Gavan Reilly

thinking out loud

But where does it start?

with 3 comments

Yeah, I know, I’m actually blogging! Well, now that I can no longer describe myself as a student (a habit I’m going to find it quite difficult to get out of, I fear) and have to label myself as a “Sports Press Officer” – I’ll explain some other time – I’m going to probably have a little bit more time on my hands. I really can’t believe my five years of UCDness are over, but that’s for another day. Also contributing to my general time-having is the fact that we’ve moved house and now live on Upper Leeson St meaning that travelling is a much less cumbersome exercise, particularly when you can walk to most places.

On that theme, last Wednesday new housemate Mulley organised a bloggers’ tour of Leinster House with the Green Party. It had been ten years since I was inside that place (being classmates with ministerial offspring gets you fairly cool CSPE tours, folks) but since my political enlightenment of sorts, it was the first time to really take in the nature of the place. Ciaran Cuffe, our host, was an utter gent, extending the tour to the party’s offices inside Leinster House and to the Dáil Bar where he was more than happy to have proper chats with anyone who wanted them. Thus, myself and Brennan got a few minutes to have a reasonably in-depth chat with him about life as a TD, the challenges of representing an area with disparate social circumstances, and generally about the function – and more pressingly, the functionability – of the legislature itself.

Here I’ll pause for a quick politics lesson for those who might not be so interested. In the classical breakdown of Government, there are three branches of power: the executive (the panel of Ministers/Secretaries – in Irish terms, the Cabinet), who are charged with overseeing operations and issuing orders; the judicial (the courts system) who rule on the validity of laws and punish those who breach them; and finally the legislature (the Oireachtas), whose job it is to actually make those laws.

Last week on The Late Late Show, Pat Kenny decided to warm up for his new Questions-and-Answers-replacing political debate show by hosting a discussion on parliamentary reform (you can watch it here – skip to 1:16.45). Fintan O’Toole argued for the wholescale reconstruction of most of the bodies, and while people can always choose which parts to agree with and which to ignore, the one part that resonated with me was O’Toole’s assertion that in Ireland, we simply don’t have a functioning government as it’s described in the three-branches approach. The judiciary and executive both work – obviously their merit or competence is a matter of personal opinion) – but the legislative branch simply fails to function. In Ireland, the executive introduce a Bill, it is never debated with any substantive result, and the Government will always get what it wants and have the Bill passed. There is no debate; there is no constructive process leading to a concrete suggestion. The legislature don’t even, as a rule, introduce legislation: the executive comes up with something and the legislature rubberstamp it.

So what do you do about this? After the Late Late debate there is clearly a level of public appetite to examine the alternatives to the PR system or our multi-seat constituencies. So when I had the chance, I asked Ciaran how he felt it would start. Does it, I propositioned, start with his Green colleague, John Gormey, using his capacity as Minister for Local Government declaring he wants a reform and merely introducing a Bill? I remembered his predecessor Noel Dempsey doing something similar before the turn of the millennium and getting nowhere. What needs to happen before a Minister can make such moves and that they actually get somewhere? Why can every Fianna Fáil TD on the Late Late say they agree that reform is needed, but not be in a position to implement it?

The problem is that there is no set path. Are our politicians too scared to be the ones seen to destroy our nice cosy overrepresented system? Are TDs too lazy to introduce single-seat constituencies where they don’t have the option to pawn off any work to other reps for the same people? Ciaran, interested as he was, wasn’t really sure of a solution. If you do, I’d love to hear it.

The Dáil trip is described in more detail by Mulley, Darragh and Mark. Oh, and because she asked for a shoutout, hello Steph. 😛

Meanwhile, Scally has started his photobloggery over at Check it.

Written by Gav

May 17th, 2009 at 11:57 am

3 Responses to 'But where does it start?'

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  1. Hi Gav,

    Well done on the blog!

    It’s interesting to see a debate about the Irish electoral system given what’s being discussed in Britain at the moment. I have to say I disagree with any suggestion to change our system.

    Ireland has the most proportional electoral system in the world. We are one of only two countries to use it – Malta’s the other one. It’s the system of choice now for divided societies because it allows a broader reflection of the electorate’s preferences – that’s why it was chosed for the North. The reason that it’s used in so few places is that politicans pick electoral systems, and they try to pick ones which make it easier for them to perpetuate their power. The reason nobody picks PRSTV is because it’s difficult to hold on to power. We should be incredibly grateful for the wisdom and foresight of the drafters of our Constitution not only in picking this system, but putting it in the Constitution so it can’t be changed by legislation alone.

    PRSTV with multi-member districts allows us to pick not only the party, but the politician who we want to represent us. We can also spread our votes across parties, even if it’s not strategic. We can pick the people we trust, and ignore their party colleagues that we don’t. The arguments against PRSTV usually include claims of instability (proved patently not true by Ireland) and that it’s too ‘local’ – that politicians spend too much time looking after their constituents and not enough actually running the country. Well, be that as it may, I think what’s ‘local’ is important, and I’m willing to accept that my TD will have to actually spend time in my constituency.

    PRSTV allows small parties to form and grow. I like the fact that we have coalition governments. I think a divergence of opinions is a good thing in lawmaking. Even if you don’t believe they’re represented in practice, I like to know they’re there, and that it’s not just faithful backbenchers being nodding dogs to an all-powerful Taoiseach, in the hope they’ll get a chair at the grown-ups’ table next time around.

    If you disagree with all that, consider the alternatives. List PR? I would rather not hand that much power over to political parties, thank you. I reserve the right to vote for one candidate and not their party colleague. Single Member Plurality, as per Westminster elections? Possibly the most undemocratic there is. Two-Round System? Bad for small parties. Block voting? Just… no. Alternative Vote? Needs single-member constituencies, which is disproportionate.

    We are lucky to have PRSTV. It doesn’t give us a nice clean result, but it does mean we have more freedom of choice than many voters, and end up with results which better reflect the range of views held in the country. We’ve had two referenda on it now, and both times we’ve been clever enough to resist change.

    Remember: without PRSTV, Mary Robinson would never have been President. We would have Brian Lenihan Snr instead.


    17 Jun 09 at 6:54 pm

  2. Eugh, note to self: read posts before submitting. Apols for spelling and grammar errors. Brain fried.


    17 Jun 09 at 7:09 pm

  3. Hi Stephen!

    First of all, thanks for the epic reply; there’s nothing better about the blogosphere than when a post actually gets people thinking and there’s no better sign of that than coherent replies and well-structured arguments, which yours quite obviously is.

    As regards your arguments, I know there’s many benefits to the PR-STV system and you rightly give good examples as to its benefits, particularly in slightly more unusual political realities such as NI where cross-party appearances are even more of a requirement than in other settings. What I think there might need to be more of, though, and to a degree we’ve made progress in this, is a movement away from situations where we’re simply over-represented. Five-seater general election constituencies do nobody any favours; where there’s more than one rep, people can be pushed from pillar to post trying to get things done, and this is especially so when there are more than one party rep in any one place. In a Meath five-seater, if I was to contact an FF rep, I could be pushed to either of the other two, on the basis that they live closer to me and thus unofficially represent only that part of the constituency. It’s better in a three-seater where this problem arises less but even still, in the two Meath constituencies it’s 2 FF and one FG, so the major problem still arises.

    PRSTV is great for stability but frankly I think Ireland has gotten too used to its stability. It breeds coalition governments but these are too predictable to begin with. What good is a system that would, in the midst of the greatest Fianna Fáil dissatisfaction in history, would still return about 50 of their TD’s? We’ve only had a handful of different coalitions in Ireland – FG (or its predecessors) plus Labour, FF and the PDs, FF and the Greens, and FF with Labour. A system distinct from PRSTV would probably do more to break up the duopoly of FF and FG; it would give the impression of real power for chance and (ideally) give rise to a political landscape populated by groups with far more distinct political motivation rather than just a system of Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Imagine, a political sphere populated by an actual liberal party! AND an actual Conversative party! AND an mainstream, possibly Government-leading Socialist bloc! I don’t doubt that in such a landscape, PRSTV would be a perfect tool for choosing which parties you’d want and giving each the appropriate dollop of power, but we need another system to help break up the duopoly in place first. (Either that or we use PRSTV to engineer a scenario where FF and FG both have about 45% of the seats, forcing the two of them to enter a grand coalition, but that’s a case I’ve made elsewhere).

    What I think needs more address though, and the main issue with Ireland – which sadly exceeds the issues of PRSTV – is that whenever there is appetite for reform, which there clearly seems to be at the current time, there’s no obvious spot from it to come from. Even though almost the entire Dáil is in agreement that some reform needs to take place, though they’re not agreed on what such reform should be, nobody is making any overture to get about examining what alternatives might be suitable for the modern Ireland. THAT’s what the real motivation of my post was – if the legislature is willing to reform itself (at least in theory) but isn’t making any actual overtures to do so, then one, what hope do we have for an actual democracy, and two, where does the reform actually come from?


    21 Jun 09 at 6:50 pm

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