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Our recent history is evidence enough to support EMC


WHEN SHALL WE FOUR MEET AGAIN: The Economic Management Council of Enda Kenny, Michael Noonan, Brendan Howlin and Joan Burton

WHEN SHALL WE FOUR MEET AGAIN: The Economic Management Council of Enda Kenny, Michael Noonan, Brendan Howlin and Joan Burton

WHEN SHALL WE FOUR MEET AGAIN: The Economic Management Council of Enda Kenny, Michael Noonan, Brendan Howlin and Joan Burton

How do we govern ourselves and how has the political system affected Irish economic performance over the long term?

These are big questions. There are ones on which people have many different views. With so many possible answers and views, let's start with four fact-based observations.

First, relative to the rest of Europe, the Irish economy performed poorly almost uninterruptedly from independence to the 1990s - and that happened despite greater political stability than in most other countries and non-involvement in World War Two, Europe's most destructive conflict ever. We have also had very low defence spending compared with almost all other countries throughout the Cold War.

Second, the 1950s and 1980s were particularly bad times comparatively. While most of Europe's democracies grew strongly in those decades, Ireland was mired in deep, protracted recessions characterised by severe underemployment. The political system was very slow to get round to taking rectifying measures in both decades.

Third, the best that can be said of the political system when the bubble blew up after 2002 was that it was asleep at the wheel. Spending most of the cash that flooded into the government's coffers up to 2008, failing to keep a focus on competitiveness and not keeping a tighter rein on the banks were the cardinal sins of commission and omission during that period.

Finally, the manner in which the system dealt with the crisis was neither speedy nor strong. Even though it was increasingly clear from early 2007 that there would not be a soft landing, no action was taken until the second half of 2008 and too little contingency planning took place.

Brian Cowen was rightly pilloried for the shambolic nature of his leadership, poor teamwork and an even poorer capacity for communication right up to his ejection from office, shortly after the ignominy of Ireland's bailout.

Drawing these four points together, it is not unreasonable to conclude the nature of the Irish political system itself has contributed to poor economic performance.

In the run-up to the last general election, many, if not most people appeared to have come to that conclusion. There was a clamour for political reform.

The Government, to be fair, has implemented a good number of reforms - from lobbying regulation to whistleblower protection and more besides. But no matter how welcome these measures are, even when taken together, the changes introduced will not radically improve the effectiveness of the system.

That reflects a more general tendency of this administration - the avoidance of the kind of radical reform that, almost by definition, creates opposition among entrenched interest groups.

If there has been a top-down reluctance to make big changes, there is also a real question over whether a genuine bottom up desire for change exists. Two concrete proposals - giving Oireachtas committees powers more similar to parliaments elsewhere and abolishing the Seanad to bring about a unicameral legislature, as is the case in most other similar-sized democracies - were rejected at referendum. Many of what might be termed the country's "thought leaders" opposed those changes.

Among the same grouping and in the media there has been little support and no little criticism of one of the few real and effective institutional innovations that the Coalition has introduced. As recently as seven days ago, even a member of the Cabinet, Alex White, hinted at his disapproval of the Economic Management Council (EMC) - the Cabinet sub-committee comprising the Taoiseach, Tanaiste and the two finance-related ministers.

The main reason to support the EMC is because its existence addresses many of the deficiencies that led the previous coalition to be so poor at addressing the crash.

These deficiencies relate to a quaint notion that a fast-moving and highly complex crisis of the kind Ireland experienced from 2007 can be addressed by meetings of a Cabinet comprising 15 people - few of whom have a deep understanding of their own brief, never mind those of other ministers.

(This is largely because Ireland is unusual in having all ministers serve simultaneously as legislators and in not appointing non-politicians as ministers).

Anyone who has even been involved in running any kind of organisation knows that a large committee with many big egos is often ineffective and never fast in coming to conclusions. The weaknesses of trying to formulate and coordinate all of the Executive's business through that Cabinet in times of crisis was illustrated not only by the Cowen administration, but also during the long 1980s recession. Garret FitzGerald infamously chaired marathon sessions of the full Cabinet. Very few of those involved or who have evaluated the workings of that administration hold it up as a model of effectiveness.

This very weakness was long ago recognised by the people who invented Cabinet government - the British. We adopted their model of collective Cabinet responsibility at independence, along with most of the architecture of the state.

While the British system has its quirks and idiosyncrasies, it is famous for its adaptability (one of the reasons they have never got round to writing a constitution across the water is because many claim that the system has worked, isn't broken and doesn't need to be written down in a constitution).

But we Irish are much more conservative than the British and tend to prefer the devil we know. When change is mooted, the possible downsides are highlighted even more than the known and recognised downsides of the way things are actually done. The result is that our system of government and administration is much closer to Britain's in the 1920s than Britain's is.

That is very much the case in terms of EMC-style sub-committees replacing full Cabinet meetings.

The British long ago adapted the system they themselves invented in the 1700s because it is impractical and ineffective. When the current UK coalition took office in 2010, it had no fewer than 18 Cabinet sub-committees.

One criticism of the EMC is that it is undemocratic. This is just silly. Britain has concentrated power in the prime minister's office to a much greater extent than in Ireland with the EMC. Nobody would seriously suggest Britain is undemocratic as a result.

Another criticism is that the EMC is unconstitutional because it undermines the position of the Cabinet as set out in Bunreacht na hEireann. To interpret the constitution in such a purist way would be to render unconstitutional almost any discussion of policy by members of the government that does not take place at the Cabinet table.

If a case were ever to be taken, it is very hard to see judges finding that the EMC is unconstitutional, and in the process effectively barring the executive from creating Cabinet sub-committees.

The tighter and more focused structures provided by the EMC have certainly not transformed the system of Irish governance, as proven by the very poor management of water charges and other recent unforced errors. But it has improved the effectiveness of the budgetary process and helped coordination of big and complex efforts, such as the promissory note deal last year.

The Irish system of government has historically been slow to see challenges and slow to respond to crises. Having a stronger core has made the system better.

The EMC is an institutional change worth keeping.

Sunday Indo Business