Ireland’s Noxious Political System

If you walked into a shop and were offered reams of goods you did not want, would you buy any of them? No of course not, and why should you? The same applies to voting, why should you be shamed into voting for people who do not represent at least some of your views, beliefs or principles?

Ireland is a much better place today than it was when I was born in the early 1990s. Freedom to live as one so chooses is no longer an aspiration but a reality. We are much more open and tolerant, and the vast majority of us enjoy a higher standard of living.

As a proud son, brother and boyfriend, I’ve also come to appreciate how much feminism has achieved. Not just within my lifetime, but in society as a whole. Boys and girls growing up today have far better life chances because of greater equality. There’s been a revolution in attitudes towards LGBT people, immigrants arriving at our shores to better themselves, disabled people. What was once derided as “political correctness,” gone mad, we now recognize as basic good manners.

Our country is better in so many ways, but with one notable and integral exception, how we do politics. Our government is no longer accountable to the Dail, and the Dail no longer answers, in any meaningful sense of the word, to the people. Most laws made in Republic of Ireland this year originate in the European Union, a remote, unaccountable bureaucracy with zero democratic legitimacy.

The very people who ought to make the laws of the land, TD’s, mostly sit for so-called safe seats. This means that they represent districts that will never realistically change hands between parties at an election. Since voters have no power to recall them, TD’s answer only to their peers and superiors.

Instead of using open primaries to select prospective parliamentary candidates for seats, the various party hierarchies parachute in those whom they favor. Politics has become an exclusive game played by insiders, little more than a competition between two or three cliques, at the top of the Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and Labour Parties, to decide who sits on the government benches.

In 2011, Fine Gael promised to change all this. In five years of governing, this party has demonstrated again and again that it was not serious about political reform. It was this failure to deliver meaningful political change that drove me, and many other people my age, to lose interest in politics. 

Government by clique is not just a bad way to do politics but a shoddy way to run a country. People sense it, the lack of enthusiasm for tomorrow’s election has been fueled by contempt for smug, self-satisfied Leinster House.

Without choice and competition in politics, there is no incentive to change and little public policy innovation. Despite the most serious banking crisis in modern times, there has been little reform, only tinkering. The regulators who presided over the disaster have actually been handed more powers.

Nothing ever seems to get done, everything is buried in excessively bureaucratic process under the guise of ‘accountability’. All we get is report after report, and commission after commission, it is a paralysis of perpetual analysis. Reactionary announcements after yet another scandal is all that happens, but no long lasting and useful change ever seems to occur. Is this at all surprising? The mainstream parties are essentially rump, with no principles or objectives apart from being in office.

I am an optimist about the challenges that we face here in Ireland: a mountain of public debt, the need to improve health care, the homeless crisis, the need to recalibrate our housing policy and the strive to eradicate stigma surrounding mental health. We can find answers to these problems, but only if government is made accountable to Parliament, and Parliament is accountable to the people.

Until a party is established that believes in direct democracy  and far-reaching political reform, many of my generation will still favour ‘none of the above’. Parties can no longer be the sole property of small cliques.

Politics has become so far detached from the lives of most ordinary people, many could not name their local TD. They speak in a pseudo-language that is difficult to understand, they obsess and bleat endlessly about issues which do not affect most members of the population. For them, politics is all about people like them. Interchangeable, stage-managed careerists playing the political game for their own selfish ends. It’s all about Enda, Michael and Joan. Well what about us?

“Government of the people, by the people, for the people,” said Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg. Those were not, in fact, his own words: The 16th president of the United States was echoing John Wycliffe, the 14th-century translator of the English Bible.

Wycliffe lived during a time of extraordinary change. Technology, in the form of printing, was challenging the authority of established elites. Priests and princes were losing their position in the hierarchies across much of Europe. So, too, in our own time. The Internet is redefining the relationship between the governed and the governing. The former are no longer going to be willing to take at face value the presumptions of the latter.

Not voting is not an angry, populist rejection of the modern world. Modernity has raised the people’s expectations of how much better things could be.