Recession gave us a chance for a new vision in politics which has yet to emerge
Published 21/07/2015 | 02:30
I'm at the MacGill summer school with my mother-in-law this week. We've come in search of vision, ideas and political stimulation. She is a founding member of the Progressive Democrats and remembers the excitement in 1985, the sense of anticipation, of being part of something new, radical and focused on change.
Here we are, 30 years later, looking for the same thing.
The Progressive Democrats are no more. Now we have the Social Democrats, Renua, and a whole collection of alliances. We have our old parties surviving - growing and shrinking relative to where we are in the cycle - and the emergence of a strong Sinn Féin.
My mother-in-law tells me, and others at MacGill agree, there hasn't been a moment like 1985 since.
But there has certainly been a lot of talking about it. MacGill is in its 34th year. By now, it is an annual feature on the political and media calendar. But what happens outside the small town of Glenties after the week of lofty debates and ideas draws to a close? Usually not much. And that's nothing to do with the school, but rather because, as speakers so often point out, we are relying on those with the power - our elected representatives, or more importantly, our Government TDs - to introduce measures often unpalatable to them.
It is no surprise that in opposition, parties are leading advocates of reform. The need to make the Government answerable to parliament becomes imperative, electing committee chairs on a cross-party basis highly desirable, and transparency in government communications an absolute must.
Once in power these demands quieten. Managing the issues of the day becomes so pressing that reforming the system becomes, well, unnecessary. The short term trumps the long game every time. Advocates for reform remain on the backbenches, publishing position papers and lobbying their parliamentary colleagues, usually with half-hearted support but little traction. To be fair, there has been some activity since 2011.
We are not at square one. The Constitutional Convention was an innovative initiative that contributed to the debate on where we want to be as a nation in 2016, bringing together citizens and politicians as equals to debate how our founding document needs to change to reflect the Ireland of today. Unfortunately, its recommendations - excepting reducing the age of Presidential candidates - were largely ignored.
The Electoral Amendment Political Funding Act - brought in under Phil Hogan's watch and passed on the last day before the 2012 summer recess changed the rules around political funding - limited parties' ability to receive anonymous donations and reducing the amount any candidate can receive from an individual.
The same Act brought in gender quotas, which will hit for the first time at the forthcoming election, ensuring that all parties field a minimum of 30pc female candidates or face losing half of the their State funding. For the first time ever, we can expect to see a reasonable number of women on the ballot paper.
And the Lobbying Act, made law in March of this year, requires lobbyists to register so that there is transparency about 'who is contacting whom about what'.
These things are good, no doubt about it, but there should have been so much more.
We emerged from a recession, caused by failures of our political system. We agreed as a people that this should never, ever, happen again. And here we are - less than five years since we last went to the polls back where we were - talking about tax cuts and more spending.
Noel Whelan drew out this uncomfortable truth in his speech. Where are we at the end of this crisis, he asked? Where is the new thinking, the vision emerging from it? It's not there. Instead, we are "sleepwalking back into auction politics". We have moved from recession to recovery without any change in our thinking.
At MacGill, we spend a week solving the problems of a generation. We move from fundamental reform of the electoral system, to predicting the make-up of the next Dáil and onto water and wind. There is never enough time to agree, let alone to come up with a plan of action. But now we have a chance, a unique moment in history. We are fast approaching 2016. We will, most likely, have an election in that special year.
Can we ask our politicians - those elected now - to be true to the commitments made from the opposition benches to bring about a new politics? Will they approach this election not as an auction but in the national interest?
Will we, as voters, reward politicians who tell us the truth, rather than what we want to hear? Politicians who are honest about the need to tax and invest wisely, who are careful, prudent, focused on maintaining our nascent recovery?
It might not feel like a wildly exciting proposition. It is not quite what my mother-in-law described that day in the Mansion House in 1985. But coming from where we've been, this simple change in approach would feel like a new, fresh politics, and that would be a result for MacGill.