets Bureau was established twenty years ago this October. Circumstances convulsed cross-party will to establish one of the most innovative criminal investigatory organisations in the world.

Ireland can be innovative again. Neighbourhoods in Chicago, New York and California have successfully introduced participatory budgeting. Along the lines of the Constitutional Convention, citizens deliberate on how to spend a proportion of the city finances.

An office of the whistleblower should be established to financially incentivise whistleblowers. In the US, the whistleblower is rewarded between 10 and 30 per cent of the money collected in cases where high-quality information leads to an enforcement action of more than $1 million in sanctions. The scheme has proved particularly successful in the pharmaceutical and financial sectors.

5. The Republic

The Irish constitution does not contain the word republic. The 209 words of the 1948 Republic of Ireland Act does not define what a Republic is. On the centenary commemoration of 1916, a referendum should be held to insert the Republic into the constitution. Words matter because they suggest values, principles and vision.

These weeks of uncertainty provide an opportunity for clarity. Don’t stop at Dáil reform.

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