Tuesday 16 July 2019

We the citizens have a clear idea of what our needs are already

While new group's intentions are noble, it appears the horse has long bolted, writes Eamon Delaney

If you can't change the parliament, or even get into it, why not start a new one. Last week, a new people's political initiative called 'We the Citizens' was launched, with much fanfare and generous funding from Chuck Feeney's Atlantic Philanthrophies. But what exactly does it stand for?

With the slogan 'Speak up for Ireland', the aim is hardly revolutionary. An opinion poll company is to carry out a survey of 1,000 citizens to get their views, after which 150 people, representing a cross-section of society, will be invited to participate in an assembly, so as to come to 'informed decisions about issues related to how government operates'. So it's like a giant focus group, except this time presided over by academics instead of politicians.

There are worthy people behind the idea, such as UCD's politics professor David Farrell and TCD's Elaine Byrne, who famously berated the middle-aged men of the Democracy Now group for postponing an earlier assault on the political system. But the new group's other board members have predictable overlaps into other groups and quangos (the Citizens Information Board, the National Forum on Europe) and really it just looks a lot like another big quango, albeit more private than public.

The group even has -- wait for it -- an international scientific advisory board.

We wish them well, but what exactly are these political academics and others going to find out that we don't know already, after two years of exhaustive and at times passionate political debate? Is this not a bit after the horse has bolted, given that we've just had an election, and a crucial game-changing election at that?

Apart from public meetings around the country, Chuck Feeney's money is going to be spent mainly on opinion polling, but haven't we had a lot of that already. And bear in mind, the Government is already committed to the Labour party idea of a constitutional citizen's assembly.

But it is the timing of We the Citizens which is odd and makes one wonder about the pattern of all these postponed and quickly fading 'alternative political initiatives'. The Democracy Now grouping, for example, had a last minute cancellation because the election allegedly came too early -- the same excuse has been used for We the Citizens.

Then we had the Civil Forum, a group of mainly left-leaning organisations and individuals launched in the RDS with the aim of 'reclaiming the future' and promising to put pressure on politicians. But we heard next to nothing from them thereafter. Meanwhile, Michael McDowell has been associated with a possible new right-of-centre party, which is well overdue, given how the pubic finances are in disarray and a bloated public sector is holding us hostage. These are the issues: we surely don't need marketing research to tell us this.

McDowell is at least someone who has gone for political office and suffered the blows. The suspicion with so many other would-be, unspecific reformers is that they are unwilling, or unable, to change the system through actual involvement and running for election, and so they form these grand talking shops instead, and try to pole-vault into the political culture through media appearances, and inter-quango deliberations.

The reality is that we have had an exhaustive and detailed debate on our political system and the people have spoken. Political reform is needed, and is hopefully on the way in terms of changes to Dail procedure, the committee system and the future of the Seanad. For example, on the very day of the We the Citizens launch, it was announced, quietly and separately, that a new investigations and oversight committee is to be established in the Dail to consider petitions submitted by citizens and organisations. So there you go. Chuck Feeney could have saved his money.

But in terms of listening to the people and discovering their needs, it is hard to see what the We the Citizens assembly will find out that we don't know already. Surely what we need instead are coherent political parties of specific conviction and ideology so that we know what we're supporting and voting for.

Failing that, we have the existing party system which, let's be honest, seemed to work well enough before the crash. Or at least the people seem to think so. And the people know best. Isn't that what organisations like We the Citizens always tell us?

Sunday Independent

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