John Drennan

Thursday 21 August 2014

Reform genie is out of the bottle and it won't be easily contained

The Seanad abolition defeat may prove to be the least of Kenny's reform problems, writes John Drennan

Published 13/10/2013 | 04:00

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THE Taoiseach appeared to be somewhat down in himself and very much in a pursed-lip-style mood last week.

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Still, as Enda Kenny ponders about how swiftly one can go from being a rooster to a feather duster, the 'Dear Leader' should be consoled by the experience of Alexander the Great, who, at the zenith of his powers, wept because there were no more worlds left to conquer.

The good news for 'King Enda' the Not So Great is that he is unlikely to find himself crying about the absence of worlds to conquer on the reform front in the near future.

Even if he had secured the scalp of the Seanad, there would have been no need for tears for when it comes to building a Great Empire of Reform, the Seanad is but the smallest of dusty provinces.

Indeed, one of the more fundamental criticisms of the Government's campaign was that, as our poor senators do neither harm nor good, the Coalition should be prioritising the vast number of government institutions who have done a great deal of harm.

This may now actually happen for the severity of the sulks after the people's victory over Kenny (and those 'too smart for the Taoiseach's own good' spindoctors) means many believe Enda now plans to punish the senators by not reforming them.

Outside of noting the one slight problem there is that most of the recalcitrant senators wouldn't see that as representing a punishment, the real problem Kenny must face is that his ill-starred referendum has let the genie of reform out of the bottle.

The bad news for a government, whose disastrous record on political reform is epitomised by two devastating defeats on the Seanad and the Dail Inquiry Bill, is that when this genie escapes, it is very hard to put the mischievous sprite back in the bottle.

The even worse news for the Taoiseach is that when it comes to reform, the last issue on the voters' minds will be the poor senatorial spaniels.

Paddy the voter would be right too, for ironically the Seanad is just about the only part of the executive that is actually functioning as it should. Unlike a Dail that is not working and a Cabinet whose powers have been degraded by the EMC, the Seanad is supposed to merely talk, supervise and offer an alternative point of view that can sometimes actually be considered.

It should be conceded that reform of the mild variety where, for example, all the parties would issue a solemn pledge that all Taoiseach's nominees would consist of non-aligned experts in a variety of fields, would be nice.

In a stroke, sorry, the issue of the Seanad being a political rotten borough for aspirant party hacks would be essentially closed.

But, the surprisingly high number of the electorate that engaged in this referendum were looking for something more substantial on the reform front than the burnt offering dished up so gracelessly by 'Dear Leader' Enda.

Defeat, of course, is never pleasant, but it does offer the Coalition the opportunity to learn some key lessons.

It is, alas, uncertain that they will, for one of the more curious features of the Coalition's reign is how an administration which surfed into a record seats total by riding on the tidal wave of belief that the State was so sick even Paddy wanted to change has ended up in such a mess on the reform front.

However, while even Kenny, in the wake of his triumph, obliquely referred to this yearning via his famous "Paddy likes to know the story" post-election quote, the Coalition has acquired a reputation for having the sort of passive/aggressive antipathy to reform that FF took a decade to acquire.

As with plenty of other issues, one key error by the Coalition is that it has done a lot of shaping around the periphery of the reform issue without moving decisively to resolve it.

This strategic mistake is all the more misfortunate for they should have been informed by that wise theory that if you attempt to cure a malady with weak medicine, you double the sickness.

Instead, the Coalition with its bleating about topical issues, more Dail sitting days and longer hours – as if politicians talking more would in some way improve things – is making that very mistake.

The strange thing about this administration's failure is that, when compared to the host of shrieking fiscal harridans it faced, reform should have been a warm and pleasant experience.

Instead, the Government's agenda is lying in such a Humpty Dumpty-style heap that Fianna Fail has started to dress up in the well worn Emperor's Clothes of reform.

Despite the new spring in its step, the bad Fianna Fail dog is for now held back by the choke chain of history, where every time they put on the pious face, they are properly reminded of that past where these political Prodigal Sons squandered their patrimony.

The sole piece of good news for 'Dear Leader' Enda is that reform is a problem for more parties than the post Civil War brotherhood of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael.

When it comes to Fine Gael's new political partners, the less that is said about Sinn Fein's reforming credentials the better. Labour, meanwhile, increasingly resembles that unhappy rabbit that, having been hypnotised by the stoat, knows it must run to survive, but, stayed by terror and confusion, remains still until the stoat puts it out of its misery.

The timidity of Labour and the cynicism of Fine Gael have unfortunately facilitated the evolution of an amoral attitude to reform that bears a remarkable resemblance to Fianna Fail's not-so-great age of misgovernance, where under the rules devised by Social Partnership, the solution to a problem was to always create another quango.

Nothing epitomises the ongoing strength of this impulse more than the creation of a Fiscal Council, where having created the council, rather like the ESRI, the Government routinely ignores the advice of the very creature it has set up.

This does not matter though for a gesture has been made and, as with the halcyon era of Social Partnership, that is sufficient to the hour.

Ultimately, the most accurate template of this Government's version of political reform is the Constitutional Convention where, like the Fiscal Council, an innocuous group of people make harmless suggestions that will not be implemented.

It might be the sort of 'reform Lite' King Enda likes but the scenario where this lot are talking about reducing the voting age to 16 is hardly the sort of change that passes the criteria of a 'democratic revolution'.

Though it maintained a high profile last week, as we move past the meridian of this unloved administration, the Seanad referendum defeat may prove to be the least of this administration's problems on the reform front.

Instead, the litmus test of its commitment and ability to implement reform will shortly emerge courtesy of our overdue Banking Inquiry.

Any analysis of the success or otherwise of this inquiry must be guided by the institutional memory of how a decade ago, the Irish political system was, courtesy of the Dirt inquiry, able to investigate in public one of the biggest frauds in the history of the State.

The Dirt inquiry, despite all the self praise of our political classes, provided us with scant accountability but Ireland at least experienced a brief moment of openness and transparency.

Rather like the fiscal version of the Disappeared, the great escape of our banks and those who facilitated their excesses is the unhealed wound of Irish public discourse.

Should our current effort fail to replicate even the modest success of Jim Mitchell's

Dirt-busters, then the Government's often-voiced commitment to reform will have been proved to not be worth the proverbial penny candle.

Sadly, the Government's 'FF axis of collusion' style approach to the banking inquiry suggests our Grumpy Old Bourbons are continuing to confuse their endemic streak of passive aggressive malice with a commitment to real reform.

This confusion played a key role in ensuring the Seanad debate evolved into a referendum on the bona fides of Enda Kenny's claimed commitment to real reform.

In this regard, the final result suggested Paddy "knows the story" about 'King Enda's' claimed ambition to be the great reformer and that he neither believes nor likes what he has seen.

Sunday Independent

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