In a political world of superficial soundbites and self-aggrandising short-termism, it may not arouse the passions like the ‘back pocket’ issues of budget day, but the importance of what policy wonks call ‘good governance’ goes far beyond ensuring politicians don’t lose the run of themselves with their expense accounts. And it’s not just because ‘Paddy likes to know the story’, as an Taoiseach put it!
Poor planning, regulatory failure, auction politics, weak leadership, have combined to undermine the institutions of the State and to push Ireland to the brink – and beyond – of economic catastrophe for the second time in a generation.
As a result, the people have lost trust in political parties and public institutions. And, while the majority once looked to the EU for salvation – solidarity, structural funds and progressive social legislation – now they see a more transactional relationship. It’s akin to being trapped in a bad marriage for the sake of the kids. Politically, this is manifested in the rise of Sinn Féin as well as populist independents who have zero real interest in governing the country.
This tendency towards political extremes and widespread disenchantment is not confined to Ireland, and in fact pre-dates the economic crisis. The far right has been on the rise across Europe since the turn of the century, to the point that the National Front and UKIP now lead in some polls in France and Britain. Eurozone countries hit hardest by the crisis have seen a rise in leftist populists, with Podemos and Syriza polling well in Spain and Greece, while Bepe Grillo’s idiosyncratic 5-star movement burned brightly in Italy for a time and remains on the scene.
One common element to these disparate developments is the decline in citizens’ trust in mainstream politicians to improve their living standards and to give parents confidence that their children will have the same or better opportunities than they had. In turn, this risks breeding cynicism and further undermining the legitimacy and capacity of the very apparatus of government. People may become increasingly alienated from the political process, turning inward towards their circle of friends and family for support rather than to a State they feel has failed them.
Why does this matter?
Bad governance may be tolerated in good times, and there is little short-term reward for taking away the punch bowl while the party is raging, but the longer-term social, economic and environmental costs can be significant. Weak, malign or incompetent institutions can constrain economic growth while complicating efforts to ensure its benefits are broadly shared and imposing irreversible damage on the world we live in.
To take just one un-sexy example: planning, one of the few areas where local politicians in Ireland do have real power, albeit often wielded irresponsibly, with a few honourable exceptions. As a result, the country is plagued by urban sprawl, one-off housing, ghost estates and localised housing shortages, compounded by infrastructure that makes a Jackson Pollock painting look joined-up.
In Ireland, the so-called democratic revolution of 2011 has proved to be still-born. At national level, the political system remains largely unchanged. Clientelism, localism, and short-termism remains the order of the day. The Seanad continues its existence as something of a political zombie – no real threat to anyone, but not making much in the way of a constructive contribution. It has been further demeaned by botched efforts to abolish it, and then to stuff it with cronies. Cabinet remains relatively unaccountable to the Dáil. The cabinet-within-a-cabinet that is the Economic Management Council has certainly streamlined decision-making, but at the cost of further centralisation of power.
Reforms to local government are still bedding in, but there is little evidence yet of a surge in responsible decision-making to accompany the modest increase in power heralded by limited control over setting the property tax. Thankfully, Charlie McCreevy’s ‘decentralisation’ wheeze has been consigned to an early grave.
What we need now is not a ‘democratic revolution’, but for citizens – and politicians in particular – to ‘stand by the Republic’. The Progressive Democrats may have later ushered extreme neoliberalism into the heart of Irish government, but it should not be forgotten how they initially ‘broke the mould’ of Irish politics as a middle class backlash against the ethically bankrupt court of Charlie Haughey.
Ireland has already recovered once from the fall-out from Fianna Fáil misrule once. We can do it again, but we can do it better, and we can do it fairer!