The Healy-Rae Criterion and Reforming Irish Politics

The Healy-Rae Criterion and Reforming Irish Politics
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Hence, I propose a simple criterion to be applied to all proposals for reform of the Irish political system:
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.

This post has been updated and moved to the blog’s new domain, conductunbecoming.ie, and you can find it here.

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.

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10 Responses to “The Healy-Rae Criterion and Reforming Irish Politics”


  1. 1 Manning June 18, 2009 at 2:41 pm

    I disagree, I believe there is a need for the Jackie Healy-Rea (JHR) type politician. I think that removing the JHR type politicians would increase the disconnect between the Dáil and the people it represents.

    I view JHR as a focal point, a distillation of the general views and feelings of the people of South Kerry. In this regard he is invaluable as it is easier to deal with one man rather than the 6000 people he represents.

    I do however also agree that he is out of place in the Dáil but this is the fault of the current system and not his. His political abilities would be better suited to a more empowered local or regional forum that would be more effective in dealing with the issues that he raises. This would then free up the Dáil to deal with national legislative issues.

    This is therefore a critique of our grossly centralised and minimally democratic system that due to it’s inadequacies and it’s inefficiencies requires people like JHR to take a Dáil seat in order to be heard.

  2. 2 owenrooney June 18, 2009 at 3:15 pm

    I didn’t mean that he should be removed from politics in its entirety, but rather that his position in the Dail, the apparently legislative branch of government, is symptomatic of a very distorted political system. As you rightly point out, he would be much more suited to some form of regional council or forum.

  3. 3 Manning June 18, 2009 at 3:27 pm

    If I could reorganise the Irish political system myself overnight i’d implement something along the lines of the Swiss canton federal system.

    I’d draw the boundaries of the new cantons based on logic and common sense and if some of those boundaries happened to mirror old county boundaries, well that’d be a coincidence and not a design.

    A federal canton system would also make the concept of a united ireland more appealing to unionists. Especially the presbyterians who would no doubt be impressed by the southerners aping the land of Calvinisms birth.

    Powers that interest the JHRs of Irish political life would then be divested from the Dáil to the cantons.

    JHRs a symptom of Irish politics and not the problem.

  4. 4 Paddy June 18, 2009 at 6:13 pm

    The main drawback of politicians is their ability to screw any government out of money, for their particular vested interests. It was initially pioneered through the infamous “Gregory deal”, where Tony Gregory agreed to support Haughey, in return for increased funding for Dublin Inner City projects. It has also been noted by the national media that Progressive Democrat Noel Grealish TD, is angling for a deal to continue supporting the government, while former Fine Gael TD Michael Lowery has been happy to do the same, since his expulsion from Fine Gael.

    This of course ensures local desirablity to elect the likes of Healy Rae, Grealish and Lowry. They will ensure a direct benefit for their constituency, while not contributinng one iota to the national interest.

    What is required is to increase the powers of the County Council. Its crucial that these facets of democracy are used as more than simply a breeding ground for young TDs, a retirement home for ex TDs (who wish to prolongue their careers), and a rest home.

  5. 5 Gav Reilly July 7, 2009 at 9:18 am

    Brilliant piece, very well articulated. The legislature doesn’t do nearly enough legislating.

    @ Manning – I can see your point about the role of a JHR, but:

    I think that removing the JHR type politicians would increase the disconnect between the Dáil and the people it represents.

    Isn’t the point really that people have gotten to believing that the Dáil represents them, when in reality it’s not meant to – it’s rather meant to be a representative legislature rather than a body that represents the needs of its needs, or some sort of lobbying tool. The Dáil isn’t meant to be any more representative than the Seanad; the fact that we see it as such is symptomatic of the exaggerated role we give our TDs in lieu of a visible local council sphere.

  6. 6 Gerard Cunningham July 7, 2009 at 12:30 pm

    A few years ago, the fashionable buzzword from Brussels was Subsidiarity, the notion that every decision should be made as far down the chain as possible. In Ireland we confuse this with decentralisation, the notion that control is local if a bunch of low-grade civil servants are sent to a country town to implement policies decided in Dublin.

    Jackie Healy Rae is a local politician. He might make a good job of being Kerry Mayor. Trouble is, the Mayor of Kerry is powerless, and Jackie knows it. Local politicians can’t make local decisions, and all local spending decisions (for Kerry and elsewhere) are made in Dublin. Jackie Healy Rae wouldn’t be in Dublin if the Dail was willing to give real power to local communities.

    Now the hard part: You’re going to have to pay local taxes if you want local politicians with real powers.

  7. 7 gaiusc July 7, 2009 at 12:42 pm

    Bad and all that JHR is, at least he represents his constituents and not “de party” as Ned O’Keeffe seems to think his job is.
    http://www.irishexaminer.com/ireland/td-tells-parents-i-wont-help-you-as-you-didnt-vote-for-me-95639.html

  8. 8 Ronan Gallagher September 18, 2009 at 1:10 am

    One wonders why Co Councillors can’t look after a lot of constituency business, particularly the mundane everyday issues which constituents are most concerned about, however we must not forget that the relationship between a TD and his/her constituents is not solely about filling out forms and making applications for medical cards etc. It also must have a human face otherwise Government becomes removed from the people and ends up like our relationship with Europe, distant and out of touch. Having said that there are many who would say that Government is already out of touch with the people. Many would go further and say that Government does not act in its citizens best interests at all, preferring instead to represent big business by always allowing the economic imperative to outweigh the social one.


  1. 1 Fluffy Links – Tuesday July 7th 2009 « Damien Mulley Trackback on July 7, 2009 at 4:53 am
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