Secret negotiations undermine democracy

This week, two democratic political parties, run on democratic lines, are negotiating a programme for a democratic government... in secret. Colin Murphy peers through the smoke and mirrors.


We take it for granted that the wheeling and dealing of close-quarter political negotiations should take place in private. Since the 1980s, secret negotiations have dominated our politics: social partnership (since 1987), coalition deals (every government since 1989), the peace process (since the early 1990s).

And key decisions of recent times have been agreed in secret: the EU/IMF "bailout" of last November; the bank guarantee of September 2008; the Church-State deal of November 2001.

Secrecy dominates our system of governmental decision making. Yet in each of the cases above, secrecy has subsequently undermined the public credibility of the deal.


The EU/IMF deal is widely believed to have been poorly negotiated; the bank guarantee is assumed to have been influenced by Fianna Fáil's closeness to bankers and developers; and the Church-State deal was presumed, by sceptics, to have been deliberately skewed in favour of the religious congregations.*

Leave aside, for now, the peace process, which, uniquely, involved a threat to lives.** The secrecy of partnership negotiations has allowed critics now to claim that partnership entailed governance by cabal, with the unions consequently as deeply implicated in the Irish fiscal crisis as the bankers. And every coalition agreement has suffered in credibility because of the perception that the smaller party (the PDs, Labour and then the Greens) was being opportunistic and unprincipled.

The same criticism will be levelled at Labour and Fine Gael after this week's negotiations. The outcome will be a rough ad-mixture of the two parties' manifestos, and a cabinet team that will loosely reflect their respective parliamentary strengths. The fact that each party will compromise will surprise no one. Yet their critics will carp (as Labour, in particular, did at the Greens at the outset of the last Dáil term) that those compromises are hypocritical; that the parties are selling out on their principals.

And a similar criticism arose repeatedly during the election campaign, as both the media and Fianna Fáil aimed barbs at Fine Gael and Labour for not putting a joint programme before the people. This criticism was witless and banal. As Ruairi Quinn put it, succinctly, in the final days before the election: if the public votes in more Labour TDs, Labour will get more of their ideas implemented; if they vote more Fine Gael TDs, Fine Gael will. It's not a difficult concept, and the public understands it. To negotiate a joint programme in advance of an election would be an abrogation of the public's right to influence it by voting for the parties in different strengths.

Crude though that criticism may be, though, it at least hints at a more nuanced deception inherent in the manifestos: in failing to suggest which of their policies were priorities, and which were simply preferences, the parties cultivated a deception that enabled them to say that they intended to pursue all of them.

Neither Fine Gael (despite the single-party government propaganda) nor Labour was likely ever to have a hope of implementing their manifesto in its entirety. So why not tell us which were their priorities? Which policies would be first to go overboard, and which would be the ones clung to most dearly?

And now, as the parties enter negotiations, why not do so publicly? Consider what the process involves: two teams, consisting chiefly of elected representatives, will bring their policies to the table, argue for their relative merits, and ultimately agree a joint programme based approximately on their relative Dáil strengths. If that sounds familiar, that's because this is how the Dáil is supposed to work, as a chamber for discussion, debate and decision making, in public.

What would be lost, and what would be gained, were these negotiations to be held in public? The most obvious thing to lose would be face: both parties would have to admit to being willing to forsake policies they had previously claimed were central to their manifestos. This would be embarrassing; but the more the public gains insight into the harsh realities of the political bargaining process, the more they would be willing to accept (or at least understand) their representatives' compromises.

In the short term, what if there weren't? People might protest; organisations might lobby. But why not? If the parties were resolute about the objective and deadline of the negotiations, protests would not disrupt it. And if they decided the protests were of material significance, they could adjust their bargaining positions accordingly. If 10,000 senior citizens take to the streets during the negotiations, and this affects the substance of those negotiations, all the better for democracy. And if they take to the streets, and the negotiators ignore them, all the more credit to the politicians' resolve and commitment to their agreed priorities.

Would the negotiators be less likely to be frank with each other, were the negotiations in public. In the short term, perhaps. But in the long term, dealing in public would give them greater incentive to be honest, as they would have to be able to stand over their claims in the long term. Even if it does inhibit individual negotiators, cramping their style, it should act in the interests of greater fairness and efficiency of the resolution overall, as transparency would leave less room for subterfuge and posturing.

The key gain is a long-term one. The more the crucial business of politics is done in public, the more educated the public becomes in the realities of that business, and thus the better able to judge competing political claims.

This principal already operates in the market: to work efficiently, the "free market" requires consumers to have access to free and full information on rival products. Adam Smith warned against the dangers of cartels, which arise when organisations with similar interests are free to meet in private: "People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices," he wrote.

Irish governance has been mired in a cartel mentality throughout recent memory. Were we less tolerant of such secret meetings in the first place, we might be less likely to become victim to the contrivances they produce.


* In the case of the church-state deal, at least, we have some independent verification of the sceptics' case: documents released under Freedom of Information: showed that the then education minister, Michael Woods, intervened against the advice of his officials to sign off on a deal that was hugely advantageous to the religious congregations; this was done without the crucial final meetings being minuted.

** The peace process is not be immune to criticism that it was conducted in excessive secrecy, however. Critics such as Anthony McIntyre of The Blanket, who supports "the peace, not the process", argue that it has been mired in lies and subterfuge, and that its critics have been intimidated and ostracised in a bid to silence them.