The Irish political system is broken – and those in the establishment are unable or unwilling to fix it.
Half the country now believes there’s a need for a new political party or parties. The opportunity – which has been the main topic of discussion to date – is firmly established. For something worthwhile to happen, we need to shift the focus to the need for such a party.
When the pundits ponder the possibility of new political parties, they tend to ask the following questions: Is there the opportunity for it? Is there the political ‘space’ for it? Who would lead it? Most people don’t really care.
I tend to agree.
The case for any political party must be relevant to people’s day-to-day lives, to their futures, and to their children’s futures. This demands different questions. First, do we need to make big improvements to how we run things in Ireland, such as education, healthcare, water services and politics? Second, could a new party be a catalyst for bringing these improvements about?
People do care about the answer to these questions, and the answers are ‘Yes’ and ‘Yes’.
Earlier this week two well-known radio presenters were discussing the whole new party thing.
One pointed out that at the time of the formation of the Progressive Democrats, the case for a new party was both obvious and appealing – high income-tax rates were stifling economic growth, and so needed to be reduced. He suggested that in contrast, today, there isn’t any obvious need for a new party.
What an extraordinary statement. The implication is that things are fine, or will be taken care of by the existing political establishment. In no particular order – the banking collapse, the bank bailout, the Troika, senior bondholders, the recession, the mortgage crisis, the doubling of deprivation, student-teacher ratios, the national debt, falling universities rankings, Irish Water, spiralling child poverty, the collapse of public trust in Government, waiting lists, health overspends, IMMAgate, the Anglo Tapes, Shattergate, Rehab, the housing crisis, and so on, and so forth.
The evidence is overwhelming. It’s what the 2011 General Election was meant to be about. Many believed Fine Gael and Labour were serious about their pre-election promises. People believed – or, at least, dared hope – the promised ‘democratic revolution’ meant something new and important and exciting for the country. Nobody believes that today.
Take Irish Water. The Government cooked-up bad legislation affecting every person in the Republic. They instructed obedient backbenchers to vote it through Parliament without any oversight. They stated that there’d be no cost savings, and signed 12-year contracts to that end. They passed the whole thing over to a commercial semi-state, and proceeded to condescend to the nation by asking us if we think water is free. This week the two relevant ministers were summoned to the Economic Management Council – not to Cabinet, but to an inner Cabinet. Some things have changed since the 1980s, but Irish Water is the direct result of the same stale, old, authoritarian, ignorant politics that have caused so much damage.
Today, there’s no Haughey-esque villain, and no easy fix like income-tax rates – but the need for improvement is just as great – it’s just more nuanced. The banking collapse was not an isolated event, any more than struggling universities or demoralised healthcare workers are. These things are symptoms of an underlying malaise – an old-fashioned, centralised, short-termist, non-accountable, non-transparent way of doing politics and running public services.
Why are there over-spends in healthcare every year? Because there’s no strategy for healthcare. There are good things happening, like joining-up treatment pathways, but there’s no plan that says “This is what our healthcare system looks like today, here’s what it needs to look like in 10 years, and here’s how we’re going to get from here to there.”
Take education – nobody’s asking how we make our secondary school system one of the top five globally in the next 10 years. It’s all short-term – like the budget. The Troika aren’t gone a wet week and the Government reverses the deficit reduction by €3bn. The one thing you could credit this Government with – being fiscally disciplined – evaporated in a Fianna Fail lite pre-election gamble (that the public don’t seem to have bought).
Nothing has changed. But it needs to. Because off the island, everything has changed. Ireland made good progress in the 1980s and 1990s, due in part to Foreign Direct Investment, and in part because as a member of the Rich Western Club, we didn’t have to compete with large swathes of the globe. But we do now – the world’s become a bigger and more sophisticated place in the past 15 years, and our institutions aren’t strong enough to navigate it. The banking collapse was one example, with the Regulator, Civil Service, Cabinet and Parliament all out-smarted and out-manoeuvred by the public and private organisations behind the foreign money. It’s happening right now in our schools and colleges. But in the Budget, funding to education was cut in real terms. Again.
It’s this simple – we either upgrade the way we do politics and public services in this country, or we watch the rest of the world overtake us, with things here getting a little harder and a little more uncertain with every passing year. Getting things like Irish Water right, and building great education systems, and wonderful healthcare services – these things can only be done by a healthy, modern political system.
It requires the sharing of power and responsibility – from the Economic Management Council to Cabinet, on to the Oireachtas, to local government and to public servants across the country – be they doctors, nurses, teachers, garda, or county council engineers. It requires new ways of working the political establishment simply doesn’t understand – because while the world’s been changing they’ve been sitting in the Dail.
The good news is that there are plenty of people in the Oireachtas who do understand how things need to change, and who are in politics largely to help make those changes happen. I suspect that if we put all the TDs and Senators in a big room and asked everyone to get together in like-minded groups, a sizable team would emerge who are very clear about wanting to modernise and improve politics and public services, who have a pretty good idea how to do it, and who aren’t beholden to the old ways. That would be a very exciting new political party right there. The problem is, they’re scattered throughout the parties, and don’t hold sufficient influence in any of them.
The other good news is that a growing number of people outside politics want this change too – today’s poll is unambiguous – the demand for a new party, for a new way of doing politics, has not gone away with the Troika – it is getting louder. It can also be seen in the steady growth in support for Independents. I’ve spoken to lots of people who’ve voted establishment parties all their lives, but are switching to Independents. They know Independents can’t form a Government, but say that they want politicians in Parliament who they know have the freedom to speak their mind, and advocate accordingly.
The political establishment is a difficult cartel to take on. The challenges are immense, the policy solutions are complex, the financial barriers are high, and those it threatens are well-resourced, powerful and ruthless. PD founder Des O’Malley said he couldn’t have started a new party under today’s funding rules. It’s Catch 22 – you can’t get party funding until you get party candidates elected, and it’s extremely difficult to get them elected without the funding.
But for all that, any group of men and women acting in the service of their country, trying to improve how things are done, and thinking about the long-term welfare of the nation, might just be the catalyst we need.