Home > Commentary > Seven Questions for New Fine Gael

Seven Questions for New Fine Gael

Yesterday, Fine Gael published their 101 page document, ‘New Politics’, setting out what they consider to be “the most ambitious programme for political reform since the 1930s’. For the non-constitutional scholars amongst our readership, 1937 saw the adoption of Bunreacht na hÉireann, the Constitution of Ireland that remains the only between-World Wars European constitution to still be in force today. As such, Fine Gael’s claims for their New Politics is a grand one. We have previewed the publication of this document (here, here, here, here and here) and will offer some thoughts over the next few days. The document clearly merits detailed engagement and as such, I won’t attempt a full analysis here. Rather, after the jump I will ask seven questions of New Fine Gael and their New Politics.

1. Is this all a bit New Labour?

As mentioned previously, the Fine Gael proposals share some similarities with New Labour’s constitutional reform programme that formed part of the manifesto that swept Tony Blair into office in 1997. There are certainly similarities in both the branding and substance of the Fine Gael proposals. The New Politics promises to offer Ireland a New Republic and even a New Dáil. At a very superficial level there is a tone of ‘modernisation’ that is reminiscent of Blair’s early government initiatives. This is perhaps most evident in relation to the (not very constitutional?) issue of healthcare reform where the ‘FairCare’ rhetorical promise to “devolve real power and control to local hospitals, communities and individual patients” sounds very much like New Labour in their second term. The term ‘New Politics’ itself has associations with US Democrats (circa 1950s and again in the 1960s) and mid-1990s UK political reform and certain post-2009 expenses scandal UK political initiatives.

2. Is it a New Politics or New Economy?

I commented in previous posts that the centrality of the economy to the work of government in the coming years may make constitutional navel-gazing seem frivolous unless the navel-gazing is linked to economic recovery. However, I did not anticipate the extent to which the economy would influence the proposed constitutional reforms. The economy is referred to several times in the Introduction and the final sentence of the Conclusion claims that “if we want to fix the economy, and return Ireland to growth and prosperity, we must also fix the political system”. Furthermore, the economic crisis has clearly influenced matters as diverse as the proposals on judicial remuneration and those on constitutionally-entrenching four Dáil committees (three of the four deal with fiscal and economic policy). Regardless of the severity of the crisis and the extent to which it has exposed flaws in the system of governance, we may still be too close to the crisis (the country is still in recession) to objectively and dispassionately review and reform that system. Furthermore, any reform of the political system should be driven by broader political and social goals than merely returning Ireland to growth and prosperity. Though the Fine Gael report claims it wishes to consider the system of governance and not individual rights, it is not clear that the two can or should be easily divorced.

3. What’s with the Presidential reform?

The shortening of the President’s term to 5 years was heralded as one of the five key constitutional reforms to be brought forward by Fine Gael. However, the report pays scant attention to the office of the President.  It declares that “[t]he institution of the President has performed well and we do not envisage major changes in the Office’s powers”. This appears to be an understatement: I cannot find any other reference to the President’s powers and so the Fine Gael statement reads like a less elegant version of the New Labour statement (in 1997) that ““We have no plans to replace the monarchy.” There is little argument offered in favour of the reduction of the President’s term to five years – simply that “ten years of service from any one individual is sufficient”. However only four of Ireland’s eight Presidents have served two full terms. It’s simply not clear what the impetus for the reform is. Furthermore, the suggestion to hold the five year elections at the same time as European and local elections threatens to increase the role of party politics in the election of the Guardian of the Constitution and Head of State.

4. What’s with the Judicial reforms?

Three aspects of the operation of the judiciary in particular (and not the courts service more broadly) are dealt with in the document. First, there is a proposal to allow for the reduction of judicial remuneration in times of economic crisis as part of a broader public sector pay reform. This proposal, while not unreasonable, smacks of short-term politics. Although at present, the constitutional prohibition on reducing the salaries of the judiciary may be unpopular. However, in better economic times, we might consider the absolute nature of the prohibition an acceptable cost for a clear safeguard of judicial independence. It is not at all clear that this is a matter best dealt with during a recession. Second, there is a promise (in a footnote!) to consider the matter of judicial misconduct. This was previously addressed by the Twenty-Second Amendment Bill (2001) which failed in the Oireachtas. Third, the report expresses ‘concern’ at the judiciary’s reluctance to implement statutorily-imposed mandatory minimum sentences. No reform of this matter is proposed and the inclusion of the statement in a document about constitutional reform appears to be little more than glorified law-and-order politicking. Mandatory minimums are contentious across many jurisdictions and the inclusion of the criticism without a proposal for a reform of the perceived problem is reckless. The lack of consideration given to the second and third matters raised in relation to the judiciary and the knee-jerk feeling of the first (remuneration) makes the judicial reforms seem less than thought through.

5. Who will fulfill the Seanad’s role(s)?

The abolition of the Seanad is the centrepiece of the proposed reforms. The Fine Gael report does a relatively good job of pointing out that the presence of a second chamber in the Irish Parliament is incongruous when considered alongside similar countries within Europe and worldwide. A second chamber in a unitary state of approx 4-5 million people is indeed of questionable constitutional necessity. However, if the Seanad is to be abolished, it will be necessary to identify the role it fulfills in the system of government and to ensure that that role (or roles) are transferred to other bodies. For example, as anyone that has had to annotate a statute will attest, Seanad Éireann plays an important role in scrutinising and improving the ‘quality’ of legislation. The Fine Gael document offers far too little information on how this and other constitutional functions currently fulfilled by the Seanad will be carried out.

6. Can the Dáil do all that is asked of it?

If the Seanad is to be abolished, then many of its functions (and presumably all of its legislative ones) will have to be carried out by the Dáil. It is therefore unsurprising that ten of the thirty-five pages of the report itself are dedicated to the ‘New Dáil’. These reforms are detailed and will require more considered analysis in the days and weeks to come. However, it is not at all clear that the Dáil will be able to fulfill all of these roles. The division of labour (in terms of governance) between local and national authorities will also be key to any attempt to move to a unicameral legislature – but Fine Gael’s proposals are short on analysis of the role of local government in other unicameral systems. Furthermore, it is noteworthy that the only constitutional change in this part of the report is constitutionally-entrenching four Dáil committees. If a new Dáil is to replace the current legislature then more attention will have to be paid to the relationship between the executive and legislature and to the need to constitutionally empower the latter to act as a check on the former.

7. Is there a case for New Politics?

Having read this far, one might be wondering if there is a case for the New Politics. The answer, based on two readings on the day of publication, is ‘maybe’. The Fine Gael report can form the start of a constitutional debate, but not the end. Some aspects of it are somewhat suspect (the Presidential reforms) and others broadly agreeable (the reversal of the Abbeylara decision). The Citizen’s Assembly (100 demographically representative individuals) is an odd mechanism to take the Fine Gael agenda further. The report is unclear on who will choose the members of the Assembly and the basis on which they will be chosen. These matters will require resolution – and before Fine Gael take office (if they are to do so) if the Assembly is really to be convened within 100 days of them doing so. Finally, if the key to better governance is indeed a better political culture, then true reform will have to address the dominance of political parties over their members (particularly in the parliamentary party). For now, New Politics offers more questions than answers. But they are questions worth asking.

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  1. March 23, 2010 at 11:00 am

    Here’s an article of mine which was published in the Sunday Independent which raised some questions about the Fine Gael proposals, particularly the provision re the voting rights of citizens here in Ireland, north and south, and abroad. The matter is being debated on my own blog – iGaeilge. http://igaeilge.wordpress.com/2010/03/21/fimineacht-i-leith-na-crichdheighilte/

    As Dana so memorably put it, ‘a little girl from the wee North’ won the All Ireland Talent Show a week ago. Soccer players from throughout the Six Counties are being poached to play for the Republic on an ongoing basis while Belfast born Mary McAleese is the incumbent President of Ireland and is scheduled to leave Aras an Uachtaráin after a fourteen year residency next year.

    All this signifies a dilution of the age-old partitionist mentality with which Southerners are afflicted and which is so beloved of Sinn Féin. After all where would that party be without partition and partitionism?

    Unionists, perhaps rightly, fear the Dublin government having too much of a say in the internal affairs of Northern Ireland – but what if the boot were on the other foot?

    Would they be worried if they and their fellow Northern Irelanders in the nationalist community had a say in the election for President of Ireland?

    The question arises from a proposal in Fine Gael’s ‘New Politics’ document which proposes a radical reform of the political system. Not a bad thing in itself, that an overhaul of the machinery of the state and the rules which govern us is badly needed qualifies as an understatement but then again it depends on the proposed reforms.

    One of the FG proposal would give Irish people living abroad a vote in the Presidential election for up to five years after the’ve left the ‘shamrock shore’.

    This proposal appears to be aimed at the young Irish who, in the words of Tánaiste Mary Coughlan, go overseas to enjoy themselves, or in search of work or other adventures. The presumption is that these people will come back sooner or later and the extension of the franchise to them is intended as a signal that we want them back.

    The proposal is an acknowledgement that ‘our out of sight, out of mind’ attitude to our exiles in the past wasn’t the best way of maintaining the link between those who left and those who were left.

    But the report in the Irish Times last weekend was silent on one aspect of this issue. If we’re prepared to allow the Irish who emigrate to far distant shores to vote, then surely we will allow those who live as our neighbours on this island to have a say? The question was neither addressed nor answered in the newspaper report.

    If it were in the FG document, I’m sure it would have been mentioned in the Paper of Record. The very notion of northerners having a vote in southern elections is so unthinkable to many in southern Irish society that it was for this reason, I assumed, it wasn’t included in the report.

    There’s a clear ‘us and them’ division on the island of Ireland. As much as we love the people from the ‘wee north’, and we’d give them a vote in a talent contest or the ‘shirt off our backs’, can we make a bit of space for them in this small if symbolic way?

    Back in 1998, we voted in overwhelming numbers in an all Ireland vote for the Good Friday Agreement. Down south we thought we were voting for the abolition of Articles 2 and 3 which claimed jurisdiction over the north – but there was a lot more to it than that.

    The Agreement guaranteed the option of Irish citizenship – and British nationality – to the inhabitants of the north. It’s this very provision which allows the FAI to identify talented young footballers from the north and to approach these players to see whether they will line out for Giovanni Trapattoni’s squad. The Northern soccer administration is incensed by what it sees as our poaching of their best prospects and they have a right to be. All the same, these young players want to play for the Republic in preference to the Northern Ireland team. The experience of Neil Lennon, one time captain of Northern Ireland and Celtic legend, bears this out. He called for an all Ireland soccer team, along the lines of our Grand slam winning all Ireland rugby champions – and received death threats from loyalists for his troubles.

    So we’re in favour of peace and mutual understanding north of the border – but when it comes to living up to the ideals of the Good Friday Agreement in practical terms, we come up short down south.

    The Fine Gael proposal on allowing emigrants the vote, albeit for a limited time, opens the door for a debate on this issue. Let’s have it.

    As it stands, the FG proposal creates a third class of Irish citizens. The first class is the Irish citizen of voting age who lives in the 26 counties who has a vote in every election. In the second class catergory comes the Irish citizen who is working ‘or enjoying him or herself’ abroad for five years or less who has a vote in Presidential elections on the home sod And the third is the Irish citizen who lives in the north who, despite holding an Irish passport in which the Minister for Foreign Affairs asks foreign governments to respect the holder of the travel document, has no vote of any description.

    This may have seemed like a good idea when Enda and his colleagues sat around to compile this document. When this proposal was discussed, did anyone ask, to quote Michael McDowell in last Sunday’s Independent: “”hold on a minute, Enda, what do you actually mean by this?”.

  2. John
    March 23, 2010 at 12:59 pm

    The FG document proposes to “Change the electoral system so that eligible Citizens, outside the country, have a right to vote at Irish embassies in the Irish Presidential election”

    From my reading of this it does not seem to be just confined to emigrants.

  3. Mark
    March 23, 2010 at 2:45 pm

    Isn’t it great to see a political party willing to offer a vision for real political reform!!!

    Not the “we don’t need political reform” views offered by Fianna Fáil or the “we need political reforms that would only work in la-la land” views offered by the other political parties (usually the “jobs for everyone in the party” Greens).

    After the next election we will either have an Enda Kenny led Fine Gael Government where political reform will be part of the Government agenda or a Brian Cowen led Fianna Fáil Government where it will not. That’s the only real choice.

  4. Donal O'Brolchain
    March 24, 2010 at 6:52 am

    “If a new Dáil is to replace the current legislature then more attention will have to be paid to the relationship between the executive and legislature and to the need to constitutionally empower the latter to act as a check on the former.”

    I agree entirely that the key political reform we have to make is to separate the executive (Rialtas) from the legislature, coupled with extensive checks and balances on how power is acquired, exercised, controlled and transferred.

    During the 1980s economic crisis here, two friends and I spent considerable time discussing this and eventually published some ideas in IPA’s Admnistration in 1986 as A Design for Democracy
    http://193.120.95.144/politics/design-for-democracy.pdf

    Other material arising from the same kind of thinking can be found here
    http://irishpoliticalreform.wordpress.com/resources/submitted-papers/donal-obrolchain-paper/

    In 1996, I made submission to the All Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution based on these ideas.

  5. ciancmurphy
    March 24, 2010 at 9:28 am

    Donal,

    I agree about the executive/legislature divide needing to be addressed. The key flaw of the Westminster model is that a fused executive/lower House and a neutered (or abolished) upper House in addition to a strong party system effectively means that checking the executive is left to the Courts. This gives rise to problems of legitimacy.

    The New Politics spends some time discussing reform of the Dáil to ensure that the executive is kept in check – appointing committee chairs by the D’hondt system is a good innovation. However, I’m not convinced that there is enough attention paid in the report to the executive/legislature relationship and most of the changes proposed are to be implemented by rewriting Dáil procedures: hardly an adequate safeguard against a future abusive executive.

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