Faith in the political system in Ireland is reaching an all-time low. With a government that thinks “legal obstacles” are an excuse for every occasion, and an opposition that believes the best way to deal with a massive budget deficit is to borrow more money, some people have started to call for a complete overhaul in how our leaders are elected. Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if these voices grow both in number and in volume over the coming months, as the gravity of our country’s situation begins to sink in. As this debate comes to the fore, I propose that everyone keeps in mind a simple criterion to be applied to all proposals for reform of the Irish political system:
The Healy-Rae Criterion
If Jackie Healy-Rae still gets elected to the national legislature under the new system, the reform hasn’t worked.
I don’t mean this to be an attack on Mr Healy-Rae himself, but rather an observation of the way in which his repeated election is symptomatic of wider problems across the political system.
Jackie Healy-Rae, by his own admission, is a Kerry politician, not a national politician. He works for the people of Kerry, makes sure Kerry is pothole-free, fights for funding for Kerry hospitals, amenities and infrastructure, and sorts anything and everything out for his Kerry electorate. Many would agree that this is hard work, and judging by his continued reelection, a lot of his constituents think that he’s doing it well. The problem is that it’s not his job.
The principle, and arguably sole job of a legislature in any democracy should be the drafting, debating, amending and enacting of the country’s laws. Our Oireachtas does very little of any of these. Debate of a sort certainly occurs in the Dail chamber, but it is more of a political Punch and Judy, as Government and opposition members compete to portray each other as heartless and incompetent, while mostly ignoring the actual legislation that has been put in front of them. The laws themselves are drafted by civil servants and proposed by Government ministers, with the whip system ensuring that they pass without fail. For the vast majority of our TDs, including government backbenchers, presence in the Dail chamber gives them no input whatsoever into the laws they were ostensibly elected to enact.
Without a legislative output to be judged upon, the only hope of reelection for those without ministerial position is to cater to the needs of their constituents in each and every way possible. From helping with passport applications to making representations on behalf of criminals, our elected representatives have devolved into spending most of their time as glorified gofers, handling tasks that would be better suited to public service administrators or county councillors. Jackie Healy-Rae has become almost a caricature of this shift in political culture, having eschewed even the pretense of interest in legislative affairs to become the Kerryman’s Kerryman, the very definition of a local, rather than national, politician.
At a time when our executive and legislative branches of government need to deal with unprecedented fiscal, economic and banking disasters, the first aim of any set of reforms should be to remove politicians of the Healy-Rae mould to make space for those who have an honest, passionate interest in shaping the affairs of the nation. Whether that be by the introduction of a new electoral system such as a German-style partial list, or through a more radical change such as bringing in a directly elected executive branch, at least there’s one simple criterion to keep in mind to measure success.