Electoral System Reform in Ireland

de Valera on Time
Eamon deValera on the front Cover of Time Magazine in 1940, shortly after the plebiscite that adopted his 1937 Constitution, Bunreacht na hEireann

An interesting opportunity has presented itself in my native jurisdiction in the form of the Constitutional Convention and its upcoming deliberations on the Electoral System. Notwithstanding the Justice Minister’s comments on the national radio station this morning, where he was – at best – non-committal on the notion of bringing forward a constitutional referendum on Marriage equality despite the overwhelming vote at the convention, there appears to be a de facto legitimacy attaching to the convention through its deliberate and measured process, and quasi-legislative approach.  If any proof was needed of this, it was in the structure of Senator Mullen’s attack on the result of yesterday’s vote – a strong Catholic advocate, and predisposed to oppose marriage equality, Mullen’s response was not to attack the virtue or otherwise of the decision, but the process by which it was reached.  In attempting to undermine the process, he was directly attacking the legitimacy of the institution (and convention members would do well to refer to it as such) in order to mitigate its impact on the legislature that have retained the final say. Whatever about the interminable delays in a vote on the abolition of the Seanad (the upper house),  a campaign pledge (short sighted, in my view) of the largest party in Government Fine Gael, any fudge on implementing the convention reforms will result in more accusations of broken promises, accusations they can ill afford.

Now whatever about marriage equality, the politics of which may impact on some Fine Gael backbenchers – though not nearly as much as legislating on abortion, which is coming up as well – electoral reform is in many circumstances existential politics.  This is about genuine reform of the system, and a break from the past in a number of ways.  In the first instance, it is an opportunity to address the problems of clientelism, where politicians are beholden to local interests, where their reputations at home are far more important than their reputations nationally, or indeed their reputations abroad.  The most elevated politicians in the land – right up to the prime minister, or Taoiseach – retain their seat only because they serve their constituency.  There are rewards for having a Taoiseach from your parish.

On the one hand, this is understandable, and valid.  People need representation after all.  However, it does not necessarily lead to strong national politicians – men and women who may be strong local advocates do not necessarily make for good legislators, or national representatives.  The governing party leader is tasked with sifting through the detritus of his election result, in order to find appropriate Ministers to lead the government.  Those deliberations – as a direct result of the clientelist system – are primarily executed with the electoral system in mind.  Regions need to be represented; four or five seat constituencies need a Minister  to pull the other one or two seats home next time out; two ministers can’t come from the same constituency.  In the first instance, people who may be politically inclined, and well-disposed towards national service, but poor at campaigning and local issues, will never even compete.   Ultimately, the system produces sub-optimal leadership, poor representation, and failures in execution.

The reality, of course, is that these people who are under-qualified and woefully out of their depth end up over-reliant on civil servants for their office.  The permanent government, unaccountable, highly-paid, and comfortably pensioned, retains the power, the reward and none of the responsibility of government policy.  The politicians are not strong enough to resist them, not knowledgeable enough to challenge them, and ultimately their utility is usurped.  They do not even represent the people any more, but a statement of aspiration once every five years.

The second great problem is that of coalition.  Let us presume for a moment that the system yields decent men and women, suitably qualified to govern, and the prospect of good people leading the country.  The proportional representation system as it is currently constituted makes it very difficult for one party to secure an overall majority, and therefore for one party to govern on its own terms – to decide, unencumbered, who should occupy Ministerial posts in government, and what its policies should be.  Shorn of that power, the largest party (usually) will be forced to coalesce with a smaller party in order that the numbers will permit the formation of a government.  Immediately this happens, all electoral promises go out the window.  Parties will argue that the ethos of the manifesto will be represented in all negotiations, but invariably the smaller party has less of an impact, and a far greater proportion of its electoral promises are sundered.

This creates a significant systemic imperative to over-promise and under-deliver, which in turn damages trust, damages politics, and undermines democracy itself.  Politicians are obliged to lie, in effect, in order to get into office.  Ruairi Quinn, one of the more experienced members of the Labour Party, was asked recently on RTE’s documentary on the history of the Labour Party, about the 2011 pledge not to reintroduce third level education fees, which was reneged upon almost immediately after the election.  To paraphrase, he replied that he’d grown tired of watching Fianna Fáil getting elected on false promises election after election, while they sat – principles intact – on the opposition benches.

There are solutions, and examples from around the world.  List systems, which proliferate in Europe, could help to address some of the clientelist issues.  A regional list system, for example across European Election constituencies, would allow established parties to nominate legislators from the region to participate.  In essence, people in such elections would vote for parties, who would be awarded seats based on a pre-published ordered list.  So if there were 100 names, and the voting awarded forty votes to the party, then the top forty names would be deemed elected.

While Italy is hardly a bastion of democracy to be emulated, its example of majority bonus awards helps to minimise the prospect of coalition, or at least to ensure a locus of strength in Government where previously it would have been very broadly distributed.  In Ireland, should Fine Gael find itself decimated as Fianna Fáil did at the last election, Ireland may find itself in a similar position to Italy, with no one party anywhere near an overall majority, and therefore requiring serious dilution of party policy in order to form a government.

There would remain a necessity to find independent voices.  Party (or technical group) performance in local elections could dictate list participation for national elections.  Local government should be empowered by the removal of local constituency obligations for national politicians.  The Seanad too could be reformed so as to offer voices to non-political civil society structures, like the church, trades unions, and social campaign groups.

These are just a few suggestions.  The challenge for the Irish Government, of course, is whether it genuinely about a new politics.  The Constitutional Convention may well vote for the list system or a similarly dramatic change, but it may in doing so inadvertently undermine its own legitimacy, should the government choose to either ignore the recommendation, or else simply kick it to touch in some new working group or other quango.

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