Thursday 22 August 2019

A Second Republic could cure our ills

Radical change in our political system, including a new Constitution, could encourage real leadership, says John Crown

"The fault dear Brutus, is not in our stars,

But in ourselves, that we are underlings."

-- Shakespeare

THE words spoken by Cassius in Julius Caesar were a warning to his friend that the Roman Republic was falling under dictatorial rule, not because of bad fortune, but because its citizens had colluded in their own subjugation.

The Bard's words could equally apply to our citizenry and to our Republic, as we career chaotically, apparently rudderless, into a deepening recession, a crisis which our Government tells us is due to "our stars" -- ie, international economic forces.

Most authorities don't accept this, noting that an undoubtedly global phenomenon is hitting us disproportionately hard. Blame is being attached to our lenders who threw traditional banking caution to the four winds, and to the economic professionals in the State financial agencies, who either didn't see the danger signs, or who, as seems more likely, were too timid in bringing their concerns to the attention of their political masters.

The politicians themselves appear to have ignored dire and explicit warnings from independent economists that a housing bubble was inflating in front of their eyes. That those same politicians had an unusually, and perhaps unhealthily, close relationship with the very people who stood to gain the most from that bubble, the building and property development sectors, has not gone unnoticed.

Do we, the people, also deserve some blame? Did we, by behaving as Shakespearian underlings, allow complacency, cynicism and greed to blind us to our responsibilities as citizens of a democracy? Our Government must believe that we do. Why else would they insist that we are the ones who will pay the penalty? It seems likely that they will impose increased income taxes, reduced public sector pay, curtailed health and other public services. We may face a tax on houses which are already falling in value, while most homeowners are still paying the mortgage they took out to finance stamp duty.

Maybe we are guilty. Bubbles are fed by the psychology of those who pay. The heady feeling that we were wealthy because the little house down the street from our own had just been sold for a million, blinded us to the reality that we were taking part in a huge international pyramid scheme. While it is true that no-one forced us to borrow or to buy ludicrously over-priced houses, our collective "guilt" must be seen in the context that a growing population did need places to live, and that we are a nation of homeowners, not renters.

In addition, our banks, our Government, our planning process and the constructionocracy all effectively colluded to encourage us to keep buying beyond our means. The roles of the banks and the builders in this process are wholly explicable on the basis of short-term self-interest. Unfortunately, it would appear that the Government, which should take a statesman-like and long-term view of the common good, was similarly motivated. Their short-term interest was the next election.

Democracies get the governments they deserve. Collectively, we were like Carmella Soprano, the wife of Tony. As long as Tony (ie the Government) was bringing home wads of cash, we didn't ask too many questions about where it was coming from, nor did we fret, as we should have, about the family's long-term financial prospects.

I know I will be accused of wandering outside my sphere of competence when I say this, but my 15 years in Ireland, as a returned emigrant, as a doctor working in the health service, and as a concerned observer of our system of government, has forced me to conclude that we are a failed political entity.

At the core of our public governance is a dysfunctional interface between inexpert ministers and senior civil servants who have generally risen to the top of their departments on the strength of their adroitness at navigating its bureaucracy. The ministers are unfortunately drawn exclusively from a cohort of generally mediocre, frequently nepotistic TDs, whose entree to national politics was based not on a grasp of the big issues of state, but on their ability to manipulate a local constituency party machine. These observations explain the now-exposed incompetence of our Government, an incompetence which was obscured from our view by the Celtic Bubble.

Please contrast this with the Obama cabinet. Current energy policy will be one of the key determinants of the future of our society. Who did the President appoint as energy secretary? A Nobel Prize winning physicist! Given the pool of talent available in the Dail, that could never happen here.

Yet we have never needed national vision, intelligent statesmanship and good government more than we do now. To achieve this, we will need to reform the public service, both political and administrative. In short we need a new Constitution -- the "Second Republic", or "Dara Phoblacht" as it were.

Replacing the current multi-seat constituency with a national list system based on proportional representation, in which the entire State would form a single constituency, would minimise the impact of the local machines and would allow the parties to build a slate of candidates whose appeal would transcend local loyalty.

In this system, outstanding potential ministerial candidates could be offered high places on their party list, guaranteeing their availability for Cabinet appointment provided their party won the approvalof the electorate. Ideally, the Taoiseach would also have the power to make a number of ministerial appointments from outside parliament.A slimmed-down directly elected constituency-based Seanad with limited legislative oversight powers, could be retained as an interface between government and population.

What of our bloated civil service? My own belief is that it would be in the economic interests of the country, and in the personal interest of those involved, if all non-front line staff were offered the opportunity of early retirement at 50.

Beannacht De ar an Dara Phoblacht!!

Professor John Crown is a consultant oncologist.

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