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A little bit done; much more to do

GOVERNMENTS in peripheral open economies such as our own, are, particularly in this Iron Age of Austerity, restricted in how they can shape the economy. Happily they have a freer hand when it comes to the equally critical task of building the spirit of a state. The importance of this task was even recognised by Enda Kenny when on his accession to the Taoiseach's post he warned that the old ways "of politics damaged us not alone financially, but emotionally, psychologically and spiritually''. The Taoiseach is unique among a somewhat technocratic cabinet in having an intuitive understanding of the role of empathy and imagination in governance. Sadly occasions such as the Cloyne speech have too often been subsequently quenched by the Taoiseach's equally strong impulse of parsimonious conservatism.

One of the eternal weaknesses of the Irish political DNA is the belief that the spirit of the citizens can be rebuilt by occasional bouts of 'dying for Ireland' rhetoric. In fact, the regeneration of the nation can only be cultivated by hard legislative choices that create a culture of respect, accountability and dialogue between State and citizen. Such an ambition is all the more necessary in a country where life, for most citizens, has evolved into a variant of Pearse's 'Murder Machine'. This idealism may not be much to the liking of the rough pragmatists who dominate Irish life, but they might be consoled by the realisation that such a process is not without its economic benefits. The entrepreneurial spirit, or what Krugman calls the 'confidence fairy', cannot thrive in a Berlusconi-style state where the self-respect of the citizen is eroded by the evils of crony capitalism. Our rough pragmatists will say morality rarely butters any parsnips. But, a country without civic virtue or an assertive citizenry is so fundamentally unhealthy all aspects of human endeavour are poisoned.

In fairness, when it comes to dealing with such dangers, Mr Kenny's Dail reform package is not ill-intentioned. But, as we learnt the hard way from Fianna Fail's absentee school of governance, pleasant ineffectuality has dire long-term consequences. The proposal to involve outside experts and the public in the legislative process is an innovative pilot that suggests that a capacity for fresh thinking exists within the silted arteries of governance. Ultimately, though, real political reform can only be secured by confronting the petty dominance of the current 'Whip' system. Those who would say such politics is normal might ponder the difference between the response of the UK coalition to its defeat on the issue of Syria and the passive-aggressive use of the iron fist on the Pregnancy and Human Life Bill. They might also ask how the ongoing dominance of the Whip system meets the warnings of the Nyberg banking report about the evils of the Irish 'herd instinct'.

Such an existential problem will not be resolved by earlier starting times and Friday sittings. Some indeed might argue the dispiriting nature of many Dail debates means it might be better if the House sat for fewer rather than more hours. But, while our political leaders undoubtedly mean well, reformism, however welcome it may be after the slothful reign of Fianna Fail, is not revolution. Last week's package bears far too close a resemblance to students marking their own exam papers. Inevitably, the Government has given itself honours all round when a modest pass might have been more accurate.

In fairness, a little has been done. We can only hope Mr Kenny understands a lot more needs doing.

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