Fast forward to the Counter-Reformation

Dermot Desmond has jetted in for the weekend to join the chorus of voices calling for political reform. Jason Walsh examines several branches of the new reformation, and argues that what they have in common is distrust of the electorate.

Billionaire businessman Dermot Desmond is going to save us, it seems. Or at least he has made some proposals for reforming politics. Desmond joins a growing chorus of voices saying the government should appoint qualified experts to run important ministries rather than rely on the apparently slim pickings in the Dáíl.

Desmond is far from alone in his desire to see the Oireachtas remade in his own image. Various luminaries from journalist Fintan O’Toole to Trinity College lecturer Elaine Byrne have written a great deal of material of late, demanding a bevy of changes to Ireland’s political institutions. Indeed, the Irish Times, where O’Toole is assistant editor and columnist and to which Byrne regularly contributes, has become something of a locus for reformers. This is perhaps to be expected given it can legitimately claim to be the country’s newspaper of record, but it also telling insofar as the Times, with its circulation of 100,000 among the wealthiest people in the country, can hardly lay claim to being the voice of the people. It was certainly a strange sight to behold the Irish Times, of all the media outlets in the country, demanding we “renew the Republic”.

There is no doubt Ireland, though, could do with some significant change. The question is, what kind of change – and dictated by whom?

The problem with the entire notion of political reform is that it fails to address the actual problem at the heart of Irish politics. Ireland’s single transferable vote (STV) electoral system, for instance, is deeply problematic, but let’s not kid ourselves: the real issue at hand right now is not the insufficiently democratic mush it produces and calls governments, it’s the absence of any clear vision of the future. Tinkering with the institutions of government mistakes form for substance.

Whether one wants to appoint unelected ministers, as Desmond suggests; divide TDs into two tiers as Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin has proposed; stuff the Seanad with worthies, as Elaine Byrne wants; or switch to a list system as both Fintan O’Toole and the Green Party have recommended, few of the proposals actually grapple with the vacuum at the heart of Irish politics.

Worse still, reform is not an a priori good. Whether well-intentioned or not – and it’s not entirely clear that they are necessarily well-intentioned – many of these so-called reforms would actually amount to the further frustration of the will of the electorate.

Not all of the proposed reforms are bad per se – complete abolition of the pretend parliament that is the Seanad would be a step toward genuine democracy, albeit a small one – but the majority of them would in fact further concentrate power in the hands of Ireland’s political elite. It’s just that that elite might be constituted slightly differently to how it is today. More intellectual certainly, and perhaps a little more liberal, but no more a representation of the population than the current crop, who at least have the virtue of having been elected by the people – even if was done using our bent electoral system.

All of this is just one expression of a wider trend in Irish political discourse. It is obvious to anyone who cares to look that all of the institutions that sustained Irish political life are hollowed-out and lack legitimacy. The response to this has not been a surge in demands for democracy and genuine renewal so much as deference to a putative “expertocracy”.

The undemocratic refrain is pretty straightforward: Government has failed us? The answer is to make it more like business. Economists say the political parties are wrong? Let’s slavishly agree with the experts, then.

Since the economic crisis hit we have seen economists raised to the status of folk heroes. The personality cult surrounding David McWilliams prefigured this development and where McWilliams blazed a trail through the broadsheets, his colleagues now follow. Although they are undoubtedly smart individuals, this trend is deeply undemocratic. Economic decisions should not be the preserve of economists and while the likes of McWilliams, Constantin Gurdgiev and Brian Lucey all (legitimately) opposed the endless bailouts of Anglo Irish Bank’s bondholders, deciding to default because economists said we should amounts to an abdication of political responsibility.

This kind of thinking is commonplace today: health policy should be set by doctors; science policy by scientists and so on. These people are experts, after all, and politicians are just populists at the mercy of their constituents…Well, no actually.

Lurking behind the distrust of politicians is a corrosive distaste for the supposedly grubby business of politics itself. Complaints about pork-barrelling (must we import a term for patronage from the United States?) and the parish pump are juxtaposed with the image of business leaders who get-things-done or supposedly independent experts who know better. Of course, the difference between a politician and a businessman or expert is that a politician is answerable to the electorate. Seen in this light it quickly becomes clear that the real objection is to having to serve the supposedly selfish, filthy and know-nothing public.

The entire reform agenda is an elite matter, amounting to little more than the various wings of Ireland’s wealthy and powerful jockeying for position. Meaningful advances in Irish democracy cannot come from the top down, nor from the pages of an elite newspaper such as the Irish Times. If anyone wants to see real change, they’ll have to make a case for greater popular participation and legitimate, democratic representation based on elections – and that is the one thing that Ireland’s reformers, whether liberal and conservative, have no interest in doing. Our politicians would do well to abolish the Seanad, but let’s make sure they don’t try to abolish the electorate while they’re at it.


Image top via Chris Pirillo on Flickr