Sunday 15 December 2019

Shane Coleman: Why it's still all hands to the parish pumps during national crisis

TAOISEACH Enda Kenny may have promised his ministers would focus on national issues, but today's investigation by this newspaper shows nothing has changed.

The State is in the thick of its greatest ever crisis and yet cabinet ministers are concerning themselves with their constituents' front doors, showers and cases of insect infestation. If it wasn't so serious, it would be funny. No country does parish-pump politics – or 'clientelism' – like we do here in Ireland. It was Tipp O'Neill who coined the saying that "all politics is local".

But even the legendary US congressman surely didn't envisage members of the executive of government getting involved in street lighting, as routinely still happens here.

The size of Ireland is certainly a factor, but more important by far is our long cherished PR-STV electoral system. That system does have one obvious advantage. It produces a high level of proportionality. You don't get one party winning a huge overall majority with 40pc of the vote.

But PR-STV is not the only

electoral system capable of producing proportionality. And it does have two massive disadvantages that arguably lie at the root of the boom-bust cycle that has dogged this State for the past 50 years.

Multi-seat constituencies mean politicians' biggest rivals are often from their own party. And that means the best way of securing re-election is to concentrate solely on local issues. Historically, the big vote getters in Irish elections are those who had the best-resourced and best-managed local operations.

Some argue it is only right that politicians are in tune with their constituents needs. But many of the functions TDs carry out would be the preserve of local government in other western democracies. And it inevitably means that politicians are less informed and less interested in national issues.

It is noteworthy, for example, that in the years running up to the economic collapse, no TD gave a speech in the Dail warning about the reckless lending practices of the banks; the lopsided nature of a tax system wholly dependent on the property market; or the huge (and clearly unsustainable) annual increases in government spending.

The reality is that we, the electorate, didn't elect enough politicians with the skills to question policies at a national level.

And those TDs who did have that ability were too preoccupied with local issues to inform themselves properly. The second major problem with PR-STV is that it consistently produces results so tight – both at a constituency and national level.

This gives enormous sway to small, but well organised, vested interests – making reform and radical change well nigh impossible.

The Shannon stopover is a small, but classic, example of this. For decades, passengers flying between the US and Dublin were forced to land at Shannon Airport – adding cost and time to their journey – simply because successive governments were afraid losing a seat or two in the mid-west might cost it power.

The greater good was sacrificed. And the policy was only changed when it literally came down to the survival of the national airline. Could anyone imagine the German chancellor or the British prime minister having to deal with a similar scenario?

That is the political reality in which Irish politicians have to operate.

There are exceptions to the rule. The late John Kelly made a virtue of eschewing constituency clinics but it helped that he represented the most affluent constituency in the State. In most cases, neglecting the parish-pump means a short Dail career.

For that reason, it's hard to blame politicians, even cabinet ministers, for always keeping at least one eye on their constituencies. It will continue to happen until we change the electoral system.

And unless we do so, the national interest will always play second fiddle to local interests. There's been a lot of talk from the same Cabinet ministers featuring in today's story about political reform.

But any reform without moving away from PR-STV is quite simply a waste of time.

Shane Coleman is political editor of Newstalk 106-108FM

Irish Independent

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