A tribunal of the people to remould broken politics

The values-based vision for Ireland has been undermined by electoral gain. By Colin Murphy

Eamon de Valera once said that if he wished to know what the people of Ireland were thinking, he had to simply look into his heart. Today, the politicians prefer to rely on polls to know what the people are thinking, while de Valera's role as a moral grandstander has been largely usurped by my colleagues in the media.

Both polls and pundits are mired in the same miasma, however, and it is one in which our politicians languish also. What people "think" typically means what they think in passing about an issue of the moment. Public "opinion", and how to predict, reflect and marshall it, is the core concern of both pundits and politicians. Less considered are public values.

What do people think about Cardinal Sean Brady's role in the Brendan Smyth affair? What do they think about NAMA? Opinion in these issues is easily measured and easily mastered: like second-rate players on a threadbare stage, our politicians hold a mirror up to our nature and reflect our opinions back at us: angry, petulant, easily distracted.

One afternoon last year, I sat with the writer Sebastian Barry in the foyer of the Abbey Theatre, while his new play, Tales of Ballycumber was in rehearsals. We talked of the state of culture and politics in Ireland. Barry had "a sense that there needs to be some sort of vast ceremony to reinstate the whole idea of Ireland." He talked passionately of the need for a "ceremony" that would raise and investigate the questions, "Where is my country?" and "What is that country?”

At the time, I thought he was romanticising a plight that was largely the creation of political and economic incompetence. Now, I'm not so sure.

Our writers and artists have long been obsessed with the questions of who we are and where we come from. Nations are "imagined communities," wrote Benedict Anderson, and from the Gaelic Revival on, our writers have set themselves to imagining who we might be.

But, since the end of the era of de Valera, our politics has worried less about this. The age of existential politics, an age provoked by repeated war - a war of independence, a civil war, an economic war, and a world war - has passed. Politics is now about management. In the field of management, there are good decisions and bad decisions, not right and wrong decisions: they reveal themselves according to their consequences, rather than their underlying values.

This politics has led us, as a community, to some spectacularly bad decisions. Most of us are implicated, whether through our voting choices, negative equity or credit card debt.

For more than a decade - almost a generation - our politics largely ignored questions of values and identity, in the haze of congratulatory complacency that came with the end of the Troubles and the start of the Boom. We were the prototype of a post-colonial, post religious, globalized, smart economy.

Now values have surfaced again, wielded as a blunt force: the public sector is bloated and lazy; the political and private sector bosses are greedy and aloof. The language of the unions in particular echoes that of the 1980s, conjuring visions of a strictly segmented society (private v public sector; rich v poor) that most people - other than those on the margins - don't recognise.

Political debate in the last year has been bewildering. From the health service to the rescue of the banks, the debates have been characterised by condescension and shrillness. Nothing is ever a "mistake", but a "scandal". There is no "compromise", merely a "sell-out". Complex coalitions of interests become "conspiracies". Intelligent people on opposite sides of each argument have reduced the issues to simplistic dichotomies, appealing to ideological bias to foster support.

So perhaps it is time to take Sebastian Barry's idea seriously. In more prosaic terms: to hold an inquiry into the nature and values of Irish society.

This would be a tribunal, but a tribunal of the people. It would be chaired by leading civic voices, would solicit expert opinion, and would be open to the contributions of all. It would operate in the form of town hall meetings around the country.

It would be tasked with inquiring into, and reporting on, the values that the Irish people wish to see reflected in the workings of their state. Questions like: do we want a society that is more equal, or that rewards success more freely? Or: do we want a political system that is more responsive to individual petition, or to expert direction?

This tribunal would report to the Oireachtas, where it could strengthen the arguments of those seeking to make policy on more long-term grounds by providing evidence of underlying public values to back them.

There is precedent: the National Forum on Europe, largely ignored by the media, provided a means to facilitate public debate and inquiry into Ireland's membership of the European Union. The Law Reform Commission solicits public contributions, and provides the government with recommendations entirely removed from political considerations.

In Iceland, civic action culminated in the recent, unprecedented referendum on the debt to the UK and Denmark. In Brazil, the city of Porto Alegre, with 1.5 million people, uses citizen participation to decide the $200 million municipal budget.

In Ireland, faced with a threat to our fiscal sovereignty, an unprecedented increase in unemployment and evidence of widespread de facto corruption amongst our supposed business leaders, we have come up with an online version of Dragons' Den with a title inspired by a second-rate rugby song.

We can do better. A national, participatory inquiry could be cathartic, energising and inspiring. The process could provide a model for a new form of citizen engagement. The final report could provide a bedrock for policy making for a generation, and underlie a new constitution.

In 2010, to know what Ireland is thinking, we should look into our own hearts, not wait for anyone to tell us.